Dec. 1, 2020
Sending in your college application is like piloting an airplane after takeoff. You have to make sure that everything is in good order and running smoothly after all your carefully prepared hard work takes flight in January.
You may have already applied Regular Decision (RD), even though most RD deadlines don't fall until January. Some are even later. Regardless, it's now December and the college application clock is ticking. Some of you may have applied Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) last month. Others of you will be applying this month, anticipating the January 1 deadlines or even after the first of the year for those post-January RD deadlines.
Whatever your plan is, you'll need to review some last-minute items to make sure that your applications and associated requirements are fully satisfied. This will help ensure that the culmination of your college process is as complete and successful as possible. So how do you accomplish all this?
Most of you have been working hard to finish your applications, but once you hit that "Submit" button, your work is not entirely over. It seems as though every other spring or so I hear about a student who received no response from a college because his or her application never showed up.
In most of these unfortunate cases, the problem can be traced to a combination of human and technological error. Electronic (and even paper) files can be misplaced and end up lost. In the case of electronic files, networks can go down, hard drives can fail, and people can unwittingly delete them. How many of us are really careful enough to back up our files?
Thus, we tend to put blind trust in our hopes that everything will work right: The internet will deliver our electronic applications on time, correctly and completely, and the post office will drop off any needed paperwork in the proper mailbox. It doesn't always work out that well, though. So, remember:
It is your responsibility to make sure that all your application materials get through unscathed.
Be patient. Wait about two weeks after you submit your application. During that time, you may receive notification from the college that your application is complete or that there are still materials missing. This notification might come via email, postcard or over the college's web portal. If you don't hear anything one way or the other, you should call the admission office(s) to confirm that all is well with your application. This is crucial confirmation.
Make that call. If you have to call to speak to someone in admissions and they tell you that your application is not complete, don't freak. This happens a lot. It can take admission personnel a long time to process all the materials that come in during this busy time of year. If you find out that materials are missing and you're certain that you did send them, then wait a few days and call back. If the materials are still missing, you'll have to replace them, unless admissions tells you that there is still a lot of filing going on and you should wait a bit longer. Even if the deadline has already passed, you will not be penalized, as long as you act promptly.
Confirm financial aid details. Sometimes admissions can also tell you if your financial aid forms have arrived safely along with your application, but many times they can't. If not, you may have to make a separate call to the financial aid office and go through a similar follow-up process.
Be vigilant. Although materials are not often lost, the mountains of paperwork and electronic files that pour into admission offices each year can result in mishaps. Because of that, it's important to stay on top of everything associated with your applications to make sure that you don't get the ultimate bad news next spring, when some college says, "Your application was incomplete and never processed," or worse, "We've never heard of you!"
Note holidays and shutdowns. Most colleges shut down entirely over the end-of-year holidays. Of course now, during the pandemic, there may also be reduced staffing even during regular hours that can slow application processing. This means that you may not be able to get the quick confirmations you need. Materials that arrive in admission offices just before break may not get processed until the middle of January. Keep vacation periods in mind as you try to track down your applications.
Recapping: Two key points to remember:
1. Follow up to make sure that all your materials have arrived.
2. Don't panic if, at first, everything isn't there. That happens frequently.
In some cases, an update letter can help your cause. Although update letters are essential for applicants deferred during ED or EA, they can also be a good idea for anyone who has new information to report since submitting an RD application.
However, don't write an update letter if you have to reach or embellish reality to come up with worthwhile news. Admission officers can spot a mountain made out of a molehill a mile away. Send an update only if you have a significant accomplishment or activities to report. Sending no update is better than sending a "molehill" update.
If one college on your list is clearly your top choice and you will definitely enroll if admitted — assuming that the aid you receive is affordable — tell them so. It's okay to write a brief update that emphasizes your commitment to attend. This is an important factor during our current pandemic period, when colleges are heavily focused on enrollment goals.
Nationally, due to the multiple effects and uncertainties of the COVID-19 virus on college academics and accommodations (in-person vs. virtual classes, housing, limited student body sizes, etc.), enrollment percentages are trending downward compared to previous years. Therefore, if you're a qualified applicant and reinforce your passion to enroll, you can possibly enhance your admissions chances.
If you do decide to send out updates, you should have them in the mail by mid-February. I usually recommend sending these letters by snail-mail, but if you have established a relationship with the admissions representative who oversees applicants from your high school (commonly referred to as a "regional rep"), then it's fine to send the update by email.
During "normal" times, you have until May 1 to inform most colleges of your final choice. Again, though, the coronavirus may dictate variances from this traditional response date. Once you decide where you will enroll, don't wait to reply even a day past the May 1 (or revised) deadline. You could lose out on your acceptance and financial aid. Plus, if you are admitted to a top-choice college but the financial aid you receive is not enough to allow you to enroll, it is definitely possible to appeal aid awards, although not all appeals are successful.
If you are on a waitlist at a top-choice college and haven't heard by May 1, or if you are in the process of appealing a financial aid offer at a top-choice college that you can't afford to attend unless the appeal is successful, you must accept another offer by the enrollment deadline. In this case, if you do eventually end up at the top-choice college, be prepared to lose the alternate deposit (usually several hundred dollars) that you made elsewhere.
As a common (in my view, required) courtesy, if you are certain that you won't attend a college that has admitted you, it is important to notify that school immediately so that they can give your spot to someone else. This is especially important if they have offered you a scholarship that some other student might badly need. However, don't be too hasty to say no to any admission or scholarship offer until you're absolutely positive that you won't need it. Before you turn it down, be sure that there are other colleges that have said "Yes!" to you and have definitely offered enough money to allow you to enroll.
Overall, then, all of the above may seem overly obsessive, but consider the Big Picture of college admissions these days, as well as what's going on in our pandemic-stricken world. Things are at various levels of upheaval, making college admissions, what was in past years an angst-inducing process, now a much more anxiety-ridden affair. That's why applicants need to be extra detail-oriented and strategically end-game minded.
Being an optimist by nature, I have five enthusiastic words of final advice for all applicants this year: Cheer up and follow up!
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