How will your senior decide?

By Suzanne Shaffer

In today’s competitive college market, it’s not uncommon for a student to apply to ten or more schools and receive admission offers from quite a few of them.

My daughter did and it was a bit overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong — we appreciated that it was a good problem to have and were delighted for her. But with many colleges to choose from, and the May 1st deadline looming, we needed a plan.

What do you do if your student has multiple offers of admission? Beyond comparing financial aid awards, how do you help your student make the final decision? And what if she’s wait-listed at her top choice, or feels as if she’d like to take time off before matriculating?

Take another in-depth look at the schools

Begin by reexamining all the factors your student considered when applying. For each college or university, take a second — and closer — look at location, academics, the size of the student body, and other elements that made your student feel it would be a good fit. Review statistics including the freshman retention and four-year graduation rates.

It’s been months since she submitted her applications. If she got in, is she still in love with her first-choice college? Has she learned anything about the school since she applied that changes the way she views it? Has anything changed for her? Does the school still fit with her long-term academic and personal goals?

This is a good time for your student to gather information from a few trusted sources. She doesn’t need to invite everyone she knows into the decision-making process, but it can really help to consult with older siblings and friends, or teachers, coaches and counselors.

Based on this research and reflection, make a list of pros and cons for each college and compare them side-by-side. The top two or three should be evident.

Revisit (or visit) the campuses

Admitted student programs are an excellent opportunity for your student to attend classes, hear panel discussions, interact with students, explore campus and maybe even stay overnight in a dorm. There may be activities for parents as well.

A visit to campus is a crucial element in the final decision. It’s essential if your student hasn’t yet seen the college, but even if she toured it previously, you should make a visit if at all possible. Time is a consideration, and money as well if the colleges are at a distance — another good reason to narrow the choices down to just a few.

Most schools host admitted student day or overnight programs. Your student will be able to stay in a dorm, attend classes, hear panel discussions, interact with students, and explore campus. This experience can confirm your student’s decision to attend a school, or it may change her mind and cause her to gravitate toward another school. My daughter had this experience after visiting some colleges that accepted her — her first and second-choice schools switched positions.

Work the wait list

If your student is wait-listed at her top choice, she faces a tough decision: should she remain on the list or shift her focus to the colleges which offered admission? Experts agree that wait lists are a long shot, but many wait-listed students have played the odds and been accepted (sometimes just days before the start of fall semester). If your student decides to stay on the wait list, she should be sure to:

  • Research the statistics, which can be found on the College Board’s website. Type in the name of any school and, when directed to its profile, click on the Applying  hyperlink. For example, at Stanford University, you see that 958 applicants were offered a place on the wait list, 695 took a wait list spot, and 7 were accepted off the list.
  • Follow all instructions from the college about how to proceed. A phone call or letter will be required to confirm the wait list spot.
  • When writing to accept a wait list spot, your student should let the school know that she is still highly interested and will attend if accepted. Briefly restate why the school is her first choice (i.e., why she would be a great addition to next year’s freshman class). Include only new information (awards or scholarships, special events or involvements, etc.).
  • Understand that typically wait lists are not prioritized/ranked. The college is looking to balance its freshman class. She should check in with the school monthly to demonstrate her strong and continued interest.
  • Most importantly: move forward with evaluating the colleges to which she’s been admitted, and accept an offer at her favorite among these.

Consider other options

If, despite the excitement of being accepted, your student doesn’t feel ready for college or would like to take a year off between high school and college, she has other options. Students who have been accepted to a school but want to take a gap year can defer their admittance.

Your student will need to request approval for a deferral and should carefully research the procedure, being sure to follow all instructions/meet all deadlines. She should also find out if her financial aid award will be impacted. Many colleges look favorably on gap years now and, in most cases, a request will be approved.

Make the non-refundable deposit and proceed with required paperwork. Even if your student is staying on the wait list at another college, celebrate like crazy and encourage your student to love this school. Most likely it will be her home for the next four years!