— Pick the Right Schools —

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Fundamental Mistake #2: Applying to the Wrong Schools

ManArrowsSlider2If you want to get into a good college, you need to pick the right college. This seemingly simple advice is ignored by almost every single college applicant.

Ask most Juniors where they want to go, and they’ll say something along the lines of: “Well, I’ll try for Brown and Yale, and then…I dunno….maybe USC as a safety school or something?”

First of all, no school in the US News and World Report’s top 50 is a “safety school,” or anywhere CLOSE TO IT.

More importantly, picking schools based purely on rank is just about THE worst thing you can possibly do (for more reasons than one).

I know that most hyper-competitive parents and students don’t want to hear this, but remember:

College isn’t just a name on your resume – it’s a place where you’ll spend four extremely formative years of your life.

I went to Columbia University, ranked as the #4 university in America. I chose this school over other options because it had a high ranking. The problem? It was an absolutely TERRIBLE fit for me. I was pretty miserable there. I thrive in small, close-knit, attentive academic environments with intimately familiar student bodies. Columbia is just about the polar opposite of this environment in every way.

I had fun, learned a lot, made great friends, and used the degree to enhance my career, but I’ll tell you right now: there were a lot of places where I would have had more fun, learned a lot more, and used my education in a more targeted way to enhance my career (i.e. I love business, and Columbia has no business or advertising/marketing major).

How do you know which schools are right for you? While whole books could be written on the subject (and many of them have), it really boils down to one word:


The more you learn about a school, the better an idea you’ll have of whether or not it’s the right fit for you. Look into a school’s:

  • Academic programs
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Special extracurricular programs
  • Majors and minors offered
  • Class size
  • Student life and atmosphere
  • Demographics and diversity
  • Location and nearby geographic opportunities
  • Job placement rate

CollegeResearch2These will give you a much better idea of what the school is actually like, rather than what number is attached to the school.

The same student is going to have VERY different impressions of MIT and Amherst – they’re both “top ten” schools in their respective fields, but they are meant for entirely different types of people.

The more time and effort that you spend researching and selecting the appropriate schools, the more happy you’ll be over the next four years of your life, the more you’ll end up learning, and the more money you’ll end up making.

“Yeah, yeah, personal happiness personal shmapiness – I want to get into a top-ten school!”

Well, even if you don’t think that college should serve a higher purpose than a line item on your resume, you’re forgetting something else:

If you apply to the wrong school for your “student type,” you’ll have just about a 0% chance of getting in.

In other words, it’s not just that different types of students will like different schools:

Different types of schools like different types of students!!!

difpeople3MIT is not looking for the same people as Dartmouth, and Dartmouth is NOT looking for the same people as Pomona. None of these schools are looking for the same people as Harvard, or Yale, or Bob’s College of Knowledge.

What you need to realize is this: if you apply to the wrong schools, it doesn’t matter how “good” your application is – you’ll never get in anyway.

Applying to the wrong schools is like trying to make friends at Red Sox stadium with a Yankees uniform on – you might be a great person, but you’re still not going to get very far.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “well, what type of student am I?”

If you’re asking that question, there’s a big problem.

Colleges don’t accept “student #45,678” – they accept very specific types of people that they’re specifically looking for.

If you’re not one of them, you’re dead in the water. With that in mind, here’s the next mistake that almost every applicant makes: failing to craft a story and an area of expertise. Let’s flip to the next section to learn more about this concept and how to integrate it into your application.

Section Summary: You’ll be spending four years of your life at college – don’t just pick based on US News and World Report rankings – find a place where you’d want to spend a significant percentage of your life. More importantly, find a place that wants YOU to attend. Every college is different.
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