The College Admissions Casino

I was watching an episode of The Sopranos the other night. It was the one where Tony goes to Las Vegas and gets lucky at a casino. He somehow conflates the recent death of his nephew with his change in gambling fortunes. Odd logic, I thought.

After the episode ended, I glanced at my calendar to check some appointments and was reminded that we’ve made the clubhouse turn in this year’s college admissions process. The finish line is just down the straightaway a bit, where winners and (I won’t call them “losers” because they’re not!) finishers arrive together.

The process of college admissions today is a lot like that casino where Tony Soprano had such great luck at the roulette wheel. In many cases, though, your application is similar to a roll of the dice. That’s the unfortunate reality due to the tremendous numbers of applications that colleges — especially the “top” colleges — are receiving these days.

Every year this time, I feel it important to point out some various ways to view those admissions decisions, be they an acceptance, a denial (I dislike the term “rejection”), or, perhaps worst of all, a waitlisting. All of you Regular Decision (RD) applicants will know your fate soon. How should you deal with the situation if your number doesn’t come up, if that “dealer” seems to scoop all your chips away from you? Maybe I can help you deal (so to speak) with that through a review of some of my annual advice.

The first circumstance, obviously, is whether or not you are admitted. That seems fairly black and white. You either get in or you don’t. Unfortunately, there are complicating factors that can turn black and white to various shades of gray.

Another issue, that looms large at the top of the list is cost. Every year I see the frustrations of applicants who are admitted to their “dream” school then cannot enroll because of cost. Much of this unfortunate situation falls into the laps of parents, who generally have much more objectivity about the situation than their starry-eyed sons and daughters who have just been granted access to their esteemed Ivy towers.

On the other hand, some savvy seniors actually have the objectivity to see the long-term consequences of massive student loan debt, and they reluctantly concede that the price of attending First-Choice U is way too costly. I say, “Good for them!” As you may know, I am an ardent opponent of crushing loan debt. The statistics, which I have cited here before, are shocking.

A third, and perhaps most confounding circumstance, is the famous “purgatory” of college admission decisions: the waitlist. An applicant receiving a waitlist notification in the spring is neither in nor out … not admitted but not denied … just placed in limbo.

These circumstances can seem overwhelming and create significant stress for applicants and their families. The end of the admissions road can sometimes be very bumpy, a seemingly unfair end to the college application process, which can be long and agonizing affair.

The actual application submission season traditionally stretches from November 1 to January 1, with a number of exceptions that can add days before and after that two-month window. Some schools have rolling admissions and others offer an elongated calendar that stretches into February, or even later in the year. Thus, many seniors have been under some level of stress and deadline pressure for some time.

There is good news, of course, in the form of happy “thumbs up” responses, welcoming you to some (or maybe even all) of your sought-after schools. The bad news, naturally, brings you thumbs down. Some of these southern-pointing thumbs can be terribly distressing, especially if you have rationalized a list of reasons extolling all the virtues your applications have trumpeted about yourself. Your detailed research may have revealed that you appear to be a perfect fit with past accepted applicants, as reported by those colleges of their Websites. When you come face to face with the reality of denial, many times it’s hard not to feel like you’ve had a punch in the gut.

As I mentioned briefly above, the infamous waitlist letter says, “We think you’re good enough to attend here but we’ll let you in only if enough of the others we’ve already admitted don’t show up and we have a slot for you.” Yuck.

That big fat “if” condition puts you squarely on the road to Suspense City. What will happen? You have no idea. You cling to a tenuous shred of hope but know in your heart that a waitlisted applicant’s chances for ultimate admission are slim, indeed. Yes, some do get in but very few, if any, do. That’s the agony of the waitlist.

So, the metaphor of spring — a refreshing of life (warmer temps and “greening”) after a long season “repose” (frozen solid and buried in snow, for those of us up North) — can apply to the world of college admissions. Hopefully, you seniors have planned your college applications according to the tried and true Reach-Ballpark-Safety formula that, if carefully plotted, will assure you at least some good news and you won’t be “frozen” out. But what if those thumbs down are in the majority?

You’ve waited months for your answers, and now they’re here … skinny envelopes and/or disappointing email notifications. Not the answers you wanted or even expected.

Getting a denial from a college or university doesn’t make you a bad person. Unfortunately, some high school seniors see themselves in a less-than-positive light when they read the bad news from their highly desired institution(s).

Dealing with denials is difficult. Most high schoolers take rejection on a personal level. They seem to think that the letter or email from the admission office is really saying something like, “You are deficient and we don’t want to have anything to do with you.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The truth is that often some denied applicants could have done as well as those who were admitted. This isn’t a rationalization or sour grapes. At schools where there is a significantly larger number of applications than available seats (schools whose acceptance rates are around 50 percent or less), there just isn’t room for all the qualified applicants. That’s why there is that so-called waitlist. A waitlist comprises a group of “in-betweeners,” not accepted but not denied, in that limbo state I mentioned above. As I also mentioned, these purgatory-assigned souls gain admission only if the number of enrollments doesn’t meet expectations for the incoming freshman class.

One famous dean of admission, the late Fred Hargadon of Princeton University, said that his institution received so many outstanding applications that he didn’t have the heart to send rejection letters. He noted that placing these fine young men and women on the waitlist was his way of saying, “We should have admitted you, but we didn’t have room.” This is the case with many good colleges. Every qualified applicant isn’t admitted.

If you are one of these denied or waitlisted applicants, take a little time to feel disappointed about not getting into your most-desired school(s). It’s perfectly natural to feel bad. Don’t dwell on it, though, and don’t develop an obsessive attitude about it. Don’t hate that school (or schools) forever. Don’t view successful candidates as elitist snobs. Accept the fact that you didn’t make the cut — for whatever reason — and get on with your life. Embrace those schools that have embraced you. Select the one that best suits your needs and finances and prepare to have a great higher-education experience. There is life after rejection.

On the other hand, can there be too much of a good thing? Sometimes.

You’re going to know shortly all the outcomes from your various RD applications. Maybe you already have some good news about your Early Decision/Action applications, which you submitted in November and got goods news from in December. Now, as you await your remaining decisions that will be forthcoming in the coming several weeks, you may be wondering, “Geez, what if I get into all the schools I applied to?” That’s a fair question and prudent food for thought.

Having a pile of acceptances from schools you would love to attend can pose a problem. It’s a happy problem, to be sure, but a difficult one, nonetheless.

Maybe you gained admission to your clear, first-choice college in December, through an EA application. Maybe, in your pile of acceptances, there is one that suits you perfectly, making all the others unnecessary.  If so, no problem, assuming that you can manage the costs without going into too much student loan debt.

What should you do, though, if you have three or four acceptances and none is a clear favorite? This happens more frequently than you might imagine. The solution to finding the right one lies in doing some careful review and consultation with your family. If considerations such as location, student body size, program offerings, and reputation are all about equal (and you detect no true preference stirring in your heart), then money has to be a major consideration. Financial aid packages usually arrive with the acceptance letters. Examine them carefully. Ignore the “sticker price” of the schools for a moment and go straight to the bottom line.

Which school’s offer puts the smallest drain on your family’s finances? Is there a clear winner now? If there’s no other criterion for deciding, then money should help you decide. Don’t forget that you can sometimes earn extra financial aid with just a phone call to the college’s financial aid office and providing greater detail about your family’s financial situation. After you have satisfied yourself that you have the best possible package, then decide.

However, I must mention again the peril of too many student loans. Currently in America, the average student loan debt for graduating college seniors is hovering over $30,000. I know one graduate from an online college (!) whose loan debt is $50,000! Think about how long it may take you to pay off that amount of money, assuming that you can find work that would allow you to budget a consistent and satisfactory monthly payment.

Remember, too, that you can make a quick visit between now and May 1, the traditional enrollment response deadline. Visits can sometimes sway the undecided. Please keep your parents involved in your decision. They maintain a large stake in your college education. Although most parents respect their child’s decision on college selection, they can provide valuable perspective for that decision.

No matter where you end up going to college, compliment yourself on an admission process well done. And — one more time (have I mentioned this already?) — be careful about those student loans. Don’t allow them to become another form of a casino catastrophe!


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.