Must College Notify Applicant of Missing Document?

Question: Is a university required to adhere to the admissions policy published on its website? My daughter applied to a specific major that required a supplement. She submitted the supplement, but the university now claims they never received it. On the admissions page, the policy states:

“If anything is missing from your application file, we will offer you a limited window in which to provide the outstanding information.”

However, the university never informed her that her application was incomplete. They rejected her on the basis of an incomplete application and now refuse to review the matter. They have completely dismissed her. Other kids received notifications that their applications were incomplete. My daughter did not receive any notification and as a result, she was denied the same opportunity to present a full application. This selective notification seems discriminatory and it definitely violates the stated admissions policy on the university website. Is there any recourse here? Is a university required to fulfill the stated admissions policy as presented on its website? Any advice is appreciated.

“The Dean” always tells students in her purview that it is their responsibility to confirm that all admission materials have been received, and it is not the college’s duty to inform them of missing materials.

However, the entire admissions process is very stressful and confusing. Teenagers (and even their parents) often don’t realize that policies vary from one college to the next. While some colleges do not alert applicants to incomplete files, many do. So it is easy to understand why college applicants would expect such notification and would assume that all is in order, if they haven’t heard otherwise.

The Web message you cited is ambiguous. It says that students will be given time to resubmit missing materials and thus it implies that the college will tell students when their files are not complete, but it doesn’t actually say so.

I instruct students to call each admission office about two weeks after submitting all materials to make sure that everything arrived safely. I also assure them that, if the answer is, “No,” that the college will give them a little time to replace whatever is missing. But I make it clear that it is up to the student to ascertain whether or not materials must be replaced.

I can certainly understand your frustration. Although the college never claims that students will be notified of missing documents, I can see how anyone could come to that conclusion from reading the language on the Website. But I actually don’t feel that the college misrepresented its protocol … it just didn’t spell it out clearly.

So here’s what your daughter should do: She should email the chair of the program she’d hoped to enroll in and explain the situation, quoting the text from the Web site. She should send a copy of the missing supplement (or recreate it if she didn’t save a copy … which hopefully she did). She should include her transcript, test scores, and any other pertinent information that suggests that she is a strong candidate for this program. She should also provide reasons why this program is a great fit for her … and vice versa … and politely ask the program chair to lobby for her acceptance with the admission folks. If your daughter doesn’t get a response in a week, she should try a phone call because time is of the essence.

It’s unlikely that the university will reconsider your daughter, but it’s worth a shot. Unfortunately, while the university officials were not helpful or thoughtful in this matter, they didn’t do anything that is technically illegal or even unethical. But I wish your daughter well in her appeal. I also hope that, if it doesn’t work out, she will land somewhere else and will realize that it was where she was meant to be all along.

(posted 4/5/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

Is $30K Debt for Four Years the Norm These Days?

Question: My daughter has been accepted at our state’s flagship university and at another university out of state. She wants to attend one of these two, even though it will mean that she graduates with about $30,000 of debt. She has received merit scholarships at smaller schools which would allow her to graduate debt-free, but she doesn’t want to go to these schools. Is it “normal” for students to owe $30,000 after four years. It sounds crazy to me!

Sadly, $30K of debt is roughly the national average these days for students who borrow for four years of college (which is about 70% of all U.S. undergraduates).

But if it were MY daughter and she had merit-aid offers that would allow her to attend college without loans, that’s where I’d be directing her. Presumably, your daughter liked the merit aid colleges well enough to apply, so even if they aren’t her top choices, she did pick them out of thousands of schools so they shouldn’t be too heinous for her to attend!

Of course, each family is different, and it’s not really responsible to weigh in on this touchy topic without knowing a lot more about your family. Factors such as your daughter’s choice of major, her graduate school plans, her career goals, and certainly her temperament (e.g., is she shy? Is she a go-getter? Is she well-organized or scatterbrained?) can affect whether taking on this much debt is an okay idea or an awful one. Your own financial situation, number of other children still at home, retirement goals, and extended-family support (e.g., is there a rich uncle waiting in the wings to bail your daughter out, if needed?) are also considerations.

I suggest that you encourage your daughter to check out the accepted-student programs at the merit-aid colleges if any are offered and to visit independently if they’re not. If she goes with an open mind, she may decide to enroll, once she meets fellow prospective students and sees the opportunities available to her. And if she goes with a friend, too, even better. It will boost the odds that she’ll have a good time. ;-)

(posted 4/2/2014)

Posted in Financial Aid    

School Band vs. Higher Class Rank

Question: My daughter is a finishing her freshman year in High School. She is active in her high school marching band. In order to participate in the band you must be enrolled in “band” as a class. This class is classified as a general study and doesn’t have an AP or Honors level. We decided she could participate as a freshman and revisit the scenario for her sophomore year schedule because all the students are required to take a general study art class for graduation. The reason this class now becomes an issue is that it will affect her weighted GPA as a senior essentially eliminating her from being valedictorian or perhaps even top 10 (she was valedictorian in 8th grade). On the admission side do they prefer a top 5 (class of ~550) or a top 20 with the marching band activity? I should note that although she excels in music – it is not something she wishes to pursue. At this time she is set on engineering.

College admission officials will usually tell you that a student should pursue interests outside of academics and that it’s fine for an applicant to stick with band, even though it’s not a “weighted” class and so this choice will probably have a negative impact on GPA and class rank.

BUT … I’ve found that these admission folks often speak with forked tongues and don’t always practice what they preach. In other words, they are likely to be more impressed by the candidate with the higher rank and grades than they are with the student who marched with her flute or clarinet at graduation. While every admission official on the planet will tell you that band is a very worthwhile activity, there is certainly nothing unique or “sexy” about it that will jump off the page at decision time. Sure, plenty of band students are admitted to “elite” colleges every year, but, in your daughter’s particular case, it sounds like band isn’t the right choice.

If this were MY child, and she were passionate about band, then I would say, “Stick with it anyway.” But if she’s equally willing to take more challenging classes and leave band behind, then that’s probably the wiser route when it comes to admission options down the road. Your daughter can, of course, continue with her instrument, if she’s so inclined, once her band days are behind her. (However, I tried that plan with my own son, and his saxophone hasn’t left its case since 8th grade :-( )

Keep in mind, however, that band can be more than just music. At many schools, it’s a way for the stronger students to share in an activity that they all appreciate and which may even be a cornerstone in their social life outside of school. Taking a band class during an otherwise rigorous school day can also provide a much-needed break.

So if you do feel that band could play an important role in your daughter’s life–even if she isn’t aiming for a future in music–another option you can pursue (although it may be tilting at windmills) is to get together with other parents from your school (especially, although not exclusively, the band parents) and try to make a change in the curriculum and in the way that GPA’s are calculated.

Right now the school requires one “general study” course for graduation. But what if you could get the school to require FOUR general study courses? That way, each student would be given a mental-health break in the day as well as the opportunity to explore new and worthwhile areas that honors students are commonly discouraged from including in their schedules. (At my son’s high school, these areas include woodshop, cooking, multimedia, personal finance, etc.) If all students were REQUIRED to take one class like these each year, I think that the upshot would be less stressed and more well-prepared young adults.

Granted, if you keep your daughter in band and decide to take up this cause, you may be defeated, and then her valedictory status would be at risk. But I still think it’s a cause worth fighting for. However, if this is not your battle, and a top-of-the-class finish for your daughter is a priority, then I suggest that she turns in her plumed hat and music stand at the end of this semester.

(posted 4/2/2104)

Posted in College Admissions    

2014-15 Common App Essay Prompts

Question: In a previous question THE DEAN posted the essay prompts would not change for the common application. My son (a Junior in H.S.) would like to work on his essays this Summer. Where can he find the essay prompts for the common application?

If your son had Googled “Common Application Essay Prompts,” he would have found this link from the Common App folks right at the top of his search results:

From there, he would have seen the list of the five prompts, which are:

–Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

–Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

— Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

–Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

–Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

I am the mother of a high school junior boy, too. I realize that I must pick my battles and that sometimes life can be a lot smoother when I take the lead on tasks that should be his to do. But I also realize that I’m probably doing my son a disservice in the long-run. So I suggest that, instead of handing your son these prompts, tell him to find them himself. You’ve got my list to give him in case he screws up, but I can almost guarantee that he won’t.

Good luck with the admissions maze ahead. I share your pain!

(posted 4/2/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

Do Common App Essay Prompts Change?

Question: Are the Common Application essay prompts the same every year?

The Common App essay prompts were new this past year (2013-2014 application season) but they had been the same for a long time before that.

They will remain the same in the upcoming season (2014-15) but, after that, who knows?

(posted 3/27/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

Is Follow-Up Call to Alum Recommender a Sign of Good News?

Question: An alumni from an Ivy college wrote a letter of recommendation for my daughter. He was contacted and asked detailed questions about her— Should she be encouraged by this as far as acceptance is concerned? (assuming the responses were very favorable on her behalf)

If your daughter had not been a serious contender, it’s unlikely that an admission official would have interviewed the alumnus who wrote the recommendation. So this interview is most likely a good sign (although it would be helpful to know who, specifically, contacted the alum and what sorts of questions were asked).

BUT … Ivy admission officials always end up “rejecting” some strong applicants whom they would really like to admit. So just because your daughter probably scaled some preliminary hurdles, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll get good news this week.

But … fingers crossed … she will.

(posted 3/24/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

How Did I Get Waitlisted By My Safety School?

Question: I can’t understand how I got wait-listed by my safety school. My SAT scores and GPA are way higher than the school’s average. Even more puzzling is that a classmate, with a lower school ranking and a much lower SAT score, got accepted. What could be the reason? And what should I do now? After this all of my schools are more selective. What if I don’t get into any of my schools? This school is Case Western.

Sometimes admission officials work in mysterious ways. The admission committee at Case may have decided that, despite your strong grades and test scores, you hadn’t given any indication that you were truly interested in enrolling, or perhaps you were sloppy with deadlines.

Another thought is that you may require a lot of financial aid. Even if you are a strong applicant, if your financial need is very high, the college officials might have decided to put you on the waitlist until they see how much money is left in their budget after making financial aid offers to more desirable candidates. Some colleges that are “need-sensitive,” as Case is, can decide to take two decent but not stellar applicants who don’t require a lot of aid rather than one somewhat stronger student who does. So sometimes when an applicant is waitlisted or denied and sees that a weaker classmate has been accepted, it could be that money is at the root of the decision. If you are an international student (not a U.S. citizen) and you applied for financial aid, then money is very likely to be behind your Case outcome. Most colleges set the admissions bar far higher for international applicants who need aid than they do for U.S. citizens and permanent residents (who qualify for U.S. Federal funds).

If none of the above potential reasons applies to you, it’s also possible that the school made a mistake. This doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. For example, I recall a time when one college’s new software went haywire, and so the test scores of some applicants showed up in the admission office computers as several hundred points below what they really were.

The college might not have caught the error except that an experienced guidance counselor called the admission office to ask why one of his top advisees had been denied. Her profile was far stronger than the typical admitted student at that college, and she’d even applied Early Decision, so the college knew that her interest was genuine.

His call caused the admission staff to take a closer look, and they found the mistake that had affected not just this one applicant but a number of others, too.

So I think you should talk to your school guidance counselor. If your counselor agrees that your waitlisting is mysterious, then perhaps the counselor will call Case on your behalf to find out why you were turned down … or if, indeed, a mistake was made.

In the meantime, if your school uses Naviance, you should be able to access Naviance data to see if other students from your high school with your profile were accepted or denied by Case in the past. If you discover that students with your profile have always been accepted, there still may be some reason why you were not, but it will certainly give you and your counselor more “ammunition” to question your waitlist status, if you contact Case to find out what went wrong.

Just because you received this unexpected news from Case doesn’t mean that you’re going to be denied by the more competitive colleges on your list. It’s possible, of course, but hardly a certainty. If indeed Case waitlisted you because the admission officials didn’t get a sense of commitment from you, perhaps you did show more interest to your other schools.

Once you receive all of your verdicts, if it turns out that you were not accepted by any of your other colleges, then you can lobby Case to admit you. There is a lot of information on the College Confidential Web site about what to do to get off of a waitlist.

But before you start with that, first try to enlist your counselor to help you find out what, if any, were the deficiencies in your application.

(posted 3/15/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

Has My Son Taken Enough Foreign Language by Grade 10?

Question: My son has taken 3 years of Spanish, 1 in 8th and 2 in HS and wants to stop. He has met his graduation requirement but I am concerned colleges will feel this is not enough. What is the normal requirement colleges look for on applications?

Only a handful of highly selective colleges (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins …) ask for four years of a foreign language. So, if your son’s high school counts his 8th grade year as an official year (and the majority do), then, technically, he is okay as is at most colleges.

BUT (and you could probably tell that a “BUT” was imminent!), applying to the pickier colleges (even those that ask for only three years of foreign language), with a year of middle school language and two in high school, could put your son at a slight disadvantage when compared to his “competitor” candidates who may have taken the same language for four or five years and through the Advanced Placement level. While it won’t be an automatic deal-breaker for your son if he stops now, he won’t be doing himself any favors either.

If your son won’t be aiming for the more selective colleges, then he’s fine with his three years. But if he’s likely to apply to highly selective colleges (the ones that admit about a third of their applicants or fewer) that expect three or even four years of foreign language, then urge him to take another year unless …

1. He feels that it would be truly heinous to continue


2. He will be replacing the language with some challenging classes in fields he prefers, especially math and science.

Another option would be for him to start a new language and continue it for two years. While the choosiest colleges claim that they’d rather see four or more years of the same language rather than a 2+2 or 3+2 combination, your son might enjoy gaining at least a little competency in another language, especially if it’s one that’s very different than the language he already studied, and this will “look better” on applications than what his current transcript shows.

If you can afford it, your son might also consider a summer program in a country where his language is spoken (assuming it’s not Latin). ;-) Although a summer program usually isn’t comparable to a year of language study at school, and he probably won’t get academic credit for it (though depending on the rigor of the program he chooses, he might) this could help your son improve his skills and even enjoy them. It would also show colleges that he has a little more interest and experience in this language than what his transcript will suggest.

As a parent myself, I know it’s important to pick my battles. If my son seemed adamant that a language class was ruining his life or keeping him from following his true passions, I’d probably let him quit. But if the worst I got was a small groan, then I’d most likely insist that he continue for one more year.

By the way, you can find the foreign language requirements (or recommendations … since sometimes there’s a little wiggle room) on each college’s admissions Web pages. The College Board Web site also includes this information. (Go to and type in the college’s name, click on the “Applying” tab on the left-hand menu and then on the “Academics & GPA Tab.”) If your son has already expressed some interest in any particular colleges, you might want to look them up with him and show him how much foreign language each one demands. Depending on what he finds, he may just decide to continue his language study without further prodding.

(posted 3/12/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

Commitment–then 180–Before May 1?

Question: A school wants my daughter to commit to their acting program. It is great to be wanted, but the deadline to commit is before many schools she auditioned at send acceptance letters. Is it okay to commit to a school and then change our minds if a better offer comes around?

There’s a long thread about this on the College Confidential discussion forum (see ) and reading it has confirmed for me that many colleges are putting pressure on seniors and their families to commit before the May 1 deadline.

So, to answer your question, yes you can commit now and the college is obligated to return your deposit if your daughter notifies the school that she has changed her mind BEFORE MAY 1. However, if this college also asks you for a housing deposit, you may not get it back. Extracting non-refundable housing deposits from undecided (but nervous) families seems to be a loophole that the National Association for College Admission Counseling hasn’t yet closed.

Congrats to your daughter on this acceptance and good luck on those yet to come. Acting programs can be so unpredictable … “Harder than Harvard” is what I often call them.

(posted 3/5/2014)

Posted in College Admissions    

Do I Have to Re-Take the SAT and ACT?

Question: For the college I got accepted to and am going to, I put on the application that I was taking the ACT and SAT another time. Will this affect anything if I decide not to take the tests again? I already have a really good score.

No, as long as you took the test(s) that your college required and submitted your scores, then you don’t have to re-test, even if you thought you would do so at the time that you submitted your application. You don’t even have to notify your college that you are not re-testing.

Congratulations on your acceptance!

(posted 3/4/2015)

Posted in College Admissions