You Didn’t Get In. Now What?

Posted May 13, 2013


After weeks of checking the mailbox for that fat envelope saying you’d been accepted into your dream college, you got just a thin rejection letter. Instead of donning black and entering a period of mourning for the death of your top choice, the first thing you need to do is cheer up. You’re 18, you never have to go back to high school, and though they may not take place exactly where you’d imagined, you’re still on the verge of probably the four best years of your life.

But what happened? It may be that you were a victim of the heightened college selectivity that is the new normal in postsecondary education. 2012 saw record-low acceptance rates all over the country. The Ivies were particularly tough to break into, with seven of eight reporting decreased acceptance rates. Even schools like the University of Texas at Austin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Binghamton University, which are considered only moderately selective, have seen the rates of entering freshmen from the top 10% of their classes rise 4%-8% just since 2007.

Part of the problem is inflated numbers. When students apply to half a dozen colleges or more, the total number of rejections naturally goes up. The schools themselves don’t mind this because a high number of applications give them an image of a highly sought-after destination. Nevertheless, even those who claim higher selectivity is a myth acknowledge getting into a particular school (a.k.a. your dream school) has gotten harder.

Look on the Bright Side

As we said, the first thing you need to do is buck up. Use these factoids for inspiration.

  • Millions of students are making their second choice work: You may think that if you decide to attend your second- or third-choice college, you’ll hate it, or at least you’ll feel out of place among all the other students who had that school as their No. 1 pick. But we’ve got news for you: the ratio of students attending their top choice to those attending a backup has crept close to being nearly a coinflip.
    A survey released in January 2012 found just 58% of freshmen were attending their first choice of school, the lowest rate recorded in over 35 years of the question’s existence on the survey. What’s driving the rate down? Money. The number of students who said cost affected their college decision has been steadily rising since 2006, increasing sharply since 2011. Even if money wasn’t the reason you ended up at a different college than your ideal, you’ll fit right in with half the campus. Give it a chance and you’ll come to see what they love about it, just like they did.
  • Price does not necessarily mean quality: Yes, a few names in higher ed still carry enough cache to make their price tags pay off in open doors down the road. However, if you had your heart set on a school outside this uber-selective handful that was still in the upper echelons for price, console yourself (and probably your parents) with the fact that by not getting in, you’ll still likely get an equally high-quality degree while saving thousands of dollars and preventing years of debt.
    According to recent research out of Wabash College, there exists only a small relationship between educational spending at a university and the quality of the education it offers. In other words, it’s feasible that for $10,000 a year, you could get an education at a school with "good" academic quality that is virtually identical to that of a school charging $50,000 a year.
    Just for fun, we ran the numbers on how much you would save in this hypothetical situation. Assuming the federal Stafford loan unsubsidized interest rate of 3.4% (but with interest not accruing until graduation), paid out over 30 years in $886.96 monthly installments, you would wind up paying $319,307.17 on $200,000 in loans. (Think a debt load that big is impossible? If only.) On the other hand, with payments of $393.67 per month you could pay off $40,000 in loans in 10 years for a total cost of $47,240.71.
  • The fault may not lie with you: Before you get down on yourself for thinking it was your grades or other transcript material that kept you out of your coveted academy, remember that the reasons for rejection are varied and often have little to nothing to do with academics. For example, since the recession some colleges have been targeting students they designate "full-pay," those who can cover the full cost of tuition, even if there grades are below-average.
    Or did you know you could have the same (or better) grades as a student from a different state and he be admitted and you rejected? Grinnell College admitted as much in 2011, saying students from big high school classes are compared against each other in the admissions process.
    You may have even been dismissed because of your race, difficult as it may be to swallow. Affirmative action policies are well-intended to promote diversity on college campuses, but they sometimes leave deserving students out in the cold. Asian-Americans in particular have been sounding the alarm in recent months claiming universities discriminate against them in admissions. Some have gone so far as to forego checking the "Asian" box on their applications, just to be safe.

Your Options Now

So what should your next move be? We asked Dr. Mike Raney, an academic advisor for the University of Texas at Austin’s University Extension program, for his thoughts. Based on his comments, we’ve listed the alternatives open to you now, from most promising to least.

  • Attend your second- or third-choice school, and transfer, if necessary: Nearly half of college students today are attending schools that weren’t their top choices, meaning they found enough to love at a school that they completed their degree there. However, if a school is not a cultural fit, or if you decide to change your major to something a school either doesn’t offer or isn’t well-known for, you can seek a transfer.
    Transferring is a slightly different animal than applying. Above all, admissions officers will now be looking at your postsecondary GPA to determine if you pass muster for acceptance. Also, your chances of acceptance are likely quite a bit higher. Even colleges considered "very selective," like University of Florida and Wake Forest University, can have transfer acceptance rates of 20%-40%.
    "If it is not too late, I recommend that they either try to get into another school or apply to a local community college with the idea of taking a year of courses and applying again," says Raney. "If they get feedback on why they were not admitted, they should address their feedback in their first year to make their application stronger next time."
  • Attend an online college or community college, and transfer, if necessary: If you didn’t get in to any of your "safety schools" (or you didn’t have any), you’ll need to find a college with open admissions that only require a high school diploma to enroll. Especially if you didn’t get in because of grades, community college can be a good environment in which you can mature, improve your study skills and habits, and put together a college transcript that will impress the admissions officer at your top-choice school enough to let you transfer in.
    There are also dozens of online colleges that have open admissions that offer undergrad degrees in over 100 programs. Online courses can be molded to fit your schedule, so if you choose to work while you’re enrolled, you can. And despite some students’ fears, credits earned through online programs do transfer to four-year colleges. Just be sure to speak to an advisor at both institutions to ensure they transfer smoothly.
  • Take a gap year: It might be difficult to wrap your head around delaying college for a year after you’ve been mentally preparing for months to head off to university in the fall. But the results of taking a gap year after high school prove you shouldn’t write this option off without first carefully considering one.
    Research out of the University of Sidney found that Australian students who took a gap year before college reported notably higher motivation, improving or increasing their persistence, planning, and time management behavior. A stateside study conducted by admissions officers at Middlebury College found the students who waited until the spring to enroll maintained higher GPAs for their entire college careers than those of their fall enrollment counterparts. The dean of admissions at the time called time off "the best predictor of overall academic success."
    Moreover, a gap year can help you deal with your problem of getting into college, if you use it deftly. Although nothing can overcome grades that are too low, if you spend that time volunteering or working you encourage admissions officers to view you as a mature, responsible young man or woman who will make the university proud. It’s also a good idea to use your gap year immersing yourself in whatever is your stated major and career ambition to prove your passion and motivation. If it’s engineering, spend it building something; if international business, take a lengthy trip to China or Japan.
  • Wait out the waitlist: This is always the tricky question, whether to hang out on the waitlist in the hopes a spot at a school will open up. Really the name is misleading; in a waiting room, for example, a person lingers with the understanding that at some point in time he will actually reach his destination. On a college waitlist, there’s no such guarantee. In fact, the odds are you will never actually see the doctor.
    Using the College Search feature on the College Board website, you can get an idea of the success rate for waitlisted students from the previous semester, assuming the school makes the information available. For instance, in Fall 2012, Babson College offered 1,190 students a waitlist slot, 364 of which agreed to join the list. Just 25 students were ultimately admitted, for a success rate of 6.8%. Of the 869 waitlist offers Haverford College extended, 350 accepted, but just 3 were let in, for a success rate of 0.85%.
    "I am not sure there is anything a student who is waitlisted can do to increase his or her chances of acceptance, assuming they have already appealed the admissions decision, which should include any new or additional information not included in the original admission application," says Raney. "They should appeal if they have not already done so. If they are on a waitlist, they should be ready to proceed with their alternative if they have been accepted to another school."

Ask anyone you know if life has gone exactly the way he or she planned; we’re guessing you won’t be able to find anyone who says so. But you probably will hear people say that even though they never thought things would work out the way they did, if they had the chance, they wouldn’t change a thing.

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