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Five Ways to Survive the April College Crunch

I was born in April. I used to have positive feelings about the month, notwithstanding T.S. Eliot's observation about its cruelty, although lately my birthday has become just another reminder of my rapid decline into irrelevancy and ruin. The other problem with April is that it is, by far, the worst month for college-bound high school seniors. Twelfth-graders are among my best sources, so I sense their pain and want to help ease it.

Everything piles up in April. The month starts with often frightful news about which colleges accepted you and your friends, and which didn’t. By the end of the month you have to decide which school should get your unrefundable deposit to reserve a place in its freshman class. Your favorite school may have wait-listed you, and you have to figure out what to do about that. Your Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate final exams are just a month away, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself. It’s spring, so your social life may be heating up, maybe for the first time in your adolescence if you were a bookworm like me. You have to worry about your parents interfering in all these important personal decisions. They will be concerned about how college is going to fit into the family finances, which don’t look so good this year.

Here is my helpful guide to surviving April. Since it is still March, you have time to think and prepare. Let me know how it works for you.

1. How to handle happy, or grieving, friends: The college admissions system, at least for our most selective schools, has become as rational as who wins bingo night at church. Nobody, including the college admissions officers, has a clear idea why certain students are admitted and others are not. Some rejected applicants are just as good as the accepted. Through no fault of their own, some of your closest friends will get into their first-choice college and some will not. You should put aside your own worries for a moment and practice two short speeches. To those who win this lottery, you should say: “That’s terrific. You worked so hard. You earned it. You are going to have a wonderful time.” To the losers you should say: “Of course you realize this is totally random. It has nothing to do with you. You will have a great time at East Pecos State. You will be running the place, and as you know, the research shows the name of your college has no effect on your success in life. All you need is great character and drive, and you have that.”

2. How to decide which school is best: One of my most unorthodox suggestions to college-seeking students and their families is NOT to take seriously the the ritual campus visits in the summer before senior year. You are on vacation, for goodness sake. Don’t act like you are inspecting a factory. Don’t bring a clipboard. Don’t take notes. Take the tour. Attend the introductory meeting. Ask a few questions if you like, but have fun. Soak up the atmosphere. Then, in April, when you know who has accepted you, get serious. If you have not made up your mind, visit the schools at the top of your list on weekdays. Try to spend a night in a dorm. Go see the chair of the department you want to study in. Sample the food. Stop people at random in the quad and ask a few questions. Take notes. Go home and think.

3. What to do about welcoming weekends: These are the carefully planned April events designed to convince wavering admittees that this is the college for them. If you have made up your mind, go and have fun. If you haven’t, avoid them. Visit the schools on your list during the week, when you can see the campus in more typical light, and ask questions of students who are not designated cheerleaders for Old Ivy.

4. How to get off the waiting list: The best method, gleaned from conversations with many college admissions officers, is pretty simple, and seems to work. Two children of friends followed my instructions to the letter and got into selective schools that had wait-listed them. It’s not as hard as it seems. Remember, many of the wait-listed students already got into a college they like better, so they are not part of your competition. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you, the student, have to do all of this yourself. If your parents or counselor make these calls or send these e-mails, you are going to be labeled a wimp and left on the wait-list forever. First, call the admissions office to get the e-mail address of, and maybe speak to, the officer who handled applications from your high school. Tell that person who you are and what high school you attend so she can pull up your file. Say you were very happy to get the wait-list letter because it means you still have a chance to go to this college. Tell the officer that her school remains your first choice, by far, and that you do not mind losing the deposit you will put down May 1 on your second-choice school if she eventually has good news for you. Tell her you will be sending her a letter soon making your case. Then write that letter, and send by both e-mail and snail mail. In the letter, reiterate what you said about this being your first choice, and about being happy to lose your deposit at Second Choice University. Tell her three of your talents or interests that you think would add value to her campus, like experience in tutoring disadvantaged students, or a talent for flower arrangement, or a gift for organizing debates. Tell her three aspects of her campus that would add value to your life, such as the entrepreneurs club, the world famous chemistry department, the study abroad program. Throw in a self-deprecating joke, like: “All of the businesses I have started in high school, such as my Missing Sock Detective Agency, have been failures, so I think I could learn a great deal from your student start-up experts.” Then send it off and pray.

5. What to do about a disappointing financial aid offer: When we get into complicated money issues, I am lost. So I asked Kristen Campbell, national director of college prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, for some suggestions. (Disclosure: Kaplan is a unit of The Washington Post Co.) She points out that no matter how difficult the money situation may seem in April, you have some bargaining power with the schools that have admitted you. “By the time a school accepts you as a student, it already sees you as a worthwhile investment on its part, so will usually be open to help you figure out financing,” Campbell said. Even if you have your heart set on NorthSouth College, which has admitted you, they don’t know that. You can use the better offer you got from EastWest College to strengthen your case for a better deal. “There are few things that many top schools dislike more than to lose a student they want to another school, particularly a rival,” Campbell said. The bad turn in the economy can be part of your argument. “Remember that colleges’ initial offers to you are based on your family’s income and financial status from last year,” she said. “If you or your family’s financial situation has worsened since that original application, it’s definitely worth conveying, along with supporting documentation. Since much of college aid is based on need, your change in economic situation may lead to an increase in aid, though there is no guarantee."

Whatever you do, keep looking ahead. Next April, at least for you, has got to be better than this one is going to be.

By Washington Post editors  | March 13, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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One little cavil with recommendation #2. It is not just the weekend at the college that you want to be able to compare. Ask whether you can "shadow" a current freshman who has chosen your likely major. Attend a full day's classes with them. Tues and Thurs. are generally the most "class intensive" days.

Maybe one school has Calc. teachers who speak English (many don't). Maybe a few of the intro. classes are taught by inspiring profs. -- rather than angry underpaid T.A.'s. You could even get to talk with other students in the class immediately after or before class -- before you move on to the next one.

If a college won't let you sit in on classes, maybe that tells you something.

Posted by: mct210 | March 13, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

Jay Mathews' advice about the waiting list is right-on, but I would go a step further. As I mention in my book, "The College Hook: Packaging Yourself to Win the College Admissions Game," if you're wait-listed at a school or schools you love, immediately hop in the car or get on a plane and drop in on the admissions office, even unannounced. In my more than ten years as an independent college consultant, I've found that more often than not students who are bold enough to show up in person manage to talk their way into an interview or have an experience that tips the scales in their favor. In one case, a wait-listed student happened to arrive on campus on a day for "admitted students." She bumped into the admissions director, who gave her a hearty welcome to the school. "But I was wait-listed," she told him. Blushing, he said, "Write me a letter." She did, and she was admitted the next week.

Posted by: TheCollegeHook | March 14, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Great idea on sending a letter to the college/university if you are wait listed. My daughter was wait listed by her first choice college last year and she sent a letter with basically the same information that you listed. She prepared it on professional bond paper and printed her class picture as a part of her letterhead. Adding the picture helped to personalize her letter; presentation is everything. She also had a good friend of our family who was an alumni of the college to call the school on her behalf. Within a week of these two actions, she received a letter offering her a place in their freshman class. Bottomline, don't sit back and wait to be pulled off the waiting list; be proactive. One last thing, check with your friends and friends of theirs to see if they applied and were accepted into the freshman class for the college that you are on the waitlist. Most colleges set aside slots for different regional areas and if one of your friends or someone they know was accepted and chose another school, work with that person and the school proactively to get that slot.

Posted by: Beingsensible | March 14, 2009 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Wow...when I went to college, I didn't try nearly anywhere this hard. In fact, I only ended up applying to one school, and getting accepted at that one school without any trouble. And, I had done it late in the process. I got a great deal and a great education with no stress and very little fuss.

Posted by: akchild | March 16, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

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