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Accepted? waitlisted? denied? How to navigate any college admission decision

Here are tips on handling your student's college decisions.

Each day across the United States, thousands of students are pressing “Submit” and collectively exhaling one large sigh of relief. After months of tirelessly working with trusted advisors to craft the perfect essay and obtain complimentary letters of recommendation, they’ve finally finished their last college application. Does this sound like your student? If they believe they’re in the clear, remind them there are still steps that must be taken, even once the initial process is complete.

Immediately after submission

Stay in contact

If your student has submitted all of their college applications, it’s likely they’re already in contact with their school counselor, but the relationship shouldn’t end there. Wendy Rock, an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Southeastern Louisiana University, and a former school counselor at Hahnville High School, says she worked closely with students, not just while they were applying, but also once they heard back from colleges. Rock encourages students to be open-minded throughout the process and always have a backup school. She adds, “In the event they don’t get into their first choice, school counselors can help students identify what they liked about that specific school, and find similar qualities elsewhere.” Additionally, students should remain in touch with their school counselor throughout the process, as counselors are often responsible for submitting students’ final transcripts and test scores, and can even work with colleges as an advocate on behalf of the student.

Use technology effectively

As technology has evolved, so, too, has the admissions process. Today, many colleges have an online portal with all of the applicant’s information. Additionally, it may have a specific date or general time period stating when the student should expect to hear back. Make sure your student is familiarized with the online portal, and checking it often, as it could provide insight regarding any missing documents or whether or not the application has been accepted. Stephen Handel, the Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of California assures students, “The portal will have a lot of answers. If you actively check, you’ll be in good shape.”

Technology has not only changed how students apply, but also how they’re accepted. According to Kaplan Test Prep, 35% of admissions officers check the social media sites of applicants and 42% of admissions officers said what they found hurt the applicant. In fact, last year, ten incoming freshmen lost their spots at Harvard after sharing “obscene images” in a private Facebook group. Social media provides admissions officers with an understanding of the student beyond the information on their application. It’s important students realize that what they post is public, even if it’s done within a “private” group.


Maintain good grades

Congratulations! Your student has studied long hours, completed innumerable homework assignments, and has officially been accepted to college. If this school is their first choice, they may think they’ve crossed the finish line, but that’s not always the case. Handel cautions students, “Applying to college is a life-changing event and it should be treated as such.” The biggest mistake most students make once they’ve been accepted is not reading the fine print. “Most admissions are dependent upon you remaining in good academic standing, so grades do still matter,” says Handel. In other words, schools have the right to rescind an offer if final transcripts indicate a lack of consistency in grades. (And yes, it does happen!)

Be aware of deadlines

Another vital part of the post-application process is being aware of all the deadlines. May 1st is known as National College Decision Day, and is traditionally the day when students are required to make their enrollment deposit for their school of choice. Of course, students are always welcome to make their deposit prior to this day, just as long as they don’t wait until after, as the college may give away their spot to someone on the waitlist. Make sure your student double checks their deadlines, as they may vary from school to school.


Contact the School

Possibly the most confusing application response for students is being waitlisted. What does this mean about their chances of getting in? Robert Bardwell, Director of School Counseling at Monsoon High School, says it depends on the school. However, students can be proactive, in order to have a better understanding of the situation.

While contacting the school may not always increase a student’s probability of being admitted, it can still be helpful in guiding their next steps. First, students need to understand who they should contact and how they should best reach them. Most schools will have the admissions officers’ phone and email information posted on their website. Depending on the objective, one method of communication may be preferred over another. Bardwell notes, “I would suggest a phone call when a student absolutely has to ensure that information is shared – like advocating for a spot off of the waitlist. An email is nice, but it is not going to likely get the best bang for his buck.”

Next, they should know exactly what they want to say. Students should have specific questions or comments prepared before reaching out to the admissions officer. If the college is the student’s number one choice, Bardwell recommends having the student or school counselor call admissions to ask how many people have historically been taken off the waitlist. If the student has a good chance, there are steps they can take to try to solidify a top spot, such as getting a recommendation or updating the school on a recent accomplishment. Additionally, if they’re still interested in remaining on the waitlist, they need to let the school know, or else they risk being removed entirely.

Bardwell adds, unless a school counselor is advocating on the student’s behalf, the student should always be the one contacting the school. He continues, “If you really want to go to this school, you should pick up the phone and call.” In other words, parents should not be reaching out for their child, as it will only reflect poorly on the student.

Be Realistic

While there are many steps a student can take once being waitlisted, Handel recommends students consider themselves “not accepted.” He explains, “Getting waitlisted doesn’t necessarily mean a student won’t be accepted, but they shouldn’t wait because at that moment they are not admitted and the school does not have space for them.” Therefore, a student should start considering other options and preparing for them accordingly. Students may be on a school’s waitlist long after the May 1st deadline for a deposit, so they shouldn’t hold out because they could miss their opportunity to enroll in another school. If your student is waitlisted, be realistic and make sure to have a back-up plan.


Send additional information

Getting deferred means that the college or university is postponing its admissions decision. It’s important to note, a student’s application being deferred is different from them being waitlisted. Students may get deferred if they applied through early action, but didn’t meet the qualifications to be accepted right away. In this instance, the school may ask them to send additional information, such as their most recent grades. From there, the student’s application will be reviewed once again, along with the regular pool of applicants. Then, a student may be accepted, waitlisted, or denied.


If your student has been denied from their first choice, they’ll need to recalibrate and explore other opportunities. While students may be tempted to ask the school to reconsider, it probably won’t make a difference. According to Handel, “Unless there’s been a substantive change that’s not in the application, they shouldn’t try to appeal.” Instead, students can channel their time and energy toward understanding their options, such as considering the colleges they’ve already been admitted to, reapplying after a gap year, or starting at a community college.

Throughout the process

The most important step a student can take during, and after, the college application process, is working to understand the colleges they’re applying to. By actively gathering information, exploring all their options, being open-minded, and doing the work themselves, they’ll not only build independence needed in adulthood, but they may also find a dream school where they least expect it.