May 3, 2016

No luck—what to do when the admissions well runs dry

It’s not an outcome anyone really wants to consider.  But every so often, a college applicant reaches the bottom of the admissions well with nothing positive to report.

The most chilling result is one in which there is total rejection or a series of rejections complemented by a handful of wait list offers, none of which seems very promising.   

Or possibly, the admitting colleges came with insufficient financial support, rendering them not feasible. 

And sometimes, the applicant has changed focus and simply doesn’t like the options as they currently stand.

After months of planning and anticipation, how could this happen?

Unfortunately, there are lots of possibilities. Even the most qualified and conscientious candidate could be a victim of rotten luck—a bad draw or stars out of alignment.  

Most likely, however, there is an explanation.

Often it’s a question of shooting too high—loading the college list with too many reaches or too many colleges in the ‘random’ category of predictability.  

There could be a fundamental problem with the application itself—an unengaging essay or too many typos seeded throughout a form dashed off at the last possible minute. 

Maybe individual application components were missing, incomplete or never submitted at all. Possibly supporting documents, like test score reports or transcripts, got lost in transmission or never got submitted in the first place.

Or perhaps one or more of the recommendations was less than stellar.  This, by the way, is the most difficult of all the scenarios to trace, as applicants almost never have access to what others have written.

So how does a student in this situation go forward?  Here are a few suggestions:

Get a second opinion
Before going much further, call in an expert to thoroughly review your application.   This can be a school counselor, an independent educational consultant (IEC), or someone working in a college admissions office.  Provide them with a sample of your completed application including personal statement, a copy of your transcript, and all standardized test scores—SAT, ACT, Subject Test, and AP. Ask for an unbiased review of your college list relative to your credentials, but more importantly ask if there are corrections or things you can do to improve the overall quality of the application itself.  This may mean rewriting your personal statement or revising sections of the application.  Be open to any suggestions.

Accept wait list offers
While not always predictable, wait lists are a lifeline you can’t afford to ignore.  Follow-up with letters underscoring your interest and updating admissions on any awards, achievements or accomplishments since the original application was submitted.  If permitted, have an additional recommendation sent or ask your school counselor to call on your behalf.  Try to revisit the campus, and if at all possible, meet with an admissions representative (local or on campus) to make your case in person.  This is not a time to passively wait for a decision.  Wage a campaign to the extent allowable and make a compelling case for your admission.  And if you can truthfully say it, tell everyone involved that “if admitted, you will definitely attend,” as this single college is your top pick among all the schools you are considering.  This is a one-time offer, by the way.  You can’t say it multiple times to multiple colleges.

Launch an appeal
Colleges make mistakes—but not often.  And they won’t always admit a mistake even if one has occurred.  That should not stop you, however, from looking into an appeal process.  Such appeals usually are only successful if you can show that something essential wasn’t considered or received with your application or that a misunderstanding occurred which affected the decision.  Even if an appeal process is not ordinarily available to applicants, it may be worth a phone call to obtain an explanation of why your application was denied.  You may find a reason to appeal, but it’s more likely you’ll simply get feedback which could be useful in improving applications you send in the future.  Note that this kind of call must be handled diplomatically and with a great deal of respect.  Venting will get you nowhere.

Submit additional applications
Once you’re convinced your application is in tip-top form, begin researching colleges with openings for fall 2016.  You’ll find literally hundreds opportunities on the Common Application, the Universal College Application, and the College Board websites.  Feel free to call admissions offices in which you might be interested to see if they would entertain an application from you, especially if deadlines have just recently passed.  The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annually publishes a list of colleges still accepting applications in early May.  You don’t have to wait.  In fact, a number of colleges have deadlines you can still meet.  Just make sure you arrange to send all required supporting documents and recommendations as necessary.

Research nontraditional or off-cycle admissions
Some colleges may have nontraditional admission options. For example, you might be able to enter college for the spring 2017 semester rather than starting in the fall. Or you could be admitted conditionally until you prove your ability to handle college work. Do your research and call admission offices of the colleges that interest you. Note that you can use both the Common Application and the Universal College Application to search specifically for colleges with spring admissions.

Consider the community college option
There are several different ways to approach community college.  First, you can consider it as a sort of ‘holding pattern’ by taking potentially transferable classes for credit for a semester or two while you regroup and restart the application process for January or fall 2017.  Or you can take advantage of various “articulation” agreements negotiated by community colleges which guarantee admission to 4-year programs once certain stipulations have been met.  Often this involves completing an associate’s degree within two years and meeting specific GPA and course requirements.  Note that this option has the potential of giving you a little time to rethink the process as well as saving some money.

Think about a gap year
Gap years offer wonderful opportunities to learn more about yourself and possibly do something constructive to enhance your admissibility to college.  Once you have established a plan with or without the support of an organized gap year “program,” take steps to put the application process back in gear.  Contact your school counselor and let the school know of your plans, so recommendations and transcripts will be readily available when the time comes.  You may need to track down teachers who wrote on your behalf and ask for their support a second time.  The process won’t be too different from the one you just went through, but the outcomes can be much more satisfying if you plan carefully and make the best use of your year. Don’t expect colleges that denied you once to necessarily change their minds.  It’s fine to reapply with the benefit of gap year experiences, but be sure to also open your list to new schools.

Apply for a post graduate year
For some students, a “post graduate year” (PG) at a boarding or independent school can be a means of improving credentials and the likelihood of admission to college.  Under this plan, the student essentially repeats the senior year of high school and restarts the college admissions process.  A year spent on academics and structured independence often results in a more prepared and mature college student, which college admissions offices tend to appreciate.  But this is an expensive option, and not feasible for everyone, although some financial aid may be available.

As you consider your options, remember this is only a temporary setback.  Stay positive, remain focused, and accept all the support available to you.  The worst possible outcome is to simply give up.  And that shouldn’t be an option. 

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