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Apodaca: College myths debunked

March 31, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

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.

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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:

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