Getting Into College is Hard, Getting into the College of Your Choice is Even Harder

It’s the time of year when many students are starting their college search (let our Irvine in-home college consultants help). If you are starting your junior year in high school then this is the year that you will need to make some really big decisions about your future. For seniors, it’s time to finish up all of those applications and send them out in a few short months.


Many students get into the college of their choice and most get into college somewhere, but many students find that they get a letter from their dream school that reads “We regret to inform you…”. These words are devastating and can make any student feel like their hard work didn’t pay off. The first question that will pop into anyone’s head is, “why”. So let’s find out.

Reason 1 – You didn’t do adequate research

It is extremely important to do extensive research about the colleges that you want to attend prior to starting the application process. This amount of in depth research can become overwhelming very quickly and that’s why many students don’t follow through with it. This can also become overwhelming for parents as their hearts are closely tied with your happiness. Regardless, you will need to know what your potential colleges expect from you in order to have a chance at acceptance. I recommend having a college counseling consultant come to your home and help you navigate this process. If you say “I want to go out of state but I don’t like cold weather but I do like big universities and I might want to study English literature but my parents really want me to go into business or medicine”, a college counselor can take that statement and turn it into a list of potential places that will fit your needs (READ: “Ask a Nerd! ‘Just Started College and I’m Overwhelmed, What do I do?‘”).

Reason 2 – You weren’t realistic

Many students want to apply to top tier and Ivy League schools. I say go for it. However, be realistic about the realities of being accepted to these schools. Put these types of applications in the “Hey wouldn’t that be awesome” pile instead of in the “I will definitely get in there” pile. Schools like Harvard and Yale can pick and choose not only from the nation’s best but also from the world’s best applicants. When I say ‘best’, I mean the best fit. Perhaps this year they will be looking for leadership while perhaps in two years time they will be looking for creativity and uniqueness. We don’t really know nor will we ever as the acceptance process in entirely confidential. However, some things are rather transparent. If you wish to attend these types of schools you will need the following (at a minimum):

– Nearly perfect SAT scores

– Nearly perfect grades

– A larger than life, fantastic essay

– Original and sincere community service

– Something that makes you stand out from other applicants

I recommend that you shoot for the moon but be realistic about what the schools that you are applying to expect of the ‘average’ applicant.

Reason 3 – You looked at colleges too late

If you are entering your junior year, you should be looking at colleges as soon as on the calendar-conveniently after the SAT- as a good time to start your search. Narrow it down you settle in to your first month of school. Mark October 15th by region, state, type of school, degrees offered etc… in order to get it down to your 10. If you are starting your senior year, then you are behind in your timeline. If this is the case, then open another tab in your computer and start looking right now. If you are entering into your sophomore year then you have plenty of time but it certainly doesn’t hurt to start thinking about what you might want in a college at this point in time. Think about whether you would enjoy a big campus or a small, easy to navigate, college. Think about what region of the country you might like to live in for 4 years and what you want to study (READ: “Five Tips For Your College Entrance Essay“).


If you choose a college too late in the game, you may find that you should have done something back in sophomore year (but you are now a senior) or that you needed better scores on your SAT or ACT but there is not enough time to raise them to get that top score. Start early.

Your 10 schools (not an exact number) should include the following:

1. At least 2-3 colleges that you feel totally confident that you can get into (often called ‘safety’ schools). Your SAT score should be at least 100 points above these schools’ accepted average and your GPA should be well above what they are looking for. This ensures that you will be able to attend college somewhere right after high school. (Hint: Do not make UC Berkeley your ‘safety’ school. This is not realistic.)

2. At least 2 schools that you really want to attend and that would make your dreams come true but are, perhaps, also everyone else’s dream and/or extremely hard to get into. Don’t sell yourself short. If you meet the minimum qualifications for Stanford University and you desperately want to go there, take the time to send out an application. The only way to truly fail is to never have tried (CLICK: “Hardest Colleges to Get Into“).

3. About 5 schools for which you are the ‘average’ applicant. This means that you meet the minimum qualifications but these schools have at least a 30%-40% acceptance rate. (Do your research ahead of time as mentioned above). These will be your ‘mid range’ schools and most students end up attending a university or college in this category. Make sure that you pick schools that you have a genuine interest in attending. Go visit the campuses and get a feel for the culture and community.

Reason 4 – You didn’t plan enough time for adequate study

College prep is now a reality for all college-bound high school students. It is not simply a Saturday in October or June and a few applications (Although it was never really just that). College prep generally starts the summer prior to junior year and continues until the receipt of acceptance letters. It is important, crucial actually that you leave adequate study time. Students can potentially improve their initial SAT score by 300+ points but only with hours upon hours of test prep and practice exams (READ: “5 Awesome SAT Apps“). Students can also write and re-write and edit and re-edit college entrance essays but all of this takes an immense amount of time. If you are starting your junior year, it’s time to make a plan and a timeline. If you are having trouble doing this yourself, then ask your tutor or a college counselor to help you through the process. But, whatever you do, don’t put this off (READ: “College Textbooks: The Struggle is Real“).


Reason 5 – Too many other applicants fit your profile

In some cases you may have done everything right. You scored 150 points higher than needed on the SAT and you took 4 AP classes and scored a 4 or 5 on all of the exams. You did more than was required for your community service hours and you wrote a stellar entrance essay. Colleges like diversity in their student body and, if there were hundreds of students who happened to do similar types of community service or hail from the same state or for some other reason were similar to you, the admissions committee may put some similar students’ applications in the “no” pile. Why does a student get an acceptance letter to Stanford but a rejection from UCLA? Who knows.

Reason 6 – Your entrance essay did not make you stand out as an individual

The college entrance essay makes the SAT and ACT essays look like a walk in the park. Your essay must be well written, original and unique, be a true representation of you and create a positive response in the reader. The majority of students that I talk to are totally on board with SAT study but never mention any concern for their essay. Do not think of this as an afterthought. Countless students go from the ‘maybe’ pile to the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ pile based on their essay.

Reason 7 – The luck of the draw

I know that this seems depressing but sometimes it’s just a matter of luck. Most universities are impacted and the reality is that some students just get cut from the roster. Universities aren’t going to tell you, or any of us, why or how they make their final decisions. That’s why it is so important to apply to several schools that you are interested in.

Reason 8 – You didn’t really want to go to that school in the first place

If you don’t really, really want to go to a certain school, it will probably show in your application process. Universities can usually tell when an applicant isn’t that interested in their school or if they are your second choice. With so many students choosing any given school as their first choice, why would a college accept a student who doesn’t have their heart in it?

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