Misconception #1: colleges snail mail admission responses.
These days, most colleges inform students of acceptance decisions online. When applying, a student creates an account with a password on the college's website. On the decision day, the student logs in to get the result. Following online admission, the college will snail mail a big packet to accepted students. Standardized test scores are also released online to the student.
Misconception #2: all applicants take the SATs and high test scores guarantee acceptance.
Traditionally, students in coastal states took the SATs while those in the Midwest took the ACTs. These days, students from anywhere can take either standardized test and most colleges accept both. Some colleges allow you to skip standardized tests altogether. The most selective colleges may also require SAT IIs (subject tests). In 2005, the SATs switched to a 2400 point system: 800 Reading, 800 Writing, 800 Math plus an essay. In 2016 the SAT will revert to a 1600 point system: 800 Reading +Writing, 800 Math, and an optional essay.
The more selective colleges tend to accept students with higher test scores, but high scores and GPA aren't enough on their own to guarantee admission. Also important are the application essay (and sometimes an interview), teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities/supplements. Large state universities are more likely to place greater emphasis on test scores and GPA. Standardized tests are weighted more heavily for homeschooled kids who usually don't have an academic transcript/GPA.
|The Massachusetts Institute of Technology releases admissions decisions on Pi Day 3/14.|
Misconception #3: kids apply early to multiple schools.
There are three types of early applications: Rolling Admission, Early Action and Early Decision. Many state universities, especially honors programs, have Rolling Admission: qualified students are accepted in the fall through the spring until the class is full. The most selective private colleges often have non-binding Early Action, but applicants may only apply early to one selective college along with state schools. Other colleges have binding Early Decision, which means you can only apply to one school and you must attend if accepted (as long as your financial needs are met.)
Early action and early decision applications are usually due in early November, and the students will hear by early/mid December if they are accepted, rejected or deferred (ie to be considered along with other applicants in the regular pool at a later date.) At that point, ED students must accept the offer, but EA students have the option to apply to other colleges as well. Some schools have a second round of binding Early Decision in January.
Most kids don't apply early. They may not be sure of their first choice and prefer to wait for regular decision, which frequently has a January 1st deadline. Students often apply to ten to twelve schools at regular admission time, a combination of likely, target and reach schools. Regular acceptances are posted in late March to early April. The accepted student's decision is usually due May 1st, and after that, other kids may be accepted off the wait-list. There are financial considerations too, explained below.
|Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in rural Vermont.|
Misconception #4: the smartest kids always go to Ivy League schools.
The Ivies aren't the best choice for everyone. Small liberal arts colleges focus exclusively on undergraduate education and offer top-notch teaching. State universities can be excellent too (eg UC Berkeley). There are schools that specialize in the arts (often requiring auditions and supplements) or technology. Some kids choose local community college so that they can work part time. Others pick ROTC programs.
Financial aid packages vary and some are need-based while others are merit-based. Many applicants don't apply early decision (binding) because they want to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools. This year a boy from Tennessee turned down all eight Ivies and Stanford for Alabama State University's Honor's Program so that he'd have more money left for graduate school. However, elite private colleges which accept need blind often offer bigger financial aid packages so it can be cheaper to go to a private college than to a state university.
The process is different for foreign students and for American students studying abroad. International students often receive an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree which is recognized in many countries.
A tip on writing realistic YA fiction: beta test your manuscript on teens the same age as your characters. They may flag other things that have changed since you were a teenager.