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CosmoGirl Guide to College (abridged ): Teens' Top College Fears and How to Conquer Them

By Marty Nemko

As though you don’t have enough to worry about: school, looks, friends, money. Now there’s college!

Here’s what I’d tell you if you came to me with these common college worries:

I have only have a B average. I’m scared I won’t get into a good college.

Fact is, thousands of really good colleges welcome B students. This may be hard to believe, but according to Clifford Adelman, senior research analyst for the US Dept of Education, “Four of five college seats are non-selective. Any warm body who just takes the admission test can get in.” seek out the good professors, get involved in extracurriculars, and develop one-on-one relationships with great professors and students who bring out the best in you--you’ll be fine. Really.

I have a C average!

There are good colleges that specialize in C students. And plenty of C students have gone on achieve great things—David Letterman comes to mind. (He even created a scholarship that welcomes applications from C students.) But, assuming you’ve been trying reasonably hard at school and still have a 2.5 or lower GPA in academic subjects, maybe you should consider a path to success other than college. Ever think about an apprenticeship, for example, to become a surveyor or a costume designer? For info on your state’s apprenticeships, go to and click on “links.” If the apprenticeship information isn’t there, just google that site using the term “apprenticeships.” How about learning how to run your own business? The US Small Business Administration offers tons of free information and programs. Just go to The military welcomes women and offers excellent career training opportunities. Of course, you may not like the haircut.

I'm freaked out about the SAT (or ACT).

Your school grades count much more than the SAT or ACT. And remember that four of five college seats are open to virtually anyone. If, however, your SAT score is less than 900 or ACT is 17 or less, I must tell you that fewer than 25% of students with your test score ever make it to college graduation. You might consider the options above.

How should you prepare for the SAT or ACT? College Board research indicates that taking a prep course adds only, on average, 25 to 32 points. Retaking it is unlikely to affect which college you end up attending, let alone improve your life.

My advice: For a few weeks before the test, spend 20 minutes a night with the Inside the SAT/ACT CD and then, unless you totally freak during the test, live with your score.


Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Carnegie Foundation researcher Stacy Dale compared the earnings of Ivy-admitted students who chose, usually for financial reasons, to attend less prestigious colleges versus those who actually attended Ivies. Both group’s income, 20 years later, turned out to be equal.

On reflection, this isn’t surprising. Yes, a designer label on a diploma is a plus in the job market, but Ivy-caliber students may get an at least equal advantage if they attend a less prestigious college because there, they are more likely to get top grades, personal attention, leadership opportunities, and superb letters of recommendation.

I'm can’t make myself get started on my college applications.

Are you afraid your application won’t be impressive? For 95 percent of colleges, you needn’t be a star to get in. Really B- grades, 1000 SAT scores (21 ACT), and, if required, a decent essay (see below) will get you into many, many good colleges, even if you don’t have great extracurriculars. Just keepreminding yourself how great it will feel to get our applications done and to get those fat acceptance envelopes. That’s not motivating enough? I’m sure that if you ask your parents (and even if you don’t), they’ll be glad to keep nagging you. Maybe you can even get them to agree that if you get your apps done by the deadline, they’ll get you a car…or something. But why not just sit your butt down and start. Chances are, once you start, you’ll keep going. If you get stuck, ask your parent or friend for a little help.

I can't think of a topic for my college essay.

Most essay questions boil down to “How will you contribute more to the campus community than other applicants with similar grades and SAT scores?” You ask,”How can plain ol’ me contribute to the campus community?” One of my clients wrote about his tendency to ask the teacher probing questions. His essay consisted of an introduction and then three paragraphs, each telling the story of a nervy question he asked the teacher, and how the teacher and class responded. Another of my clientswrote about her loving to tutor other kids. A third wrote about being one of the kids in her school who doesn’t drink. What’s something about you that would contribute to the campus community? Many if not most college essay questions will allow you to write about that. Be sure to devote most of your essay to giving examples and anecdotes that prove you have that desirable characteristic. And avoid the Deadly Three Topics. So many students write about these topics that they make many admission officers roll their eyes: 1. How important my parents have been to me. 2. How sports taught me the importance of sportsmanship and leadership. 3. How my trip to another country helped me appreciate diversity.

I worry that my parents can’t afford to pay for college.

Don’t let the college’s sticker price fool you. Most colleges jack up the sticker price so only the rich can afford it, and then offer discounts and low-interest loans to everyone else. Sure, you’ll probably have to take out a hefty loan, but nearly all students can find a good college that—with financial aid—is affordable. Just get your financial aid applications in on time. (Check on each college’s website to learn their deadlines.) If, even with financial aid, your family can’t afford your first-choice college, try to negotiate with the college. They sometimes “find” extra aid, even for average students. And don’t forget about community colleges. Not only are they a bargain, they often have better teachers than at universities because they’re hired and promoted mainly on how well they teach, not how much research they crank out.

I worry that college will be too hard.

If a college admits you, it believes that, if you put in the effort, you’ll succeed there. Also know that, in some ways, college is easier than high school. For example, if you hate foreign language, in high school, you’re stuck. It’s required. But at most colleges, you’re given enough choice that you can usually avoid a dreaded subject. Plus, if you’re falling behind in a course, professors have office hours to help you, and in common killer courses such as calculus, there usually are free or low-cost tutors. The main reason kids fail at college is not that it’s too hard. It’s that they didn’t put in the time. Do that and I’ll bet you’ll do fine.

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