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 November 1-15 (mostly November 1). Since your ED application represents your best application efforts for your 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 stable of great possibilities on deck and ready to go, in case Plan A doesn’t go as planned. One tactical error many seniors make is not having their full candidate list assembled before they send in their ED or EA application(s). Let’s look at some timing consequences.
There is 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 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:
Let’s assume that your candidate list looks something like this:
- First-choice early-apply candidate: Swarthmore College
- Other reaches: Williams, Trinity, and Haverford
- Ballpark candidates: Bard, Bucknell, and Lafayette
- Safeties: Dennison University and home-state university’s main campus
Get all your candidate schools’ applications (or Common Application supplements) as soon as possible. The advantage you gain from having all the applications in front of you is conservation of energy, especially when it comes to essays. Since Swarthmore is your early first-choice school, look at the essay(s) you’ll be required to generate for their application. Chances are, the main essay will be something along the lines of “Tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn from the other parts of your application” (or something that amounts to that).
There may also be some shorter questions asking for specific information such as what is it about Swarthmore that motivated you to apply. These types of specific-information questions usually require original answers and don’t lend themselves to recycling. Be careful. If you try to adapt college-specific statements to other applications, you can commit application suicide. More than a few carelessly lazy applicants have cut and pasted their way to the reject pile. Imagine the terrific impression you’ll make on the Trinity admission officer who reads your response that begins, “When I first started my college search, I was looking for a school that had an ideal combination of small class size, senior faculty teaching first-year courses, and modern campus resources. Swarthmore offers all of those and more . . .” Just be careful, okay?
It’s conceivable that you might be able to get away with writing just one major essay that can satisfy the main-essay prompts of all your applications. This is especially likely if your early-application school has a general essay prompt, such as the “tell us something” approach mentioned above. If you’re not quite that fortunate, at least you’ll be able to minimize your essay production by not having to move through your applications one at a time. The “group-think” strategy pays handsome time dividends.
You can shore up additional details too, such as your other applications’ nuts-and-bolts personal and statistical data (all that boring stuff you have to enter at the front of every application). This is where the Common Application and a colleges’ electronic applications can save you some time. However, please remember the advantages that good old paper applications offer. Your choice of electronic rather than paper applications may well be decided by how obsessive you are about your college process.
Brief your recommenders about your application strategy. Since you won’t be finding out about your early application(s) until mid-December, that leaves only a couple of weeks until most of your other applications’ Regular Decision (RD) deadline (usually the first of January). Notice anything else about those two weeks? Yep, they’re sitting there like toads, right in the middle of your winter break. It’s also going to be your teachers’ winter break too. They’re not going to appreciate having to generate additional recommendations for you during break if you come running to them after your deferral letter arrives on December 15.
That’s why you should let everyone-your teachers, your counselor, your summer-job supervisor, or whomever-know what to expect. Brief them on your Plan B. Chances are, most of them will have their letters on a computer file, and they can just change the date and print out a new copy. However, there is the possibility of danger here too.
Just as you can commit application suicide by not being careful in changing college names as you adapt your essays and short statements, so too can your recommenders damage your application’s impact. Just to play it safe, ask your letter writers if they have mentioned the college’s name anywhere in their letter. If so, ask them (nicely) to be sure that they get the right letter in the right envelope, if your Plan B is called into action. This is a relatively small point, but one that needs to be heeded.
Have your RD applications on deck and ready to go by mid-December. Now, back to those two weeks comprising the second half of December. Do you really want to spend your winter break scrambling to complete the remainder of your Plan B applications? You do? Okay, that’s fine, but don’t come crying to me when your buddies ask you to go skiing with them for a few days and you can’t because you “have to write all these essays.”
If you would really rather go skiing, or whatever, have those others apps ready to roll before you get the not-so-good news from your early school(s). Obviously, if you’re accepted ED, or get into one or more of your multiple-EA schools, that’s all the good news you need. You can then enroll and finally, after all this time, exhale and scrap your Plan-B applications. On the other hand, if you get the dreaded deferral or, worse case, get denied outright, you’re going to be disappointed (at least) but you won’t be defeated and have to generate new, exciting, and enthusiastic applications while moping under your cloud of negativism. Your heads-up Plan-B planning will have taken care of all that.