Preparing for College

Appealing a "Dream School" Denial

Question: My son received a rejection letter from Fordham (his dream school). As you can imagine, as a parent, I feel helpless and want to help. I called the school and asked about their appeal process. They told me that they rarely overturn their decision. I've committed to writing an appeal letter on behalf of my son and wanted some advice. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Is a heartfelt or factual letter better? Please help.

My condolences on your son's Fordham news. As a parent myself, I know how painful it can be to endure a child's disappointment. In a minute I'll give you the appeals suggestions you request, but--before I do--I'm going to make you suffer through one other important suggestion. I know you want desperately to help your son right now, but, truly, the best help you can give him is to help him to move on. Learning to face disappointments and rise above them is a valuable life lesson ... perhaps more useful than anything your son will learn in college, whether at Fordham or elsewhere. Certainly many teenagers become focused on the idea of a "dream school," but we adults should realize that there's not a single perfect college for anyone.

Read the College Confidential threads written by those who enrolled in "Safety Schools" and flourished there, and you'll see what I mean.

This succinct post by "GoldShadow" echoes the thoughts of many others: "I ended up going to my last-choice college, and at first I was pretty disappointed. I went in planning to transfer, but I didn't. Two years later, I'm as happy as can be and I love it here." Sure, not everyone fares as well as this ... but that's also true for some who attend a top-choice school. So, because you do want to support your son at this difficult time, I urge you to discuss his other options with him and inspire him to get excited about the choices he does have.

Most college officials I know are befuddled by the idea that students and parents now routinely "appeal" admission decisions as if they were capital murder convictions. In fact, an appeal should be saved for only the most extenuating circumstances. The college folks have just been through several frenzied months of evaluations, often making some very tough calls. The last thing they expect to do is to start all over again.

Thus, appeals letters should be submitted only by those who have some significant new information to submit or who feel that, for whatever reasons, the original application was inaccurate or misleading. Some examples of this might include:

-A student is seriously ill all fall and his mid-term report included several "incompletes." The student has now made up those grades and done very well.

-It comes to light that a school counselor did not provide adequate--or accurate--references or other materials.

-The College Board made an egregious scoring error which was just recently discovered (and we know this can happen!)

If you feel that your son's application did not truly reflect his abilities in these ways--or others like it--then this sort of "factual" appeal may be in order. Do not, however, write a letter that simply reiterates the accomplishments and strengths that were already on the application. Likewise, if the thrust of your plea will be, "This is a great guy who is desperate to attend your school .... how can you overlook him?" then you and your son are better served by starting the moving-on process right away.

But if you insist on writing an appeal letter anyway, then I advise your son to write one as well. His case will not be strengthened if admission folks see mom or dad fighting his battle.

While it's important that your son should get psyched about a school that is welcoming him, it's also okay to remind him that many colleges do accept transfer students who were not admissible as freshmen. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Similarly, your son can head off to school next fall determined to love where he is but also aware that, if he does well there, he will have a good shot at Fordham as a transfer.

Finally, as I often tell students and their parents at this trying time of year, as stressful as this process can be, there is often a meant-to-be outcome. Your son may reluctantly enroll in another college, but it will be there that he discovers his perfect major ... or mentor ... or mate (!). I have seen this happen many times over many years and am optimistic that your son, too, may find it true.