Preparing for College

Taking Time Off When Not Admitted to Top-Choice Colleges

Question: My son was wait-listed at MIT and accepted at another engineering school that he's not excited about attending now that he's revisited it. He is still hoping that MIT will admit him, but failing that, he is going to take 6-12 months to work and apply more broadly. He is a National Merit Finalist, with nearly perfect SATs, good but not incredible grades, all honors and AP courses, great activities and awards. He does not need financial aid. Is he taking a big risk taking time off and applying to additional schools? I'm sure he won't lose interest in going to school.

If your son takes time off and applies to colleges that weren't originally on his list, he should certainly have options available to him, given his strong record. However, he should make good use of his gap year.

Here are a couple points to keep in mind if you go this route:

1. When admission folks see that your son is already out of high school and not enrolled in college, it will raise a big red flag. They will wonder if he got turned down by all his top-choice schools (and why) or if he's struggling with problems that have kept him at home. Thus, we suggest that he submit his applications with a very candid cover letter explaining exactly why he made the choice he did and naming the options he passed up.

2. Working--even in a menial job to earn cash for college--would be construed as "worthwhile" by admission officials. However, if your son does decide to work in a job that isn't related to his academic or career goals or that doesn't tax his gray matter in another way, then we would urge him to do something else concurrently that exercises his intellect. Taking a couple courses at a local college or even online would qualify in this department. Not only will these academic pursuits help your son stay "in shape" for returning to school but also they will be a plus at admission-decision time.

3. Without making a significant commitment to an academic program during this time off, it is unlikely that MIT will admit your son, should he reapply there. However, if he pursues an activity that is academic in nature, it is conceivable (albeit not likely) that MIT will view him in a different light. A unique research project might do the trick, and even success in the aforementioned academic classes might have an impact, too.

4. If your son takes just a semester off he may not qualify for merit award at the colleges that admit him for their January term. Since his strong record might make him a merit-scholarship contender, you ought to ask about aid policies for mid-year enrollees. Even if you won't apply for need-based aid, you might be passing up significant merit grants by waiting just one semester and not two.

Finally, we hope you are doing everything you can right now to move your son from the Wait List to the "in" pile at MIT. Stay in touch with admission officials. Make sure your son has clearly stated his desire to enroll, if admitted. Submit updates about all outstanding achievements, awards, honors, etc., that have been added to his record since applying. Don't shy away from gimmicks, either, if they're unusual and clever.

Unfortunately, most elite colleges put way too many students on their wait lists for most kids to feel that they have a reasonable chance of ever getting off of them. Some years a college does take lots of waiting students and--in other years--none at all. It's still too early to know how this will play out at MIT this spring, but it's not too early for your son to be lobbying for his cause.