Admissions

Countdown to Mid-December: Decision Time

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This is for high school seniors who have applied to college using the Early Decision or Early Action option. Most ED/EA deadlines passed last week, on Nov. 1. Some deadlines may still be open, but most observed the traditional Nov. 1 date.

The usual strategy for early applicants is to try to get an acceptance from a so-called “first-choice” college. In the case of binding Early Decision, this may be for a “dream college” (an unfortunate term because of all the hopes and dreams stacked upon it), or applicants may be keeping their options open through the non-binding avenue of Early Action, which doesn’t require an enrollment decision until May 1, in most cases, which allows for other choices between December and May.


Decisions Await

Regardless of which early application choice chosen, the results will be coming out in mid-December, a little more than one month from this writing. For those of you who have applied early, then, how will this countdown to Decision Day affect you? What should you be thinking about during this time and how should you react to your December outcome? This time of year is a stressful one for both applicants and their families. What will that email message or snail-mail letter bring?

Obviously -- and we don’t really like to talk about this -- one ED/EA outcome that has become more prevalent in recent years is outright denial, or, using the more negative term, “rejection.” In many cases, colleges will merely defer their ED/EA decisions until spring, resulting in an extension of outcome agony for the applicant. Outright denial, however, is like ripping off a Band-Aid. It hurts, but the pain subsides relatively quickly, and applicants don’t have to deal with waiting 90+ more days to find out. Some deferred applicants must then wait even longer if they are wait-listed in the spring, a further extension of the uncertainty.

How to Handle Rejection

Let’s discuss the issue of being rejected from ED or EA. How should you think about that if, unfortunately, it happens to you?

Dealing with rejection is difficult. Most high schoolers tend to take being turned down by a college or university on a personal level. They seem to think that the decision from the admissions office is really saying something like, “You are deficient and we don’t want to have anything to do with you.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The actual truth is that in a lot of cases, some rejected students could have done as well, if not better, than those who were accepted. One famous dean of admission once said that his institution received so many outstanding applications that he didn’t have the heart to send rejection letters. He noted that placing these fine young men and women on the waitlist was his way of saying, “We should have admitted you, but we didn’t have room.” Such is the case with many good colleges. Everyone who is good enough to get in isn’t always offered admission.

Getting a rejection from a college doesn’t make you a failure. Unfortunately, some high school seniors see themselves in a less-than-positive light when they read the bad news from a highly desired institution. Dealing with a denial decision is difficult, so how can you proactively defend against it? Here are some suggestions:

Spread the Risk: Leverage Your Competitiveness

The first step is to develop a reasonable list of college candidates. This may be old news to many of you, but it’s surprising how many seniors overlook the obvious advantages of spreading their risk and instead create a candidate list that is ridiculously top heavy. A typical top-heavy list might include the usual suspects: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and so on. Sometimes candidates will throw in a hastily picked “safety” just in case. A spread like this is way out of balance.

However, if your overall profile compares favorably with those of admitted first-year students at your candidate colleges (that information is usually available on college websites), you’ll know that you at least have a chance. Don’t go by numbers alone. There are also the essays, your recommendations, your application packaging (marketing extras) and those ever-present intangibles. These can make a significant difference.

The best way to deal with rejection is to minimize the number of schools from which you might be rejected. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised how many seniors load up on low-percentage candidates. Notice that I said “minimize” rather than “eliminate” the rejections. I believe that every senior should include some risk candidates, usually referred to as “reach” or “stretch” schools. The unpredictability of elite admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in. There’s no reason why you couldn’t be among that group.

Enhance Your College Application Strategy With a Plan B

A solid Plan B should be the ideal complement to your Plan A. Let’s say that your Plan A consists of an Early Decision application to your clear first-choice school. Most top-level ED programs have a deadline of Nov. 1-15 (mostly Nov. 1). Since your ED application represents your best application efforts for that most highly desired school, you’ll already have the material in place to execute your Plan B applications if (or when) they become necessary.

If you followed the college candidate “spread” advice outlined above, you should have a nice group of great possibilities on deck and ready to go in case Plan A doesn’t work out when you get your decision back. One tactical error many seniors make is not having their full candidate lists assembled before they send in their ED or EA application(s).

You'll have anywhere from a four-to-six week waiting period for finding out about early applications. They go in by early November and colleges send out their decision letters by mid-December. The question you need to ask yourself is: “What am I going to be doing to facilitate my college process during those 30-45 days?” Here are some smart things to do.

Appeal Those Deferrals And Get off of Those Waitlists

Being deferred can seem like holding your breath for more than three months. Ending up on a waitlist is like going to purgatory. Nevertheless, you do have some active self-marketing options available to you. I’ll explain those in a moment. These can accomplish two things. First, this structured approach to promoting yourself and your position will help time seem to pass more quickly. In the case of deferrals, you’ll be waiting up to three-and-a-half months to find out your fate. If you’re just going to sit and wait, doing nothing, these months can seem endless, especially if you live in a cold and snowy climate where there’s a conspicuous lack of sunshine.

Briefly, it’s all about finding a key contact at the school that has deferred or wait-listed you and feeding that person carefully planned information about your accomplishments and passion for that school. In most cases, this person will be the regional admissions representative for your area of the country. You can find out who s/he is in several ways. Start searching immediately. Don’t put this off.

First, you can check the school’s website. Most colleges have a separate page or segment of their site devoted to undergraduate admissions. In some cases, depending on the size of the school, they may have the admission officers’ names, their geographic assignment and (if you’re really lucky) their email address.

If this information isn’t available on the school’s website, then you’ll have to call the admissions office. Don’t chicken out here. You’ve got to remember that you get one shot at the process and this is your chance. By the way, don’t ask (or allow) Mom or Dad do the talking. Why? Well, right off the top, if an admissions officer ends up speaking with one of your parents, s/he’ll immediately think that you don’t have the commitment or maturity to handle this important task for yourself and may even question your true motivations about attending that particular school. Make these calls yourself!

Once you have located your admissions rep, you need to communicate your continued interest with the admissions office. This should be done by letter (an email is fine, too.)  The purpose of your letter (or email) will be to:

– Emphasize your ongoing interest in this college. If, in the case of an EA application, you will definitely enroll if admitted, be sure to say so clearly.

– Explain why this college is a great match for you. Your reasons should be as specific as possible: “I have done research on the role of women in Mesopotamia and am eager to work with Professor Wilshire, whose writing in this area is renowned.” Not generic: “It is an excellent school, and I fell in love with the beautiful campus.”

– Provide updates on what you have done since you sent your application. Ideally, this list would include significant achievements: “I won a national physics competition.” But, more commonly, you’ve been too busy with academics and applications to say much more than, “I pulled up my Calculus grade from a B- to a B+.” Once you’ve communicated this list to your admissions rep, you can follow up with additional updates when you have more news to report. Meanwhile, think about how you can generate more such news. Apply for an internship, enter a competition, get a part-time job, etc.

– You can also enlist the support of your guidance counselor. Ask him or her to telephone the college admissions office to lobby on your behalf. Note, however, that admissions folks are most interested in speaking to the guidance counselor when the counselor is able to add to the body of information already available in the application and not just hear, “Yep, we still support Priya in her quest to attend your school.”

However, this added information doesn’t have to be breaking news: “Priya won the Nobel Peace Prize!” It can simply be some small details about you that the original application didn’t reveal: “Our guidance secretary mentioned yesterday that Priya is the only senior who sent a thank-you note for all the help the secretary provided last fall.”

– Finally, as a last-ditch option, you can always consider a gimmick. For instance, if your application touts your talents as a budding poet, perhaps it’s time to write your “Homily to Haverford” or your “Ode to Occidental.” Granted, gimmicks don’t often work, and there’s usually a huge element of luck involved if you try them. That’s because an effort that might delight one admissions official could potentially irk another. But, especially when it comes to wait-listed candidates at the hyper-selective schools, where your chances aren’t too hot to begin with, a carefully conceived outside-the-box approach just might be your very best shot.

– Regardless of what happens, be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. At some point, you will reach the end of your quest. For those who are deferred, the final word will come in late March or early April. For those on the waitlist, things are less specific. Sometimes, waitlisters can find out where they stand on the list, if the school ranks its list. You may be able to find out how many are on the list. Sometimes it’s many hundreds or more. Obviously, if you choose to hang in there indefinitely on a waitlist, you’re going to have to enroll somewhere else in the meantime. This can (happily) lead to the loss of an enrollment deposit if your waitlist marketing pays off and you get in.

In any event, you’ll eventually learn your fate. When you do get your decision back, remember to follow the words of poet Rudyard Kipling and “... meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same …”

What do those words mean? In the context of college admissions, it all goes back to what my mother used to tell me: “Things tend to work out for the best.”

Here’s wishing “the best” for you!