These past few weeks students have had their mailboxes inundated with news: some good, some bad. Acceptances, rejections, waitlists. One of our students even received a birthday card from a school she’d been accepted to. After all this time chasing something, it can be hard to know what to do once you’ve got it. Unless you have a clear top choice (and sometimes even if you do have one), you will be faced with a daunting decision. This post is meant to break down the ways you should think about that choice depending on your situation.
Situation One: You got into multiple schools and are excited about more than one of them
Congratulations on getting into multiple schools! Even if the choice ahead of you feels impossible to make, this is really the best situation you can be in. Here are some of the most important things you can do:
Visit. This can be challenging for a lot of students, especially with so little time before decision deadlines, but it’s critically important to visit these campuses, even if you’ve already seen them. Visiting as an admitted student is an entirely different experience from visiting as an applicant. The question is no longer “is this a school I could see myself going to?” The question is “how do I feel about this place being my home for four years?” That’s the key concept here: home. During my college search, I visited over 20 schools, and of those there were only 4 campuses where I really felt I belonged.
So how do you figure this out in so little time? For starters, you want to do more than just the official campus visit. Though informative, the campus tour and info sessions are nothing more than showboating. They don’t give you a real sense of a school. To get that, you need to be a student for a day. Here’s what that involves:
- If you can, spend the night in a dorm. Some colleges offer official programs (Cornell, for instance, has the Red Carpet Ambassadors program. UC Berkeley has the Overnight Stay Program). If you can’t stay in a dorm, try to stay in a hotel or inn on campus or as close to campus as possible. When my brother was deciding on colleges, he thought he’d be attending one school — but after an overnight visit in the dorm he realized that it would have been the wrong place for him.
- Attend a class. Most colleges offer an official way for high schoolers to sit in on a class. If they don’t, reach out to professors you might be interested in studying with to ask if you can observe their class during your visit and some will be amenable to letting you join (particularly if it’s a larger lecture).
- Eat in a dining hall. While quality of food is obviously important to some students, the real reason to eat in a dining hall is to watch students interact with each other. Are a lot of them sitting alone? Do students intermingle? Could you see yourself eating there every day?
- Talk to students and professors. This is perhaps the most important thing on this list. The best way to get a sense of what your experience at a college could be like is to understand how others’ experiences have been. Often schools will pair accepted students with a student “guide.” Reach out to them. Set up a time to talk on the phone before you visit the school. Once you do visit, see if they’ll give you a private “insider’s tour.” Meanwhile, network with professors. Learn about their classes and their program at the school, and most importantly, see if they are someone you’d be able to learn from. Professors can also be valuable in suggesting students in their department for you to speak with.
If you can’t visit for one reason or another, still plan to talk to students and professors — you’ll just have to be more active in your networking and internet research. In addition, you can call the admissions office with specific questions you have. They might point you to a blog or a repository for online classes or other resources you wouldn’t find on your own. Additionally, some schools even have flyout funds in order to bring prospective students to campus for a visit (though these are usually reserved for students with monetary challenges).
Look at the right numbers. For starters, don’t look at rankings. They are only one way to get a sense of a school. We have students who are deciding between top 5 schools and top 10 schools. In reality, the difference between those numbers is negligible. Figure out the numbers that are important to you and compare those. What’s the student:professor ratio? The number of international students on campus? What percent of undergraduates participate in Greek life? How much does it cost to attend? A student of ours is deciding between two top schools, one with an 18:1 student: faculty ratio and another with an 8:1 ratio. For me, that number was hugely important; by my graduation I could list 10 professors I would have been comfortable asking for graduate school recommendations. Be sure you know which numbers are most vital to you. The Princeton Review can also be a valuable resource for getting a sense of the atmosphere of different schools. They compile rankings of student life topics such as “Best Food” and “Happiest Students,” which are sourced directly from student surveys. I know someone who made their school decision entirely based on campus food (Cornell is consistently ranked in the top 10). As with any ranking, take these with a grain of salt, but they can be a useful starting point for your research.
Situation Two: You’re not happy about your choices
Ideally, a good college list will prevent you from being in this situation. When I looked at colleges, one of my favorite schools was a safety. The reason you have safeties in the first place is in case things don’t go your way, which grows more likely every year in this ultra-competitive environment. But, sometimes we change our minds, or finally visit (or revisit) the schools on our lists and find that they’re not what we expected.
Regardless, if you’re unhappy with the schools you got into, you have several options:
Go where you got in anyway (and possibly transfer)
The first and most obvious choice is to go wherever you got in. I have friends who went to safeties with a plan to transfer out, but found themselves loving the school in the end. If you go and you don’t love it, you can always transfer. If you do, keep in mind that making the best use of your time will be critically important. Unless you’re truly miserable, you may be better off transferring as a sophomore since it will give you proper time to decide whether the school is wrong for you and to foster relationships with professors (who could then serve as recommenders). Transferring tends to be more difficult than applying as a freshman, but it’s not impossible, particularly if you’re able to stand out as a student leader by developing a Spike during your freshman or sophomore year. Most schools set aside spaces each year for transfers. I had at least five friends at Cornell who transferred in from lower ranked schools. Look at each college’s statistics to see what your chances are.
Take a gap year
Alternatively, our first choice for students dissatisfied with their options is to take a gap year. Doing so offers a great opportunity to turn what may initially feel like an awful situation into a positive. A gap year should not just be about reapplying: your chances of getting in aren’t going to be much better unless you really grow during that time by doing something really significant, like developing a Spike. It may be tempting to travel or do a gap year program, but these don’t show the initiative and drive that colleges want to see from someone who takes time off. On top of that, the phrase “gap year” implies a whole year, but you only really have until December application deadlines to get things done. It’s possible though! A student we knew this year wasn’t satisfied with her options, so she took the summer to work with us to completely dedicate herself to building her Spike. When she reapplied this year, she was accepted into two top universities.
Some students might find the idea of planning out several months of unstructured time petrifying. If you need more structure, find something relevant to your interests you can do while you’re not building your Spike. If you’re interested in tech, a coding bootcamp like Hack Reactor or Flatiron School could be a good fit. If you like humanities, take a course at a local university or get a part-time job at a library. The key is to organize your time in a way that a) makes sense for your story, and b) enables you to be a substantially stronger candidate by the time you reapply.
If you were waitlisted at your dream school…
Every year thousands of students end up on the waitlist. Unfortunately, very few get off. Still, it’s not impossible. However, if you’re on the waitlist for your dream school, you won’t hear until after May 1st, which is the deposit deadline for most schools. As a result, we recommend placing a deposit on your second-choice school before May 1st. If you end up getting off the waitlist, you can void your deposit. But in the event that you don’t, it’s important that you have a plan.
If you do get waitlisted, there are a couple of things you can do in order to not feel completely helpless. To begin with, learn what your chances are. With a little digging, you can usually find past acceptance rates for students on the waitlist. This knowledge can help you to manage your expectations. If a school didn’t go to their waitlist at all last year, your chance this year will be slim. Regardless, it may help to send a Letter of Continued Interest to the school, reiterating that you want to attend and outlining what you’ve accomplished since you submitted your application. These accomplishments can be academic as well as extracurricular, but additional developments in your Spike promise to move the needle the most. Some schools will explicitly instruct you not to send them any communications. In those cases you should follow their instructions but their rigidity could mean that your chances are even lower.
Situation Three: You didn’t get in anywhere:
If you’re in the unfortunate situation of not getting in anywhere, a gap year (with all the same details as discussed above) is still a great option for you. However, if you really don’t want to take a year off and are desperate to go to college, there are still some good schools you could apply to with later deadlines or rolling admissions. Clemson, Arizona, Arizona State, Michigan State, and Indiana all have excellent programs with applications open through May 1st. Others exist as well, you just have to do some searching for them.
Another option is always community college, which is a much simpler application process (with almost a guarantee of admission). For the uninformed, community colleges in the US are publicly funded two-year universities that often focus on specific career trajectories (such as IT or hospitality) and typically have a large number of nontraditional learners (often older mid-career professionals). There’s a massive number of community colleges across the United States, the most important thing will be to find ones with good outcomes (acceptance rates at 4-year universities). If you can, look for colleges with specific pathways to major universities (often located in the same area). For instance, many students go from Santa Monica Community College to UCLA (and California is currently working on clear pathways for all of their community colleges to the UC system). Our expertise is not in community colleges, but the system as a whole helps massive numbers of students each year get on track.
No matter what
The most important thing is that everyone has their own path. If you got into your dream school, congratulations. But if not, this is not the end of the world — it’s just another, different beginning from what you expected.