“Making Lemonade”

“But I don’t want to go there!” Such is the all too frequent response of a despondent high school senior as he is reminded of the colleges that have admitted him.

The overwhelming sense of despair resulting from failed applications can render a student unable to recognize the successful applications at colleges that, at an earlier point in time, had seemed quite viable. Despite the best of plans, when outcomes don’t match expectations in the college admission process, it is easy to feel like your life has gone into a hopeless tailspin.

If this sounds like you, please know that all is not lost! Before you allow despair to overwhelm you, take stock of your opportunities. The reality is that things are rarely as bad as they seem. You’ll live, and, in all likelihood, be quite happy and successful. Doing so just might require a slightly different formula than you had in mind when the application process started. In other words, if “life has handed you a lemon, it’s time to make lemonade!”

In the interest of finding the best “lemonade mix,” I would like to discuss several scenarios you may be encountering now that all of your admission decisions are in hand.

Scenario #1:  While you have been admitted to a number of very interesting schools, your absolute first choice college has offered you a place on its Wait List. Now, you find yourself in an awkward position. Do you hold out hope that you will be moved from the Wait List or do you begin to invest emotionally in the options that are real?

First, you need to know that Wait Lists are likely to be active at most institutions this spring. The only questions, then, are when and for how many students. The key to getting in rests on the decisiveness of your response. If you want to compete for a place in the class from the Wait List, you must get on the “radar screen” of the admission committee at that school. Visit the campus—again! Reach out to the staffer who recruits in your area as s/he will likely be the person to contact you if the Wait list moves. Submit a statement that affirms the school as your first choice and provide any new information (grades, honors, awards) that might not have been part of your original application. It also wouldn’t hurt to make sure that person knows how to reach you directly in the event that an opportunity opens up for you.

The key to success in any Wait List situation, though, is to maintain a balanced perspective. While you want to do everything possible to enhance your chances of admission from the Wait List, be careful not to under-value the other colleges that have admitted you. After all, you are holding offers from places that are presumably good “fits” for you. Make sure you invest the requisite time and energy in preparing to choose from among them if the Wait List situation doesn’t pan out.

Scenario #2:  You didn’t get into any of your top choice colleges, but you have been admitted at a couple of your “safety” schools. Unfortunately, they don’t hold the same luster that is associated with the places that turned you down. As “back-ups,” they we were fine—perhaps because you didn’t think you would ever really have to consider them. Besides, now that your friends have been admitted to some of the places that turned you down, the schools that are left may not seem nearly so exciting. You feel stuck. If this is the case, what can you do?

If you find yourself in such a situation, re-assess the options you do have. They weren’t so bad when you decided to apply. Rediscover them. Find out why they made it to your list in the first place. They may not carry the same cachet as the places that turned you down, but the academic opportunities they present are probably every bit as good as those you would have found at the other schools.

An alternative is to apply somewhere else as a late applicant. This is easier said than done, though, as most schools are reluctant to entertain late applications from students with whom they have little or no history. Moreover, they will not have financial aid or scholarships for late applicants so, if cost/affordability are important to you, the “late applicant” route is not likely to hold many options for you.

As a potential late applicant, your best chance is to find a college or university with an active Wait List and hope it will see your credentials as competitive with the students it is considering from its Wait List. This is not likely to be the case, though, at places that are as selective as those that turned you down earlier. If a college is open to considering a late application, it will probably do so only on the condition that you enroll if admitted, so be prepared for a lot of rapid-fire decision-making.

Scenario #3:  It is also possible that you have received an offer of admission from a college you like that is contingent upon your participation in a remedial program over the summer. If a college likes what you have to offer (it is excited by the way you answered the “what do we get” question!) but is concerned about the degree to which you are prepared to find success, it might refer you to a pre-enrollment program designed to bolster your academic and study skills. In this scenario, it is clear the college values you and is investing in your success. You need to be realistic, though, in your assessment of the situation and make sure you are prepared to do what is necessary to make good on the opportunity.

A variation on this theme involves offers of January admission. You’re in, but there is a catch. You can’t start the first semester. Such offers typically encourage, if not require, you to pursue other off-campus programming during the first semester as a non-enrolled student.

In either case, you must understand that you are not being offered admission for the fall semester and, in most cases, will not be given the opportunity to enroll in the fall even if the college’s Wait List becomes active.

If you really like the place and the scenario that has been offered to you is agreeable to you, go for it. It might represent your best chance of getting into that college. However, do so with your eyes wide open. It won’t easy academically and you are not likely to benefit from an extensive orientation program or an introduction to various support systems that would otherwise be critical to your transition.

Finally, if you are uncomfortable with the range of options that lie before you, consider stepping back from the educational treadmill. Take the year after high school “off.” Collect your thoughts and refocus on what you need to do in order to achieve your goals. Be intentional with your thought process. Don’t go to a college just to be there. The last thing you want to do is waste your time and your parents’ money on an experience that means little to you.

Instead, get a job. Travel. Get involved in community service. In short, take the opportunity to write a new and different chapter in your life. A “gap year” of this sort can be very healthy and productive to your personal development if you use it well. Besides, you are then afforded the opportunity to reapply a year or so later when you are ready to embrace a new educational opportunity. I have yet to hear of an institution that doesn’t see the investment in a gap year as a positive development.

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