Dean Meiklejohn Weighs In on Washington Post’s ‘Seven College Admissions Myths’

There are projections that more than 3.2 million students are to graduate from high school next year. Many of them — and, of course, their parents — are already in the throes of applying to college.

The Washington Post set out to debunk some of the more persistent myths about the college admissions process. The Bowdoin Daily Sun asked Scott Meiklejohn, Bowdoin’s dean of admissions and financial aid, to weigh in on what The Post found.

Below are the seven myths compiled by The Washington Post, excerpts from the Post article addressing each one, and Dean Meiklejohn’s response.

1. It’s best to set your heart on one school and really go for it.

The Washington Post: There are hundreds of colleges in this country, and most students can find success and happiness at any number of schools.

Scott Meiklejohn: There is no such thing as the “one perfect college for you.” A student who would love to attend Emory would probably also be very happy at Tufts; someone who thinks they are a good fit at Duke might also enjoy Northwestern, and so on. The point of a college search is to find the type of school that suits you best — not to frustrate yourself by deciding that there is only one campus in the whole world where you can truly be happy. The myth of perfection applies to applicants, too. We are not looking for buffed-up versions of high school seniors, and students shouldn’t stress out trying to make themselves into perfect versions of themselves. Every student has talents and is unique, and we hope our applicants will be brave enough to be who they are, not who they think they should be in order to gain admission. With 3,700 colleges and universities in the country, there are good fits and good matches for everyone.

Scott Meiklejohn

2. The tuition price listed in brochures is what everyone pays.

WP: Flipping through college guides can be heart-stopping, especially with dozens of private schools now charging more than $50,000 a year for tuition, housing and fees. But that’s just the sticker price. Last year, that rate was reduced by more than 40 percent for the average student through institutional grants and scholarships, according to an industry study.

SM: We know that many students and parents never get as far as applying to Bowdoin, and learning about the strength of our financial aid program, because they get a “sticker shock” reaction and immediately decide it’s a waste of time to investigate the College. This is a huge issue for the liberal arts colleges as a sector, and it’s one reason that we spend so much effort working with students and counselors at schools and community-based organizations with great socioeconomic diversity.

3. The admissions department adores you.

WP: Many schools dump lots of money into transforming their campus visits into personal experiences, building connections through social media and making average students feel aggressively recruited.

SM: We put a ton of time and energy into making Bowdoin’s admissions process reflect the College. Sure it’s hard to be admitted but it’s a great community, it’s easy to talk to people, and our process should be that way, too. Some people think that admissions is about convincing every student we meet that Bowdoin is the greatest college on the planet, that the whole thing is hype and overselling. That’s not it at all. We’d like more people to understand what a great college Bowdoin is, of course, and we’d be happy if a few million more people could pronounce our name correctly. But our entering class is only 485 students. We are much more interested in finding more good applicants, the right applicants, than in simply generating more applicants. About the mail — Bowdoin doesn’t bombard students with stuff. In fact, some of our admitted students tell us they wish we’d been in touch with them more often. Opinions will vary, I guess, but our goal is not to pump up our prospect and applicant numbers to no point other than the numbers.

4. It’s best to crowd your application with a volume of extracurriculars.

WP: In most cases, admissions staffers are not impressed by long lists of extracurriculars that fill in every single line on the application. In asking about your out-of-class interests, colleges usually want to hear about your interests, passions and leadership. Rather than spreading your time and dedication over a dozen activities you care a little about, focus on a couple that mean the most to you.

SM: This is good advice. It’s also a place for me to address the topic of resumes. Students: please don’t send a resume with your application. Page four of the Common Application has tons of room for activities outside of class, and there is also a Short Answer and an Additional Information section. With all respect for the many accomplishments of our talented applicants, most resumes simply repeat what’s on the Common App, or they provide a level of detail that’s not necessary. We get some resumes that are five to six pages long, in huge fonts. If a student absolutely must send us a resume, it should be one page in length. The worst mistake to make is to not complete page four of the Common App and instead write “see attached resume” — that’s called not following the instructions.

5. It’s better to have a high GPA than to take difficult classes.

WP: It’s always better to challenge yourself, even if it means a lower grade. Just don’t fail.

SM: We get this question all the time, often in the following form: Is it better to take the honors course and get an A, or the AP course and get a B? For Bowdoin applicants, it’s always better to take the AP course and get an A. Ba-da-bum. But that’s the reality of our applicant pool. Rigor is hugely important.

6. Essays don’t really matter much in the end because grades and test scores are so dominant in admissions decisions.

WP: Don’t believe it. A poorly written, typo-filled essay can kill any application, and a beautiful piece can lift a student over another who looks similar on paper.

SM: I completely agree. Essays are a major part of our evaluation — one reason we have a Bowdoin supplement to the Common App is to get a second writing sample beyond the standard Common App essay. One bit of simple advice: make sure someone else looks at your essay, at the very least to catch typos and (in the 21st century) autofill/autotype errors. I saw something from a student recently that identified him as a student at ____ Predatory School. Ouch.

7. Recommendations from famous people can give an applicant a huge boost.

WP: That happens more than you’d think, and admissions officers just laugh when they see them. Not even a recommendation from President Obama could guarantee admission to a school.

SM: We get hundreds and hundreds of extra recommendations each year, and we do our best to acknowledge them and communicate back to our recommenders once our decisions are made. In very rare cases, extra letters might actually help us get to know an applicant in a way that’s helpful to our process. Mostly we understand them for what they are, and they have zero bearing on what happens.

Read the original Washington Post article in its entirety.


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