College Search – Beware The Early Decision Trap

Where do I go from here?

Being waitlisted by your early decision college can be disheartening, stressful, and usually ends in disappointment, as the application is typically rejected. This is a difficult state of affairs for students and parents.

A story in KJRH, Tulsa, by Leanna Landsmann recounts just such a tale, in which a reader recounts that her daughter “doesn’t want to go to the colleges she applied to for regular decision” – “She has her heart set on her first choice (early decision).”

Ms. Landsmann provides solid information and advice, and we will take it a step further.

Mitigate this situation with a viable college search plan …

Avoid Unnecessary Pain … Keep an Open Mind

Beware of the strategic difference between being single minded versus tough-minded. Everyone admires the latter. Healthy persistence can achieve many worthwhile goals.

But being obsessively single-minded in the college search and selection process all too often results in self inflicted pain.

This usually occurs when parents or students fail to embrace a goal with a range of potentially successful outcomes. They ascribe abnormal value to a single college or university due to the school’s popularity or reputation for academics, athletics etc.

They allow themselves to obsess on the merits of only one institution due to legend, myth or, even, misinformation. Unfortunately early decision policies foster this mindset.

Students believe they will gain an admissions edge by showing a strong desire to attend early in the game. They also see early decision as a way to bring the whole process to an end. It is indeed very tempting.

Admittedly, if counseled, they will prepare additional applications, but they are just “phantom apps”, because in their hearts they have no intention of attending anywhere but their first choice.

Worse yet, competitive reality is usually ignored.

Any analysis of a college’s admission track record is usually unwanted or, at best, only tolerated during the early stages of the college search and application process.

Look beyond reputation.

These applicants and, often, their most trusted advisors do not want to hear about potential obstacles.

Many simply want to know what they can do to guarantee the path to their “dream” college.

Some Hard College Admissions Facts

  • Competition for admission in the freshman class at selective and highly selective colleges is grossly underestimated
  • The opportunity for significant financial assistance from a “dream” college is grossly overestimated
  • The radar screen of a student in the top 10% of their high school class and with 1400 on their SATs does not even sense that they could be only at the mid-range of the applicant pool at these schools

Sad but true …

After twenty years counseling families in public and private high schools as well as in an independent practice that has been active in over a dozen states, I can honestly say this set of circumstances is a real bummer…

It’s like a virus!

And the cruelest cut of all might be the assignment to the infamous waitlist.

It prolongs the agony for everyone with statistically little hope of a favorable change of status.

What Can We Do?

Parents, try to inoculate your family from it from the outset. Recognize that we are blessed in the United States with hundreds if not thousands of excellent post secondary colleges and universities, any one of which can provide a challenging and wholesome educational experience.

Some have even had the good fortune to rise to the surface in popular magazine rankings!

However with that popularity have come tens of thousands of applicants from the USA and all over the world with outrageously competitive credentials. Admissions personnel have an extremely tough set of decisions to make and some very capable students will be denied.

Some College Planning Elements To Help

  • Parents, get involved in the college search process early (no later than Sophomore year)
  • Approach this as a family team, with parents as coaches and cheerleaders
  • Build your college search campaign with a solid foundation
  • Assess your student’s competitive position with a thorough look at the available stats for your candidate colleges. This includes:
    1. The number of applications
    2. The percent of applicants admitted
    3. The 25th percentile test scores and high school GPAs of last year’s admitted class tells a lot … not everything, but a lot
    4. Include your top choice in your final list but find 4-6 quality alternatives that you evaluate and determine are a good fit
    5. Then visit, apply and embrace them if the need occurs

In other sections of this blog, we explain how the college admissions process is largely data driven, certainly from the perspective of the colleges. We encourage students and their families to adopt a similar attitude, while understanding the high levels of emotions that are in play.

We cannot guarantee an emotion/stress free experience with the above approach, but it will give you a strong opportunity to avoid the heartache of the student in Ms. Landsmann’s story.

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