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Articles / Applying to College / December Decisions

December Decisions

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 28, 2013
Every year about this time, as I'm about to turn my calendar page over to the month of December, I think of all the high school seniors who have submitted their Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) applications. The traditional response window for those decisions hovers around mid-December. So, this particular time of year is a stressful one for both the applicants and their families. What will that email message or snail-mail delivery bring?

I wrote an article for College Confidential entitled Dealing with Rejection. In that attempt to explain how to deal with a negative admissions outcome, I said:

Dealing with rejection is difficult. Most high schoolers tend to take being turned down by a college or university on a personal level. They seem to think that the letter [or email these days] from the admissions office is really saying something like, “You are deficient and we don't want to have anything to do with you." Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is that in a lot of cases some rejected students could have done as well, if not better, than those who were accepted. … One famous dean of admission 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." Such is the case with many good colleges. Everyone who is good enough to get in isn't always offered admission. …

Getting a rejection (a.k.a. “denial") letter from a college or university doesn't make you a failure. Unfortunately, some high school seniors see themselves in a less-than-positive light when they read the bad news from a highly desired institution. Dealing with rejection is difficult, so how can you deal with it? What's a non-admitted applicant to do?

“Spread the Risk": Leverage Your Competitiveness as a College Applicant

The first step is to develop a reasonable list of college candidates. This may be old news to some of you, but it's surprising how many seniors overlook the obvious advantages of “spreading the risk" by creating a candidate list that is ridiculously top heavy. A typical top-heavy list might include the usual suspects: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and so on. Sometimes candidates will throw in a hastily picked “safety" just in case. A spread like this is way out of balance.

However, if your overall profile compares favorably with those of admitted first-year students at your candidate colleges (information usually available on college Web sites), you'll know that you at least have a chance. As I mention above, though, don't just go by numbers alone. There are also the essays, your recommendations, your application packaging (marketing extras), and those ever-present (or never-present) intangibles. These can make a significant difference.

The best way to deal with rejection is to minimize the number of schools from which you might be rejected. That seems obvious, doesn't it? You'd be surprised how many seniors load up on low-percentage candidates. Notice that in this paragraph's lead sentence, I said “minimize" rather than “eliminate" the rejections. I believe that every senior should include some risk candidates (usually referred to as “reach" or “stretch" schools). The unpredictability of elite admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in. There's no reason why you couldn't be among that group . . .

Bolster Your College Application Strategy with a Plan B

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 . . .

Appeal those College Deferrals and Get Off of those Waitlists!

Being deferred is like holding your breath for more than three months. Ending up on a waitlist is like going to purgatory. Nevertheless, you do have some active marketing options available to you, which I'll explain in a moment. These can accomplish two things. First, this structured approach to promoting yourself and your position will help time seem to pass more quickly. In the case of deferrals, you'll be waiting up to three-and-a-half months to find out your fate. If you're just going to sit and wait, doing nothing, these months can seem endless, especially if you live in a cold and snowy climate where there's a conspicuous lack of sunshine. Snowy weather sometimes seems to hang on until July.

Briefly, it's all about finding a key contact at the school that has deferred or waitlisted you and feeding that person carefully planned information about your accomplishments and passion for that school.

In most cases, this will be the regional admissions representative for your area of the country. You can find out who s/he is in several ways. Start searching immediately. Don't put this off. First, you can check the school's Web site. Most colleges have a separate page or segment of their site devoted to undergraduate admissions. In some cases, depending on the size of the school, they may have the admission officers' names, their geographic assignment, and (if you're really lucky) their email address.

If this information isn't available on the school's Web site, then you'll have to call the admissions office. Don't chicken out here. You've got to remember that you get one shot at the process and this is your chance. By the way, don't have (or let) mom or dad do the talking here. Why? Well, right off the top, if an admissions officer ends up speaking with one of your parents, s/he'll immediately think that you don't have the commitment or maturity to handle this important task for yourself and may even question your true motivations about attending that particular school. Make these calls yourself!

Once you have located your admissions rep, you need to communicate your continued interest with the admission office. This should be done by letter (an email is fine, too.) The purpose of you letter (or email) will be to:

– Emphasize your ongoing interest in this college. (If you will definitely enroll if admitted, be sure to say so clearly.)

– Explain why this college is a great match for you. Your reasons should be as specific as possible (“I have done research on the role of women in Mesopotamia and am eager to work with Professor Snurdley whose writing in this area is renowned") and not generic (“It is an excellent school, and I fell in love with the beautiful campus").

– Provide updates on what you have done since you sent your application. Ideally, this list would include significant achievements (“I won a national physics contest") but, more commonly, you've been too busy with academics and applications to say much more than, “I pulled up my Calculus grade from a B- to a B+"). Once you've communicated this list to your admission rep, you can follow up with additional updates when you have more news to report. Meanwhile, think about how you can generate such news. Apply for an internship, enter a contest, get a part-time job.

– You can also enlist the support of your guidance counselor.Ask him or her to telephone the college admission office to lobby on your behalf. Note, however, that admission folks are most interested in speaking to the guidance counselor when the counselor is able to add to the body of information already available in the application and not simply say, “Yep, we still support Priya in her quest to attend your school." However, this added information doesn't have to be breaking news (“Priya won the Nobel Peace Prize!"). It can simply be some small details about you that the original application didn't reveal (“Our guidance secretary mentioned yesterday that Priya is the only senior who actually sent her a thank-you note for all the help she provided last fall.")

– Finally, as a last-ditch option, you can always consider going for broke with a “gimmick." For instance, if your application touts your talents as a budding poet, perhaps it's time to write your “Homily to Haverford" or your “Ode to Occidental." Granted, gimmicks don't often work, and there's usually a huge element of luck involved if you try them because an effort that might delight one admission official could potentially irk another. But, especially when it comes to waitlisted candidates at the hyper-selective schools, where your chances aren't too hot to begin with, a carefully conceived outside-the-box approach might just be your very best shot.

– Regardless of what happens, be humble in victory and defeat. At some point, you will reach the end of your quest. For those who are deferred, the final word will come in late March or early April. For those on the waitlist, things are less specific. Sometimes, waitlisters can find out where they stand on the list, if the school ranks its list. You may be able at least to find out how many are on the list. Sometimes it's many hundreds. Obviously, if you choose to hang in there indefinitely on a waitlist, you're going to have to enroll somewhere else in the meantime. This can (happily)lead to the loss of an enrollment deposit if your waitlist marketing pays off.

In any event, you're eventually going to learn your fate. When you do, I suggest that you remember the lesson of the words emblazoned over the entrance to Wimbledon stadium's famous grass center court. They tell us to treat victory and defeat the same, as the imposters they are. What does that mean?

In the context of college admissions, it all goes back to what my mother used to tell me: things tend to work out for the best. Here's wishing “the best" for you!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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