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Articles / Applying to College / Good News, Bad News, and Purgatory

Good News, Bad News, and Purgatory

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 27, 2014
Many colleges are releasing their admission decisions early this year for the Class of 2018. When I type a date like that, I'm amazed at how fast the years have flown by. For those of you high school seniors who submitted your applications in late December or early January for Regular Decision (or even early November for Early Decision or Early Action), the last several months have dragged on, rather than flown by. Well, now it's “go time," as they say. Your decisions will be forthcoming any time now. These days, you'll most likely be looking excitedly (perhaps with dreadful anticipation) at your computer screen for your admission results. The big question is: How should you deal with them?

When you play the high-stakes game of competitive college admissions, sometimes you may lose. The competition is tougher than ever and getting worse every year. Yes, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get rained out and postponed. Rejection comes with the territory. It can hurt badly. The good news, though, is that things seem to tend toward working out for the best … most of the time.

My experience has shown me one thing for sure: There are no sure things. Much of life is a series of carefully, and sometimes not so carefully, considered ventures. Quick-and-dirty folk wisdom tells us to “Do our best and good things will happen." Sure, that's neat. Many of us, though, suffer an excess of after-the-fact self-criticism. “If only I had done [this] or [that], things would have been different." Those are words of torment. We can second-guess ourselves until the Mother Ship arrives, but it won't change reality.

Maybe worse than being denied admission outright from Early Action or Early Decision is being deferred. 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.

So, then, what's a non-admitted applicant to do? Here's some advice from my keyboard to your brain:

I wrote an article on College Confidential about this very situation that bears repeating this time of year. It's called Denials, Deferrals, and Waitlists: A Plan B for Success. Here are a few excerpts:

So, You Got a College Rejection Letter? Don't Feel Dejected

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. 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 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 denied students could have performed as well, if not better, at these colleges than those who were accepted could. This isn't a rationalization or sour grapes. At schools where there is a significantly larger number of applications than seats (essentially those schools whose acceptance rates are 50% or less), there just isn't room for all the qualified applicants. This fact is borne out by the so-called Waitlist. A waitlist comprises a group of “in-betweeners" who haven't been denied but haven't been admitted. They will be offered admission if the number of enrollments doesn't meet expectations for the incoming freshman class. One well-known dean of admission said that his institution receives so many outstanding applications that he doesn't have the heart to send rejection letters to all the non-accepted applicants. He noted that placing these fine young men and women on the waitlist is his way of saying, “We should have admitted you, but we didn't have room." . . .

“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 . . .

Your Eight-Point Self-Marketing Plan

Okay, so what's this great self-marketing plan? 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.

#1 – Find out the name of the person who has authority over your application. 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 . . .

. . . #8 – Be humble in victory and defeat. Finally, 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? Well, in the context of college admissions, it all goes back to what I said at the top of this article-in general, things tend to work out for the best . . .


If you find yourself in any of these circumstances, a full read of my article may be helpful. In any case, best wishes on your college quest!


Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews 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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