Don't Miss These 11th-Hour Application Details


Attention, high school seniors applying to college: Have you looked at the calendar lately? In a day or so, it will be the end of the first full week of December. The holidays are on the horizon, and so are your college application deadlines.

Your Application Clock Is Ticking!

If you happen to be one of those procrastinators who's thinking, “Settle down! If some of my application stuff gets there a few days late, so what? That happens all the time at colleges. It's not a big deal, really!"

Really? Well, you had better adjust your thinking. Here's an example of the kinds of consequences you could encounter if you're too casual about your application approach: A Missed Deadline Provides a Costly Lesson. An excerpt:

Earlier this month, I received my first and only college decision letter. It was from U.T. Austin, informing me that since my complete application had not been received by the deadline, I could not be admitted into the fall semester. This was not the response I had been hoping for. The reason they gave? While I sent in the actual application on time, I forgot to submit my SAT and ACT test scores by the deadline. As soon as I realized this omission, I had those scores sent, but it was too late....

Some of you may have applied early last month, during the Nov. 1-15 ED/EA window. Others of you are applying this month, anticipating the Jan. 1 deadlines. Maybe you're planning to submit an application for a deadline later than Jan. 1. Regardless, you'll need to review some last-minute items to make sure that your applications and associated requirements are fully satisfied. That's the point of my post today.

Most of you have been working hard to finish applications, but once you've hit that “Submit" button, your work is not entirely over. Every spring, I hear one or two horror stories about students who received neither an acceptance nor a rejection notification from a top-choice college because their application never showed up!

Accordingly, it is your responsibility to make certain that all application materials reach their destinations safely. Here's how to do it:

– Wait about two weeks after submitting your application. By then, you may have received notification from the college that your application is complete or that there are still materials missing. This notification might come via email, postcard, telephone or on the college's website, if the school offers an applicant portal that allows a sign-in via PIN. But if you don't hear anything one way or the other, you should call the admission office to confirm that you are all set.

– If you speak to someone in an admission office who tells you that your application is not complete, don't have a heart attack. This is very common. It can take admission staffers a long time to process all the materials that come in during this busy time of year. So if you find out that there are missing materials that you are certain did get sent, the first step is to wait a few days and then call back. If the materials are still missing, you must replace them, unless you are told that there is still a lot of filing in progress and you should wait a little longer.

– Sometimes admission staff members can tell you if your financial aid materials arrived safely as well, but often they cannot. So you may have to make a separate call to the financial aid office and go through this same process.

Remember, it is your responsibility to make sure that all application components (including financial aid forms) are submitted by the deadline and that they are received by colleges. Although materials are not often lost, despite the mountains of paperwork and electronic files that pour into admission offices each year, it can and does happen. So it's important to stay on top of your applications to make sure that you don't get extra bad news in April when some college says, “Your incomplete application is still on the shelf," or even, “We've never heard of you!"

– Note, too, that many colleges shut down entirely over the Christmas holidays. This means that you may not be able to speak to anyone on the phone between Dec. 20 or so and Jan. 2. It also means that materials that arrived in admission offices just before the break may not get processed until the middle of January. So keep that vacation period in mind as you try to track down your applications.

Recapping The Two Key Points to Remember

1. Follow-up is critical to make sure all materials arrived, and

2. Don't panic if you're told at first that materials are missing.

Some of you may want to consider sending an update letter to your top-choice college(s). If you read this Ask the Dean column by Sally Rubenstone, you'll see what I mean.

Although update letters are mandatory for applicants deferred in Early Action or Early Decision, these letters can also be a good idea for anyone who has new information to report since submitting an application. However, don't write an update letter if you would have to reach to come up with worthwhile news.

You can see that the sample letter in Sally's Ask the Dean column has some “cute" items: “I learned how to make great sushi (no small feat, since last year I didn't even like sushi)" and some more serious ones: “I was nominated by my high school to attend Girls' State."

If you can only come up with the cute stuff, then the update letter may not be a good idea. On the other hand, if one college on your list is clearly your top choice and you will definitely enroll if admitted (assuming that the aid you receive is affordable), then it's okay to write a brief update that emphasizes this information, even if you don't have much else of substance to report.

If you do decide to send out any updates, you should aim to have them in the mail by mid-February. Ordinarily, I recommend sending these letters by snail mail, but if you have established any sort of relationship with the admissions rep who oversees applicants from your high school, then it's fine to send the letter by email directly to him or her.

Keep These Other Important Points in Mind

In most cases, you'll have until May 1 to inform colleges of your enrollment choice. Once you decide where you will enroll, don't wait to reply to this school, even a day past the May 1 deadline. You could lose out on your acceptance and financial aid. Plus, if you are admitted to a top-choice college but the financial aid you receive is not enough to allow you to enroll, it is definitely possible to appeal your aid award, although not all appeals are successful.

If you are on a waitlist at a top-choice college and haven't heard by May 1, or if you are in the process of appealing a financial aid offer at a top-choice college and can't afford to attend unless the appeal is successful, you must accept another offer by May 1. In this case, if you do eventually end up at the top-choice college, be prepared to lose the deposit -- usually several hundred dollars -- that you made elsewhere.

If you are certain that you won't attend a college that has admitted you, please notify that school right away that you're not enrolling, so that they can give your spot to someone else. This is especially important if they have offered you a scholarship that some other student might badly need.

However, don't be too hasty to say no to any admission or scholarship offer until you are absolutely positive that you won't need it. Before you turn it down, be sure that there are other colleges that have said “Yes!" to you and have definitely offered enough money to allow you to enroll.

All the above can be filed under “Dotting my 'i's' and crossing my 't's." Success many times lies in the details. Don't allow your brain to shut down all things college the second you press that “Submit" button.

The college process is something like running a marathon, but (hopefully) without the physical pain. The process doesn't end once you send in your applications -- on time, right? Good marathon runners know that the final 10K distance is usually the most important. Your college process marathon's final 10K is your attention to follow-up details, as mentioned above.

Don't stop running! See you at the finish line!