Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Deposits, Deferrals, Waitlists, and Your Second First Choice

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A first occurred last week, when I had two columns in a row that solicited reader comments with recommendations for future columns. I’m happy to oblige. 

An Early Yes With Required Deposit One reader provided feedback on the column about colleges wanting students to commit to coming before they’ve heard from all their schools. The response, in a nutshell, was that the column was short sighted and written from a privileged point of view, because I was assuming the student could afford to pay an enrollment deposit when saying yes early. 

Dear reader—no. The question addressed by that column was “If a college wants an early yes, what do you do?” The different question you wanted addressed was “If a college wants an early yes and a deposit, what do you do?” In that case, try this:

  • Is it refundable? If the college really has the temerity to ask for an early deposit, ask if the deposit is refundable, and if so, is there a deadline where it becomes nonrefundable. They may not provide this information willingly. Persist. 
  • Request a waiver If you need a fee waiver for any college deposit, ask. Since your financial aid forms will back you up, it’s going to be really hard for them to say no. 

If you have the funds to make the deposit, but simply don’t want to, your best bet is to tell the truth. “I’m really not in a position right now where I can pay an enrollment deposit. If there’s any way you can give me an extension on the deposit of 90 days, I’d really appreciate it.” This is nicer than saying “forget it”, so there’s a chance they’ll say yes. 

  • Is it time to be brave? If they say no to the waiver, it’s time to choose. This could be a sign they’re going to be inflexible with other issues in the future. Are you willing to deal with that for four years? 

Either way, another viable option is to simply say Yes to the offer and not send in the deposit. It’s likely this will lead to a series of letters from them that remind you about the deposit, a series of letters that gives you more time to hear from other schools.  Warning—this could also lead to your being kicked off the admit list without them telling you, so if you choose this option, you’re rolling the dice. Talk to your counselor before you make this move.

Waitlists and deferrals Another reader liked the column on how to deal with colleges saying no, and asked about handling waitlists and deferrals.

This should help with deferrals, and even though it’s a little old, it’s still sound advice, as long as it’s a sincere deferral. The same advice holds for waitlists.

The problem is the changing nature of deferrals and waitlists. Both have become ways of issuing a polite no—at least some colleges see it that way. If you aren’t sure, call the college and ask two basic questions: 

“How many students did you defer (waitlist) last year?” 

“How many on that list were ultimately accepted?” 

Each year is different, and you may have a special quality that increases your chances of getting off the list, so keep that in mind. At the same time, if a college has a list of 3000 names and admits 5 off that list, it’s time to assume you’ll be learning somewhere else. Keep pushing at your first choice, but start thinking about your second first choice. It’s the wise thing to do.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

College Admission and the Best in Class

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselor chat rooms are already filling up with comments from colleagues who are in a state of disbelief.

“I can’t believe they didn’t take him. He’s the best kid this school has seen in five years!”

“She took 14 AP classes and three at the local community college.”

“What else did they want her to do. Walk on water?”

Before things get really intense in the weeks to come, it’s time to keep a few things in mind.

Only so many How many best-in-the state oboe players are there in the United States?

Right. Each state has one, and only one, and while there isn’t a competition in any state to earn the title of Best Of, you get the idea.

Given that, let’s try Question 2.

Of those 50, how many is Juilliard likely to admit? How about Curtis? How about Eastman?

I don’t have the inside information from any of these fine music programs, but no matter how good any and all those oboists are, these premier programs will say no to many of them—likely as many as 40 of the 50, if not more.

As it goes with oboists, so it goes with students in general. Well-known colleges run out of room well before they run out of highly capable students. They’re still smart, well accomplished, and going to knock the socks out of their college experience. But not all of them can be admitted, and so choices have to be made.

More applicants than ever Regular readers of this column know I cringe when papers print the two stories they always print this time of year:

“Fancy School U Reports Record Number of Applicants”

“Fancy School U Admit Rate Reaches All Time Low”

This is one story, not two. Fancy School U isn’t likely to take more students, and if they do, it likely won’t be enough to offset the impact several hundred applications will have on admit rates. But our friends in the media are counting on America’s extreme dyscalculia to provide not one, but two opportunities to throw our hands up and declare college admissions to be a biased system.

In some ways it is, but not with the admit rate. This isn’t inside politics. It’s math, and it means it is harder than ever for even your best student to get admitted.

“But they did everything” They took all the hardest classes, aced the tests, spent summers in interesting ways, contributed to meaningful service programs, wrote amazing essays by themselves, and even got the teacher who is generally unimpressed to write a passionate letter. What more, you ask, could they have done?

The answer here is nothing. Assuming the application conveyed that the student was actually engaged in life and learning, the student did exactly what they were supposed to do, as did most of the other applicants. There may have been too many Neuroscience applicants, or they needed more applicants from Massachusetts, or they decided to revive the field hockey team. You didn’t know that. The student didn’t know that. Sometimes, the college doesn’t even know that until after the application deadline. So there is no second guessing.

It isn’t easy to accept a No you were convinced was a sure Yes—and if you feel that way, imagine how the student feels. Keeping these points in mind helps you move the student to the next phase, where they find the best home among their great Yes schools—and in the process, moves you to that next phase as well.

How lucky your students are to have you lead by example.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

“We’ll Take You—Right Now”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The student was unsure what to do. One of the colleges she applied to notified her she had been admitted. After offering their congratulations, the college then told the student that, since the program she had applied to had only so many slots, she had to tell them if she was accepting the offer by March 10th—about 15 days later.

The challenge here is that the student hadn’t heard from all the colleges she applied to, and while this program had a lot to offer, she wasn’t certain this was the best choice for her, and she wasn’t sure if this was the only choice for her. To her way of thinking, this put her in a tough spot. If she says she’s coming, and she gets more offers later on, she could later be perceived to be a liar—and who wants to live with that? If she says no, she risks losing a seat at a good program that may not be perfect, but has a lot to offer. If only she had more time.

The good news, dear student, is that you do have more time, if you will do just one thing—tell the college you’re coming. While most colleges give you until May 1st to make a fully-informed decision (it used to be that all colleges were *required* to give students this long to decide), some believe they need to know sooner. This often happens with arts programs, so drama programs can make sure they don’t enroll too many playwrights and not enough thespians, or music programs can make sure they don’t get too many bassoonists.

If you have any feeling you’ll be lying to the college by saying yes, reconsider what they’re asking. They want your answer today—so, based on how you feel today, and based on the colleges you’ve been admitted to as of today, is this the place you’d pick? If the answer is yes, tell them that. If the answer is no, telling them early really isn’t an issue. If the answer is you don’t know, you’re thinking too much about what you’ll know in the future. Based on Right. Now. Would you go there? If yes, you’re being honest in telling them yes, and in saving your spot.

But, you say, what if you change your mind once you hear back from other programs?

I know a counselor—let’s call him Pat—who got a call from his wife, asking what he wanted for dinner. His wife was a great cook, so he suggested a dish she loved to make. Three hours later, Pat’s brother called to say he got a promotion he wasn’t expecting, and could he and his wife join him for dinner to celebrate. They did, and a good time was had by all.

In other words, time went on, new information was available, and they changed their mind. That’s not lying. That’s life.

Any college that wants you to make an informed choice before you have the chance to get all the information should either tell you that when you first apply (like Early Decision programs do) or expect to get a lot of students who say yes to an offer, and never come. Colleges that don’t do that, but still want a rushed decision, are forgetting their real mission—to serve the students. Search your heart, give them an honest answer based on what you know today, and look forward to reconsidering that answer if you get more information tomorrow. This is how the world works, and it’s more than OK.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Colleges—About Those Rejection Letters

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I offered my condolences to the father of a student turned down by their dream school. The father seemed to be taking the news in a calm, but disappointed, manner.


But his goodwill had its limits, which was clear when he talked about the letter his child had received. “The second half of this letter is absolute nonsense” he said. “It says, ‘You have a great deal to offer as a student, and we know your future will be bright.’ What is that all about? If he has so much to offer, then why didn’t they take him?”


Rejection letters are tricky things, to be sure, and it’s wise for colleges to offer as much support as possible when communicating a no. At the same time, these letters need to consider the cognitive domain of the reader as well as the affective domain. If all you have to offer is a hug after just saying no, that’s not going to confuse everyone—it’s going to anger them, which is what the colleges wanted to avoid in the first place.


What would have helped this rejection letter? Well:


Data Once a student is told they weren’t admitted, it’s pretty reasonable they’d like to know why. This is where a few basic numbers can be a college’s best friend. “We saw an increase of 14% in our applicant pool over last year, which meant we had to turn down many students who would have otherwise been admitted.” “The average high school GPA of our admitted students this year was a 3.7, a significant increase over past years.” Anything along these lines gives the student some idea as to where they stood, and why they landed where they did.


Institutional priorities Every college has its own quirks in the admissions decisions each year, and they aren’t always the same. A lack of engineering applicants increases the chances that students who wanted engineering are more likely to be admitted, while an increase in History majors means a smaller percentage of them are going to get a Yes. Some of these priorities are established at the start of the year, while others are shaped by the applicant pool. Either way, it’s not unreasonable to share them with applicants whose hopes have been dashed, since it provides context.


Encouragement to apply again This year’s applicant pool may be record setting, but that may not be the case next year. Following up a little bit of data with the suggestion they consider applying again, either as an incoming freshman or a transfer student, drives home the idea that the college really did think the student had possibilities. And with a big drop in high school seniors coming up, it’s not a bad idea to build next year’s applicant pool now.


That said, there is one thing that should never go into a rejection letter. Suggesting that the student wasn’t admitted because the college sensed the student didn’t align with the college’s mission or values statement is nothing short of insulting. Sure, oboe majors shouldn’t apply to engineering school. On the other hand, saying a student isn’t admissible because of some philosophical divergence is pretty cheeky. Would this student really not have been accepted if the applicant pool had dropped by 20 percent?


It’s commendable that colleges want to support students when they hear bad news, but support suggests a framework that lifts them up, not one that leaves them with more questions, or hurt feelings. Keeping it real is the key to an effective No letter, and the best way to respect a student’s intelligence.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Why We Do What We Do

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

He walked into my office with his head down, eyes glued to the floor, and shuffling his feet like his shoes were tied together. My best “Hi, how ya doin’?” registered just the smallest of smiles on his face, as he made his way to a chair in my office. It was just early October, so I wondered what this lad would be looking like by February.


He got right to business once he sat down. “I applied to my first-choice college three weeks ago, and I haven’t heard anything” he said. “I was wondering if you might be able to tell me if they’ve told you anything.”


I explained that colleges almost always tell the student first, but since he was here, we could certainly call the admissions office together and see where things were. With that, his face brightened significantly.


Younger readers may want to read this next section carefully, since you can’t do any of the things today that I’m about to describe. In this order, I: 

  • Picked up my office phone, and dialed it. Yes—dialed it.
  • Called the office of admissions, and spoke with the real, live receptionist who answered the phone on the second ring. No pressing 1 for admissions, 2 for financial aid, and so on.
  • Explained the purpose of my call to the receptionist, who then said “Oh, sure.” Not “I have to connect you with an admissions officer.” Looking up admissions statuses was right in the wheelhouse of receptionists.
  • When asked by the receptionist, I supplied the student’s Social Security Number, which the student gave me when I asked them.
  • Waited patiently as the receptionist confirmed the student’s name, then, en route to another computer screen, said to me “Oh my, with those grades and scores, we’d better have taken them.”
  • Thanked the receptionist for confirming the student had been admitted, and she advised me to tell the student their letter would be in the mail soon.

Given what I knew about the student and their first-choice college, I could have predicted the student would be admitted. That, and my enormous counseling caseload, may explain why I rather nonchalantly said “Congratulations, you’re admitted” as I focused my attention on making a note of the decision in their file, rather than looking at the student.


He got my attention rather immediately, when I heard what I could have sworn was crying. “Really?” I heard him say, as I finished my note. Now that he had my attention, I took a long view of him, and realized what was going on. The first student in his family was going to college, and that news was eliciting a compelling mix of happiness, tears, wonder, and uncertainty. We just sat there for a moment, to let the moment have its proper due.


I never put paperwork ahead of students again. What I saw as a sure thing that was no big deal was certainly a big deal to them—which meant it should be a big deal to me. It has been ever since.


Time marched on, and May came around, with an invitation to a graduation party. Except it wasn’t for that student, and it wasn’t that May. It was about 28 Mays later, and it was for that student’s oldest daughter, who was now going to be the second generation in her family to go to college. I hadn’t done a thing to help them go to college. Apparently, their father felt otherwise.


Same student, new lesson. Lucky me.