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Articles / Applying to College / A Smart Plan B - Part 1 of 3

A Smart Plan B - Part 1 of 3

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 17, 2015
For you high school seniors who have applied Early Action or Early Decision, your results will be arriving in about a month or sooner. When you play the high-stakes game of college admissions, especially at Ivy and “elite" schools, sometimes you may lose.

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. I'd like to take a multi-part look at rejections, deferrals, and wait lists and suggests ways to think about and deal with them. In other words, I'd like to give you some insights about creating a Plan B for your success.

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 cool. 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.

The great composer Beethoven, when faced with inevitable deafness and an onslaught of physical ills, clenched his fist and proclaimed, “I will seize Fate by the throat." And he did. He went on to tremendous accomplishments that endure (and will endure) throughout the history of music. I know, I know; you're not Beethoven. However, the message here for high schoolers considering the serious challenge of applying to highly selective colleges is that much of your likelihood for success lies not so much in winning a wrestling match with Fate as it does with creating a savvy plan.

Getting a rejection letter 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 a highly desired institution. Dealing with rejection is difficult. Most high schoolers tend to take being turned down by a college or university as a personal affront. 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 actual truth is that, in a lot of cases, some rejected students could have performed as well, if not better, at these colleges than those who were accepted. This isn't a rationalization or sour grapes. At schools where there are a significantly larger number of applications than seats (essentially those schools whose acceptance rate is 50% or less), there just isn't room for all the qualified applicants. This fact is borne out by the Wait List.

A wait list is a group of “in-betweeners" who haven't been rejected or 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 wait list is 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. 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 those schools forever. Don't view successful candidates at those schools 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 prepare to have a great higher education experience.

Yes, there is life after rejection, but how can you head off rejection at the pass?

Shakespeare said, “Know thyself." That's good advice in general and great advice for college applicants. Your college application strategy should begin with an honest appraisal of how you stack up as a competitive applicant. A frank assessment early on can save you much rejection grief down the road. How can you do this?

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. I see it all the time. When I do, I initiate the first step of my impending-disaster recovery program, which I refer to as a “stats evaluation." A stats evaluation is a kind of academic, extracurricular, and writing-skills cat scan that usually gets to the heart of the problem quickly.

Among other things, I ask students to tell me where they live, whether their school is public or private, and what grade they're in. I also ask for their current academic credentials: current GPA (weighted and unweighted), class rank, test scores (SATs [I and II] and ACT, if applicable), and their current course schedule. I want to know how many and which Advance Placement courses they've taken and what they scored in the AP tests.

As for extracurriculars, I examine what kinds of activities the student is involved in and the length and depth of their involvement. I also ask for similar information about their volunteer work. Honors are important, so I ask for a list of them along with any summer activity data, such as college programs, jobs, or whatever.

I also ('told you this was an in-depth examination), want to know what the student's college candidates are, the complete list of all schools s/he is considering for application along with any legacy connections the student may have at these schools.

The icing on the evaluation cake for me is the writing sample. I ask students to send me what they believe to be the best sample of their writing. This might be something they wrote for an English class or (hopefully) something they're planning to use as an application essay. It's interesting to note that there isn't always a positive correlation between the quality of a student's academic profile and his or her writing skill. That is, sometimes students who appear to be not all that outstanding from a sheer numbers standpoint can be amazing writers.

I also encourage questions and comments. Many times I'll learn that a student isn't all that sure why s/he has selected specific candidates. I'm often surprised to see a large apparent mismatch between a student's overall profile and his or her candidate list. This tells me that the student needs to be very careful in planning his or her application strategy.

Once I have all this data, I can evaluate the student's relative chances at his or her candidate colleges. If their list is way out of whack, I tell them so (nicely) and make sensible recommendations based on whatever preferences they have mentioned to me. My goal is to get them clearly focused on a properly balanced spread.

So then, if your overall profile compares favorably with those of admitted first-year students at your candidate colleges (this information is usually available on college Web sites), you'll know that you at least have a chance. As I mentioned 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 minimize rejections is to limit the number of schools from which you might be rejected. (Everyone say, “Duh!") That seems obvious, doesn't it? You'd be surprised how many seniors load up on low-percentage candidates. Notice that I said “minimize" rather than “eliminate" rejections. I believe that every senior should include some risk candidates (usually referred to as “reach" or “stretch" schools). The unpredictability of competitive admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in.

The classic spread consists of a handful of stretch candidates, some carefully considered “ballparks" (a.k.a. “target") schools, and a — once again, carefully chosen — safety or two. How, then, should you think about spreading your candidates for maximum effect?

I like to see a minimum of five-to-six colleges on a candidate list — two reaches, maybe three or four ballparks, and a safety or two. Your list should not be HYPSM plus your local state university. That's just irresponsible and foolhardy planning.


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:

Let's assume that your candidate list looks something like this:

– First-choice early apply candidate: Swarthmore College

– Other reaches: Williams, Trinity, and Haverford

– Ballpark candidates: Bard, Bucknell, and Lafayette,

– Safeties: Dennison University and home-state university's main campus

Become familiar with your remaining candidate schools' applications as soon as possible. The advantage you gain from having all the application requirements in front of you is conservation of energy, especially when it comes to essays. Since Swarthmore is your early first-choice school, look at the supplemental essay(s) you'll be required to generate for their application. You may encounter something along the lines of “Tell us something about yourself that we can't learn from the other parts of your application" (or something similar).

There may also be some shorter questions asking for specific information such as what is it about Swarthmore that motivated you to apply. These types of specific-information questions usually require original answers and don't lend themselves to recycling. Be careful. If you try to adapt college-specific statements to other applications, you can commit application suicide. More than a few carelessly lazy applicants have cut and pasted their way to the reject pile. Imagine the terrific impression you'll make on the Trinity admission officer who reads your response that begins, “When I first started my college search, I was looking for a school that had an ideal combination of small class size, senior faculty teaching first-year courses, and modern campus resources. Swarthmore offers all of those and more . . ." Just be careful, okay?

It's conceivable that you might be able to get away with writing just one (or two) major supplemental essay(s) that can generally satisfy the prompts of most of your applications. This is especially likely if your early application school has a general supplementary essay prompt, such as the “tell us something" approach mentioned above. If you're not quite that fortunate, at least you'll be able to minimize your essay production by not having to move through your applications one at a time. The “group-think" strategy pays handsome time dividends …


Next time in Part 2, among other important aspects, I'll continue my Plan B discussion with how to brief your recommendation writers on your Plan B plans, so to speak. Stay tuned …


Be sure to see my other college-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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