Nov. 6, 2020
My daughter just found out she was rejected from her top-choice school (a large Midwestern state school) and she is devastated. Is there a way to appeal the decision, and if so, should I do it or should she? I am thinking of calling the admissions department and asking whether there's anything we can do to get them to reconsider.
Sorry to hear about your daughter's bad news. But — as a parent myself — I can assure you that, as devastated as she is, it's you who probably feels worse. So I understand that you want to do all you can to appeal the decision. Some colleges officially accept appeals and some don't. But even in the latter case, your daughter can still take a shot. Note, however, that — whether the school offers an appeals process or not — your daughter's odds are extremely slim ... and if your daughter is an out-of-state applicant and/or if the university is highly selective, then the slimmer they become.
The first step is to determine if there is indeed a process in place. You can find this information on the university website or through a phone call to the admission office. But that's where your job ends. The rest should be done by your daughter and not by a mom or dad, except perhaps for a conversation with the guidance counselor (more on that in a minute). If there is a formal process, your daughter must read the guidelines and follow them. If there is not a process, she should write a letter (email is fine) to her regional admissions rep. This is the staff member who oversees applicants from her high school. (If she hasn't made contact with this person already, she can also find this information on the website or via a phone call.) Her letter should include her commitment to enroll if admitted and the reasons why this university is the right spot for her (but only if she can come up with very specific, compelling reasons. The generic ones, like the beautiful campus or excellent English department, and especially, “I've wanted to go there my entire life," won't move any needles).
Above all, your daughter's best chance of acceptance after a rejection will be based on new information that wasn't included in her original application. “The Dean" sometimes hears from students with significant disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness) who decided not to disclose these challenges in their applications in order to be “treated like everyone else." But then, following a denial, they confessed the many hurdles they'd surmounted that affected grades or test scores, and the admission committee was swayed. If your daughter, too, has overcome obstacles that she didn't already reveal (and these could include family problems, the death of a friend, etc. ... not just disabilities or illness), she can explain them during her appeal.
Of course, your daughter should also include any talents, accomplishments or even interests that weren't in her initial application. Sometimes teenagers don't recognize that their personal endeavors (which aren't pursued through school clubs and teams, community organizations, etc.) can be important to the admission process and can help to distinguish them from other applicants with similar statistics. For instance, if your daughter applied as a business major but has a collection at home of musical compositions, wood carvings, auto-repair blogs, dream-house designs, etc., these could have made her a more attractive candidate even if they aren't germane to her long-term academic goals. Likewise, if she holds a paying job and can boast of promotions or other kudos, the colleges should be told.
In addition, as the school year continues, your daughter may compile more “ammunition" for her appeal than she has right now. If her grades take a big upward turn by the end of the first semester, then she can inform the university. She can also be proactive about putting her passions to work toward her appeal by entering competitions in an area of expertise (history? math? engineering?) or by submitting her writing to journals or her art to juried shows. Even if she doesn't win a contest, she can send the college folks her submission, so they'll know what she's been up to. An “Update" letter down the road that points to several post-application achievements will probably carry more clout than an urgent plea right in the wake of the rejection, even if it feels frustrating to wait.
Finally, your daughter should get the guidance counselor in her corner, if possible. The counselor may be willing to call or write to the university to lobby on her behalf. Your daughter should "remind" the counselor of exactly what she likes about this university and what makes her stand out among her classmates. And this is where you can get involved as well, if you're itching to do something. You can schedule a meeting with the counselor to discuss the pending appeal, to ask the counselor where your daughter fits in among others from her high school who are applying to this top-choice university (or who have applied in the past), and what, if anything, the counselor might do to further her cause.
But, again, your daughter needs to understand that she's swimming upstream. Rejections are rarely overturned, and if her grades and test scores (where applicable) are at the bottom of the university's median range (or below it), then she'll probably be wasting her time. Yet there are lots of stories on the College Confidential discussion forum (and on “The Dean's" own mental hard drive as well) about applicants who were denied by a top-choice college and then enrolled elsewhere and thrived, even proclaiming, “This was where I was meant to be all along!"
So, without being too heavy-handed with the sour grapes, you can do your part by highlighting the pros of other universities that share similarities with the top-choice school but where your daughter is likely to be accepted (“What an awesome college town!") while tossing in a couple of the number-one place's negatives (“Those Midwestern winters are brutal!). Even as your daughter launches her appeal, she needs to be looking toward realistic options. And — as much as adolescents may seem to ignore their parents — if you tout the virtues of these other options, you may find that soon she'll get excited about new possibilities.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.