Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Early “Admission” Letters Contribute to March Madness

By: Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s just about a month to go before many colleges send out their admissions decisions.  Ordinarily, this is a time when students focus on their studies, the end of basketball season, or the start of Spring Break.

But this is far from a normal winter—it is a time full of distractions.  Students are keeping their eyes to the skies, hoping for one last snow day, teachers are keeping an eye on Wisconsin, and seniors are already watching their mailboxes, since some unexpected college mail is already on its way.

The letters that are coming are called “courtesy letters” or “heads up” letters, and more colleges are sending them than ever before.  The heads up letter doesn’t offer admission—let’s be clear about that, since not too much else is clear when it comes to heads up letters.  Instead, the letter lets the students know things are looking good, and usually sounds something like this:

“After reviewing your application, we wanted to let you know how happy we are you are considering our college.  Since we are sending out offers of admission April 1st, we cannot offer you admission at this time, but we very much look forward to communicating with you at that time, and have every reason to believe you should look forward to us communicating with you as well.”

If this sounds like a curious mix of Lewis Carroll, binary code, and a State of the Union address, then the letter has served its exact purpose.  Colleges know that the sooner a student hears good news from them, the greater the chance the student will enroll there. Given the increase in college applications this year, if a college has read an application and really likes what they see, they really, really want the student to be there in the fall—that’s why they send out a heads-up letter. 

So why not just tell the student they are admitted?  Think about everyone else who applied, students who are highly qualified, but not at the very top of a very qualified group of students.  It’s going to take more time to review the rest of a very talented applicant pool, and if a college starts sending out admission letters now, every applicant will be calling the college—or worse yet, asking school counselors to call the college—which will make the application review process even more longer and stressful. 

If you think heads-up letters makes the college selection process more messy, you’re right.  One of my students came in with one of these letters, and I had no idea what it said.  This student made such an impression as a Presidential scholar, they almost offered him the President’s job instead of the President’s congratulations—but for as bright as he was, and for as long as I’ve been a college counselor, neither one of us had any idea what this letter meant, until I called the college.

Now that I made the call, you don’t have to.  If one of your students  comes in with a heads-up letter, let them know things are looking good but tell them to be careful who they share the news with.  Parents can be convinced it means the student is admitted, and other students can be convinced it means they *aren’t* admitted, and the letter doesn’t say either of those things.  So be prepared to do some explaining (and to make a lot of copies of this column), and encourage them to  be happy keeping the news to themselves, letting it germinate into a fully-bloomed ebullience others can share come springtime.

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