Getting To Yes: One Mother’s College Admissions Saga

Receiving a letter that informs your child that he or she has been deferred or placed on the waiting list at a college feels very much like a hard punch in the stomach. This is especially true when your child has applied to a clear first choice in the highly competitive Early Decision (ED) round and has received this disappointing news in December — in an ironic move by the colleges, generally right around the holidays. Your child now has to pick him/herself up off the floor and immediately send off another round of applications to colleges, all the while knowing that your family is in purgatory until (ironically, again) the spring holiday season.

In our case, we were college veterans. We had been through the ED round before, with a son who applied ED to a “safety” school (I have since concluded that nothing is truly “safe” in this wild game.), was accepted with merit aid and never filed another application. With our daughter, though, we began the search in the junior year of high school. Thinking that we were so organized and so on top of the game, we were shocked to still be looking at colleges in January of her senior year!

Our daughter knew very early what her first-choice college would be, and she completed her ED application and had it in weeks before the November 15 deadline. The school in question is a so-called “elite” college — a women’s school affiliated with an Ivy League university in a major city. (A few subtle hints there!) Her “stats” were right in line with the school’s student profile. Her “recs” and “ECs” were great. (A side note: I have learned an entire new vocabulary in the last three months!) She is a talented All-State musician as well. All of us expected an acceptance in mid-December. However, we tried to also mentally prepare for a possible rejection. The concept of deferral and three more months of uncertainty never entered our minds.

A nutshell chronology: On December 17 our daughter was devastated with that very unexpected deferral. On March 28, however, a date that will forever be special to all of us, her deferral letter was replaced by that agonizingly long-awaited acceptance. On April 1 her dad and I received a letter from the president of the college congratulating us on raising a fine daughter and hoping that she would be joining the first year class this fall.

How did we turn this around? I’d like to list here the steps that my daughter followed to get her “Yes!” I’m doing this in the hope that this information will help students who are currently on a wait list, and for next year’s crop of students who will inevitably be deferred. If you’re currently in or end up being in one of those groups, do these things:

1. Read the deferral or waitlist letter very carefully. There may well be some hints as to what you can do to strengthen your application. Our daughter’s letter suggested that students should send additional recommendations, writing samples, or write a letter to the admissions committee. My daughter did all these things over the course of two and a half months.

2. Make a phone call. I think it is imperative that the student do this rather than relying on the parent. My daughter was in tears and didn’t know if she could do it, but she left a voicemail message for her area admissions representative who called back promptly. I shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation and observed that my daughter began to smile within a few minutes.

3. Involve high school personnel — guidance counselor, college counselor (our school doesn’t have such a thing), or whatever. My daughter’s GC is overworked; it’s a fairly big public high school with a small guidance staff. Our guidance office also pushes the state university system. The GC wasn’t very familiar with my daughter’s college choice, but she instantly made a phone call on my daughter’s behalf, which was her suggestion, and was able to discern that my daughter was near the top of the deferred pile (a crucial clue).

4. If you have a special talent, use it! Since my daughter is a musician, and I am not aware of too many schools recruiting for orchestra members, she took it upon herself to become known to the music community at her chosen college. She contacted a teacher of her instrument, took a lesson and asked the orchestra conductor to listen to her play. Fortunately, our proximity to the college allowed for this. If you can’t do this, make a quality tape and send it. Send a video, a portfolio, or whatever. The professor and conductor were both very impressed with my daughter and made phone calls to admissions on her behalf. This certainly helped.

5. Contact Dave Berry at College Confidential. I did so by first sending him a draft of the “appeal” letter that my daughter wrote to her college to begin making her case for admission. He responded almost immediately with an enthusiastic e-mail praising the letter and making a few additional suggestions. Dave never let more than a few hours go by without responding to our e-mails. He calmed me down when I became frantic (no small feat), held my hand long distance, and was truly thrilled when my daughter’s acceptance finally came through.

My daughter got into college on her own. Dave did not do it for her (he isn’t superman, after all!). The accomplishment is hers alone. But Dave was there as an impartial filter for all of her ideas and offered constant positive feedback along the way, such as telling my daughter that her writing sample was outstanding when none of us was really sure. My daughter ended up applying to seven colleges. So far, as of this date, she has five acceptances, one rejection, and is still waiting to hear from the one Ivy to which she applied.

Finally, recognize that you have very little control here, and very little say about what is happening in the admissions decision process. Colleges will choose the students they want to assemble the class they want. However, our daughter embarked on this process with our full support. We will never know whether it was one of the letters she sent, that additional recommendation, the paper she sent from the college course she is currently taking, or the phone calls from the music department (or none of the above) that did the trick. Likewise, we will never know if she would have been admitted without doing any of the above. None of that speculation matters now, though. She is looking only to the future. The past three months were agonizing at times and that last week seemed to last longer than the previous year. It’s over now, though, and we are very proud of our daughter. Here’s hoping a successful journey for you, on your way to “Yes!”