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College Myths: Facts, Fictions, and Funnies

By Brendan Conway updated on Wednesday, January 23, 2013

For those preparing to head off to institutions of higher learning, who don't know exactly what awaits them, it can be easy to conjure up crazy tales of what can happen there. You might hear some stories, and then they grow in your mind. Suddenly, college isn't just the next step on your academic and life journey; it's a place where you'll imbibe strange forms of alcohol found nowhere else on earth, and wake up with organs having been removed in the night, only to then have to run to class and find out that your professor is literally a chicken and your GPA will be based on how many hot dogs you can eat.

Good news! (Or bad, depending on your point of view.) College isn't quite that crazy. There are a lot of myths floating around about colleges and this time in students' lives, but those stories are often a bit off from the full truth. We're going to talk about a few famous college myths, to give you the scoop on what's true, what's not, and maybe help you get a better idea of college in the process. And if we're lucky, you won't wind up at Chicken-Feed Hot Dog College.

Paying your way through college, one cent at a time
So. You want to go to college, but it's going to be tough to foot that bill. You've got some financial aid, some scholarship money, but it's not enough. What do you do? Do you:

(A) Act like a normal college student and take out a student loan.

(B) Send in a letter to the Chicago Tribune asking a well-known columnist to publish your request for all the columnist's readers to contribute to your college education by sending in a penny each.

Guess which one is the myth? Yep. You got it. There's a myth rolling around out there that about someone who managed to successfully pay for his college education through single cent donations from thousands of people. And you know what? It's true.

The student in question is a fellow named Mike Hayes, and in 1987 he sent in a letter to Bob Green at the Chicago Tribune, asking for Greene to have each of his readers send Hayes a penny to pay for Hayes's education at the University of Illinois. And it worked. Hayes received $28,000 in total for his efforts, especially as some people felt the urge to send Hayes more than just a penny.

So, what does this mean for you? Well, I wouldn't recommend trying this scheme out yourself. It's kinda one of those "once-in-a-forever" deals. But the key points to take here are that paying for college can be serious, tough business; it's something you need to get nailed down for your college education to work out. And there are tons of ways to pay for your college education, so even if it seems like you've exhausted your options, don't give up hope. Take it a penny at a time.

Or, y'know, faster, if that's more your speed. Penny at a time can be kinda slow.

The sympathy "A"
Alright, everyone's heard this one, in some form or another. You're in college, and your roommate, bless his/her soul, dies. In some variants, it's a suicide; in other variants, it's a murder; in yet other variants, it's just any kind of death, even spontaneous skull combustion from over-studying. (It's a real thing, if you understand that I'm lying.) Sometimes, the myth isn't even about your roommate, though that's the most common form. Sometimes, it's just if someone close to you bites the bullet. Sometimes you've got to see the death yourself. Other times, it has to happen during a specific timeframe.

Whatever the particulars, the point is that someone dies, and you get a 4.0 average as sympathy from your school. And it's kinda not true.

Tragic though it may be if your roommate passes on to the big keg party in the sky, colleges won't touch your academic record to make you feel better. So don’t get yourself any ideas.

How's it matter to you? Best lesson to take from this false myth is just that there aren't shortcuts to academic success. Worst lesson to take from this false myth is that there's one less reason to kill the jerk who's sharing your dorm room.

Extra credit
You wake up, groggy, on your desk. Glance at the clock. Oh no! You've overslept! That exam you were studying for all night, you're late for it! You bolt out of your room, across the quad, into the classroom. The professor's not there, and everyone's studiously working. Three equations are written on the board. You get to it without any more delay, scribbling frantically, working through those equations like your life depended on it. It's a struggle to get through that doozy of a third equation, but eventually, just before you've got to hand it in, you figure that sucker out, and hand in the paper.

Later, you get a call from your professor. Your palms are sweaty, your mouth dry. You think you've failed; you could smack yourself for oversleeping. If only you'd had more time!

That's when your professor explains to you that the third equation, the one that was a doozy? Yeah, it was an equation that mathematicians have been struggling with for years, and you've solved it. Not bad for someone who overslept, right?

Believe it or not, this whole story actually happened. George Bernard Dantzig, in 1939, solves two problems written on the board after he arrived for class late. He thought they were homework. It was only later that he found out he had just solved two unsolved statistics problems, and that his solutions were being incorporated into published statistics papers, with his name attached. 

The story's been dramatized a lot over the years, and it's been used in all kinds of places, most of the time as a monument to the power of positive thinking. If he had known those problems were unsolvable, goes the moral tale, then he never would've been able to solve them.

Regardless, of the embellishments, Dantzig did solve unsolvable problems, and he did it thinking they were just homework assignments.

So what's it mean for you? Don't give up. Whack away at those unsolvable problems. Who knows? You might get to be the next college myth. You also might just go crazy, but it's worth the risk, right?

Finding the diamond in the 300 page dissertation
This one's a graduate-level piece, but it's still telling for all levels of academic study. See, PhD students write these big, long, mammoth documents called dissertations. Basically, dissertations are the culminations of all the work that PhD candidates have done, and they'll be the key determinants of whether or not the PhD candidates become PhD holders.

Thing is, after the dissertations are judged and graded, and the fate of the PhD students is determined (if you don't get a PhD, you get fed to lions), then the dissertation is archived within the university's library, so that future generations of students can find it and partake of its wisdom.
Yeah. Like that's going to happen.

One PhD holder actually thought he'd put this to the test, goes the myth. He slipped a $20 bill into his dissertation, in its place in the archives. He figured that, with the praise that'd been lavished upon his work, it'd only be a matter of time before some enterprising, capitalist student read the dissertation and found the money.

Not so much, as it turned out. Or, so goes the myth.

The reality, actually, is a bit kookier. Dale Dubin, responsible for a medical textbook on electrocardiography, put a note in the copyright notice of the textbook's 50th printing, congratulating whoever found it, and telling them to send in a notice with their name and address to the publisher of the book in order to win a classic sports car. 60,000 people in 2001 bought the book. 5 found the note, and sent in a message. Their names were put in a hat, and Jeffrey Seiden was the medical student chosen to win the car.

Moral of the story? Read your textbooks and pay attention. You might be able to win a car that way.

"Hey! I think I know this guy!"
Here's another one about med school. Y'know how sometimes, when learning to be a doctor, you'll have to cut into cadavers? It's important for learning about biology and anatomy and medicine and how not to kill patients, so it's a good thing, in general. Most of the time.

But imagine if you've got your cadaver on the table, and you've got your scalpel, and you're ready to cut into it, and suddenly you realize…that's Aunt Marge! You haven't seen her since last Thanksgiving! And then the screaming starts.

Well, this myth has been around for about as long as cutting into cadavers has. It's one of those ever pervasive myths surrounding medical school. But you may be surprised to find out that it's actually happened. In 1982, a medical student at the University of Alabama School of Medicine noticed that one of the 9 cadavers assigned to the class as a whole was actually that of her great aunt.

Yeah. Kinda awkward.

The state anatomical board responded by assigning a different cadaver to the class, and that was about the end of the story, of course. No, the great aunt had not been abducted in a park and turned into a corpse in some evil conspiracy of corpse gatherers. She had simply donated her body to medical science, and through happenstance wound up in the same class as her niece.

Moral of the story? Check who you're cutting into before you start. Especially if you're not a medical school student.

"WOOHOO! 200 POINTS!"
You've heard about this trick, right? Oh yeah, it's a cinch! You can up your SAT scores by 200 points, and only by remembering your name! That's right! The SATs give you 200 points just for getting your name right!

This myth is pretty much just a simplification of the complexities of how the SAT is scored. It's kinda true, but kinda not. To put it simply, because of the way the SAT is scored, the test is designed to automatically ensure that takers who fill in not a single answer will earn a minimum score. That's because the SAT actually takes points away from people who fill in an answer incorrectly. So, because you actually lose points for answering incorrectly, the test is set up so that even if you answered every question incorrectly, you'd still wind up with a 0 score (although, scores below 200 are not reported by College Board). If you neither gained any points by answering questions correctly, nor lost points by answer incorrectly, then you would have 200 points. That's the origin of the myth.

So yes. Put your name on the SAT, don't fill in anything else, you'll get 200 free points. But that's really, really not recommended as a test-taking strategy.

There are no shortcuts to SAT success. Don't try to manipulate your way through it; study hard, and do your best.

College = ICE CREAM!
Gotta love Hubert von Heldenpurtsmith, right? He was a great man. Came to our school 100 years ago, graduated, formed a very profitable ice cream business. Donated oodles and oodles of his money to the school, so we could get all kinds of facilities, but he did so only because he had some kind of massive devotion to ice cream. So, not only do we get these facilities, but, because of his bequest, there's ice cream available at every meal, to make sure we students get the substances most important to our health. Gotta love ole Hubert, right?

Ignoring that Hubert von Heldenpurtsmith is a name itself worthy of myth, this one's all about the ice cream. The myth that a school has to serve ice cream in its cafeteria for all meals due to the request of a particularly affluent alumnus who threw a wad of money at the school is one that's bounced around numerous college campuses for many a year.

Sad to say, this one's false. That doesn't mean that ice cream isn't served day round, of course! But it was never at the behest of an eccentric, donating, billionaire. It's just because college is a wonderful place full of happiness and milky, sugary goodness.

Moral of the story? When you become a millionaire, do all the college kids a favor and MAKE THIS A REALITY.

Professor on the clock
This is one of those that you're more likely to hear at college, in the actual situation. A professor is late for class, and one of your classmates speaks up and says the college has a rule about how long you have to wait. Ten minutes by default, 20 if he or she is a PhD holder. When that time is up, you can leave without any fear of retribution, by college ruling.

That'd be nice, wouldn't it? In reality, most often there is no such rule. Some colleges actually do have a rule about wait times, but none of those rules have been based on the academic standings of the professors involved. So this "rule" isn't something you should be taking for granted. If you aren't darn sure that your school has a rule in place about this stuff, then you should maybe keep your seat for longer, just to be safe. You never know when your professor might come in late and decide to show everyone who stayed the secret formula for turning lead into gold.

The Weight of Education
The freshman 15. We've all heard of it, and it's the epitome of a myth. It's prevalent, it really can't be proven except on a case by case basis, and it's got a fantastically alliterative title. In case you're the one person who hasn't heard this one, here's how it goes. You go to college as a freshman, and BOOM! You're allowed to eat at the cafeteria, almost whenever you want! You can have chocolate milk and cookies for breakfast! Entire pies of pizza for lunch! Plate after plate of French fries for dinner! AND NO ONE CAN STOP YOU! Except your waistline. Because in no time, you've put on the aptly named freshman 15 (pounds, that is).

Well, there's the thing. This one is such a prevalent idea, it's often either a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a self-defeating prophecy. You might decide that it's a certainty, not worry about it, and let yourself put on the weight. Or you might decide that it won't happen to you, and take steps to make sure it doesn't.  And sometimes, even if you're not really taking active steps to prevent it, the stressful nature of college itself might cause you to lose weight when you thought you'd gain it.

The bottom line is that the freshman 15 is in no way a certainty. Being aware of the possibility is probably the best way to make sure it doesn't come true. Eat right, exercise, and you'll be able to keep this college myth in the realm of fiction. 

Or you can have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I'm just saying, if Hubert von Heldenpurtsmith had his way, the freshman 15 would be praised, not deplored.

Insert Your Favorite College Movie Here: A documentary?
Most of us, by the time we're heading off to college, have seen at least a couple of those college movies. You know the ones I'm talking about, the ones that depict college as one unending party, a bacchanalian revelry with lots of alcohol and partying and other things that earn "R" ratings from the MPAA. They paint this picture of colleges as places of delightful chaos. And learning? Psht. Who learns at college? Except for maybe those quirky protagonists who learn some life lesson by the end of the movie. Other than that, learning is pretty low on the priority list, according to these movies.

The entire image of college presented by these movies is probably the ultimate college myth. I hate to tell you this, but the thing is, colleges are institutions of education. Chances are you'll be busting your hump in the library, reading all about quantum mechanics and writing all about the French Revolution. Maybe every now and then you'll sneak out for a bit of extracurricular fun, but your studies will claim your life. That is, if you want to get anything out of college. And if you're shelling out the money for a college education, then you'll probably want to get something out of it.

The students at every college love to paint pictures of their colleges as ultimate "party schools," but really, this image isn't as true as you might think. And besides, your college experience is mostly what you make of it. So, do you want to live in a crazy movie for a couple years? Or would you like to actually, y'know, earn a degree?

(Suggestion: TAKE THE DEGREE.)

Heard any other good college myths or stories? Have any questions about the doozies above? Drop us a line on our Facebook page and we'll have a collegiate myth-off!

 

About the Author

Brendan Conway is the Web Content Editor for Peterson's Interactive and is well-versed in the world of higher education and admissions. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, and has been working in admissions advice, test-prep advice, career planning advice, and similar fields for the majority of his career since graduation. Brendan endeavors to provide the most relevant, useful, and interesting information via Peterson's Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds. Brendan enjoys lexicological oddities and voraciously reading in his free time.

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