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Articles / Applying to College / High School Seniors at High Noon
Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 17, 2015

High School Seniors at High Noon

It’s that time again. It’s time for college admission decisions to be delivered.

If you are a high school senior who has yet to received your decision from your first-choice college, you may feel a tension in your stomach that you’ve never experienced before. Your choice about what to do with college can be influenced by a number of difficult circumstances.

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 grey (not to capitalize on the popularity of a current and controversial motion picture).

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 rejected … 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 a long, agonizing process.

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 Web sites. When you come face to face with the reality of rejection, 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) — 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 rejection (sometimes more euphemistically referred to as 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 rejection 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 further from the truth.

The truth is that often some rejected (denied) students could have done as well as those admitted applicants. 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 rejected, 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 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 around $30,000. 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 High Noon for you!


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