Preparing for College

Got Questions? Well, Ask the Dean!

Now that we're nearing the end of March, the college admissions process becomes a bit more stressful. Some of you high school seniors may have already gotten decisions for your applications. I hope that the majority of your news has been good. If some has been less than good (denials, waitlistings, or acceptances for other than fall term), you have my condolences and empathy. Many of you also have yet to hear from your colleges. The Ivies will be forthcoming later in March, usually before the end of the month. Of course, there will be the usual full range of emotions attached to that, with acceptances, denials, and waitlistings, and financial aid packages, both good and bad. March can be the cruelest month.

Then comes April, a month of decisions that leads up to May 1, the traditional D-Day: Decision Day for enrollment deposits. Of course there are exceptions to the May 1 enrollment decision deadline, but May Day stands above all the other deadlines. Choosing a school is a huge decision, not only for you, the high school senior, but also for your family, who will be a crucial part of your support team, for financial, practical, and moral support. Between now and then, you'll no doubt have myriad questions about what to do and how to think. Where can you turn when the answers aren't easily forthcoming.


Two resources spring to mind. First is College Confidential. There you will find an almost inexhaustible ocean of information on every aspect of the college admissions process, as well as links to valuable information on financial aid. One particularly attractive asset of the College Confidential site is the discussion forum. There are literally millions of posts loaded with college knowledge for you to peruse. Trust me. The time you spend on the CC forum is time exceedingly well spent.

But, as the title of this article proclaims, perhaps the most pertinent place for you high school seniors (and parents) to be spending time at this crucial time of the college process year is in College Confidential's Ask the Dean department. Why is the Dean so important to you now?

Sally Rubenstone is The Dean. One area that is particularly apt now is what to do about waitlists and the looming May 1 enrollment deadline. I'd like to give you a sampling of Sally's wisdom, so here are some excerpts from her extremely popular department:

Will I Lose My College Spot After May 1?

Question: Will I lose my spot at a college if I don't respond and send in my enrollment by May 1st? I'm still waiting to hear back from other schools, but I want to make sure I won't lose my spot at one of my top choices.

Yes, it is very possible that you will lose your spot if you don't respond by the May 1st deadline.

If, by May 1, you are not ready to make a commitment (e.g., you are on a waitlist at another college or are appealing a financial aid package), you must still confirm your place somewhere by the deadline or risk forfeiting it.

Some colleges will give extensions beyond the May 1 deadline, but these are fairly rare, and–if you do make such a request and it is granted–make sure you get this confirmation in writing (e-mail counts).

What are Courtesy Waitlists?

Question: I have heard the term “Courtesy Waitlist." What does this mean and how do I know if I am on one?

Although admission folks may insist otherwise, some colleges practice what is know as “Courtesy Waitlisting." This is when students who ordinarily would be rejected outright are, instead, added to the waitlist for a variety of reasons.

Often, these denizens of admissions purgatory are the children of alumni and VIP's. Sometimes, they are applicants who have overcome great obstacles in life, and admission officials want to to send an encouraging word rather than the harsh blow of denial. Courtesy waitlisting may also be used to show respect for a high school counselor who has advocated vigorously for a particular candidate who, nonetheless, never made the final cut.

So, if you are on a waitlist right now, ask yourself if you might be a courtesy kid. If so, you're not entirely out of luck, but your odds of success may be even steeper than those of other applicants who are also lost in limbo-land.

Accepting a Waitlist Offer After Depositing Elsewhere

Question: How does one handle making a deposit at a college with the May 1 deadline, then being offered a spot on the waitlist of a top-choice school in June and preferring to take that? I am willing to lose a deposit but not be sued!

It's neither illegal nor unethical to withdraw from a college after May 1 because you accepted a waitlist spot at another school (or if you change your mind for any reason). Of course, you should expect to forfeit your deposit, but at least you won't lose your good karma. :-) (Exception: Recruited athletes at the Div. 1 or Div. 2 level can be penalized when backing out of written commitments.)

If you're hoping to get good news from a top-choice college that has placed you on the waiting list, you must, of course, make a deposit elsewhere by May 1. But it's wise to hold off on that deposit until as close to May 1 as possible, while still making sure that you accept your place in the class by the deadline (and don't risk being even a nanosecond late or you could lose your spot!). Although most waitlist action doesn't start until after May 1, when admission officials will be able to see how many vacancies remain in the class, sometimes when deposits are trickling in too sluggishly, colleges will start taking students off the waitlist much sooner.

So make sure that you write to the college that has waitlisted you to let them know that you are still eager to enroll. If you will definitely attend if admitted, be sure to say that, too, and also include a list of any new achievements or activities that might help to push your application folder into the “In" pile.

You may have already discovered that a growing number of colleges are pressuring students to reply before May 1 by insisting that those who don't will miss out on housing priority or scholarship offers. Note that it is illegal for any college that subscribes to the National Candidates Reply Date Agreement (which is most of 'em) to demand a non-refundable deposit–or any sort of commitment–before May 1.

Admission officials are accustomed to losing students after May 1 when the domino effect of waitlist movement kicks in. So, if you're eventually admitted to a waitlist school, don't worry about saying “Thanks, but no thanks" to the college where you've already enrolled –though you'll be saying “Goodbye" to your deposit as well. :-( But, as a courtesy, it's always nice to explain why you're withdrawing and where you're heading and to thank the admission staff for their efforts on your behalf. You never know how things will work out down the road, so you'd be smart not to burn any bridges.

Should I Send Two Deposits While Waiting for Honors Program?

Question: I have been admitted to my state university but am on the waitlist for their honors program. If I do not get into this program, I will enroll at a liberal arts college that also accepted me. Should I send a deposit to BOTH the state university and the LAC? May 1 is too soon for me to know where I will enroll.

I agree that May 1 is too soon for many students to make a realistic decision. This year in particular, many are still waiting for financial aid appeals to be resolved. However, double-depositing is considered unethical, and I have known of students who got “caught" by the colleges in question and had their acceptances rescinded by both.

Your best bet is thus to make one deposit for sure, and then ask the other school where you are undecided if you can have an extension so that they don't give your spot away. For instance, since you say that you will only go to the public university if you get into the honors program, you can ask for an extension there. Tell them that you will definitely enroll if you get the green light on the honors program (if, in fact, you will).

Although you can do this by telephone for expediency sake, if you get an okay on the extension, be sure to ask for the name, title, and email address of the person who granted the extension. Then tell him or her that you will send a follow up email and would like a reply to it so that you can have written confirmation.

If you want, you can try getting an extension at both of the colleges that you're deciding between, so that you don't have to send any deposit by May 1. However, do note that most colleges will not grant extensions unless there are extenuating circumstances (e.g. a death in the family) and not because you are waiting to hear from another school.

If you do manage to wangle an extension from one or more of the colleges on your list, make sure that you not only get it in writing (as suggested above), but also be clear on whether or not there's a specific date by which you must commit. Don't assume that the extension is open-ended. Ask the college when the new deadline will be.

When making a deposit at one college while waiting to hear from a another school, you must expect to lose that deposit if the waitlist college eventually says yes, and you decide to matriculate there. It is not unscrupulous to withdraw your enrollment when you get admitted elsewhere from a waitlist, but don't expect to get your deposit dough back either.

Note also that, at some schools, late depositors may lose out on housing options. So even if an extension can save you a spot in the class, it may also leave you with a just spot for a sleeping bag on the student-lounge floor. :(

Yes, of course, there are plenty of applicants who do double-deposit and will get away with it, but it's a very slippery slope and one that we do not recommend for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.


The above is just a small sampling from a huge treasure chest of valuable information that Sally has built over the years, and will continue to do. So, if you're in a dither about something related to your college situation (parents are welcome too), just Ask the Dean!


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.