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Apodaca: College myths debunked

This week: March Madness, Part Two.

Following a big response to last week’s column about college admissions, I now return to the topic with some words of wisdom from someone who has built a career helping students and their parents navigate through the insanity.

Paul Kanarek is a top executive at Princeton Review, the giant test-prep firm. He’s a well-known face on the college admissions advice circuit in California, and travels extensively to exotic locations to oversee the company’s international operations. When he’s home, he works from an unassuming office across from the UC Irvine campus.

I’ve heard Kanarek speak on several occasions and have never failed to be amused and impressed by the native Londoner’s dry British wit and refreshingly down-to-earth approach to the college admissions game. His intent isn’t to be flippant — he knows as well as anyone how stressful the process is for families, and he makes a living because of that stress — but to try to take the anxiety level down a notch.


“Do not abandon common sense,” is one of his mantras.

Princeton Review has made waves and courted controversy for decades by challenging the long-held dogma that the SAT was a test of inherent intelligence, and that no amount of prepping could alter anyone’s score.

The company’s effectiveness in debunking that premise — the test is “absurdly coachable,” Kanarek says — led to a wealth of media coverage and helped turn Princeton Review into one of the best-known and most successful test-prep firms. Now it’s expanding into the counseling business thanks to a recent merger with Careerwise, a move that Kanarek views with excitement.

“I want to bring joy to college admissions,” he says.


The entire process is dominated by a fear so deep that rumors are treated as gospel, he says. The “two deadliest words” in the admissions game, he says, are “I heard,” as in “I heard that Stanford didn’t take anyone who is left-handed.”

Fears are also driven by the eight uber-competitive juggernauts — UCLA, USC, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Notre Dame — that drive parents to despair of ever getting their kids into a “good” school. There are 2,800 colleges in the United States, many excellent schools that are looking for students, Kanarek says, but they simply lack the branding clout of the uber-eight.

In the interest of getting parents to chill out a bit, Kanarek offers his list of the four biggest myths of college admissions:

Myth No. 1.) Where you go as an undergraduate dictates your future professional success.

That axiom holds some truth when it comes to post-graduate degrees, Kanarek says. But for undergraduate studies it’s not so much where you go to college that matters. It’s what you do when you get there.

Myth No. 2.) College admissions is a meritocracy.

What? The American ideal of talent, hard work and perseverance earning just rewards doesn’t apply to college admissions?

Talent and accomplishment are starting points, Kanarek says. But when final decisions are made, “they always admit the ones they like.”


Keep in mind that the average admissions representative isn’t some gray-haired, ivory-towered academic, he says, but a 20-something graduate of the college in question who’s more likely to favor someone she (usually a she) could see sharing a meal with. What does this mean for the applicant? “Be who you are, and find the college that fits,” he advises.

Myth No. 3.) The higher a student’s test scores, the better his chances of getting into an elite institution.

Kanarek says that most schools have a certain threshold for scores on admissions tests. Once that bar is passed, colleges are more interested in “What else have you got to show us?”

Myth No. 4.) Financial aid requests lessen a student’s chance of admission. This won’t happen if the aid is need-blind, he says.

Kanarek offers parents another bit of sage advice. He urges them to think back on their own college experiences: What do they remember most: What was taught in the classroom or the larger life lessons learned through the incomparable experience of being a college student?

My answer is the latter. And that’s just the stuff I can remember.

But Kanarek takes this point even further, and it’s a doozy of a wake-up call: “Academics are not relevant,” he says.

As I understand it, Kanarek doesn’t mean to denigrate the pursuit of knowledge. What he’s trying to do is stop our irrational worship of false idols, our ego-driven quest to cloak our children with symbols of elitism when in reality the quality of teaching at some of the most prestigious universities is often below par, or at least no better than their less revered counterparts.


When deciding which colleges to apply to, the focus shouldn’t be on dubious college rankings. As Kanarek says, it’s “the culture, the people, the environment, the fit that are relevant.” Anything else is gravy.

Indeed, Kanarek confirms what many parents instinctively feel but need to hear from someone who makes it his business to know: A great college isn’t the one with the most famous name. It’s the place where a young person embarking on the glorious journey of life can find happiness, community, a sense of purpose and ultimately his own unique path to success. Ivy not required.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.