College decision season can pose difficulties for high school seniors

AP photo photo courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College
Posted April 06, 2011, at 9:36 p.m.

NEW YORK — Barry Lenson’s daughter was thrilled to get into her cozy, exclusive first-choice college, happily signing up for an “admitted students” overnight stay on the small-town campus to make sure it was the place for her.

It was a miserable, mind-changing visit. Students mocked each other and a professor. She got a cold shoulder in the dorm.

“When my wife arrived to pick her up the next day, my daughter walked up to her and said, ‘Get me out of here,’” recalled Lenson, in Millburn, N.J.

So goes Decision Hell, as opposed to Admissions Hell, which was supposed to be the hard part.

For tens of thousands of high school students who sweated over college applications, then nervously checked email and mailboxes for admission letters this spring, the next few weeks may be equally stressful as they decide where to spend freshman year.

Many schools require students to make a decision by May 1. There are campus visits to schedule, wait lists to navigate, financial aid packages to leverage and deferment to consider, all at a time when many of the nation’s 7,000 institutions of higher education — including the most coveted — report swelled ranks of applicants looking to be Class of 2015.

All turned out fine for Lenson’s daughter, Olivia, who was grateful for the chance to re-evaluate. Now 21, she landed at an equally prestigious yet larger, urban private school, where she’s a junior majoring in political science.

“I thought it was going to be very open and accepting,” she said of her abandoned first choice, requesting that its name not be used. “It is in a lot of ways, but it seemed too cut-throat. I’m so glad I didn’t go.”

Admissions consultant Patricia Aviezer says swift action may be required if teens are going after wait-list spots or trying to improve financial aid offers.

Make sure to heed all deadlines for notifying admissions offices of the desire to remain on a wait list. The process may not be automatic. Politely ask the following questions of the school: In the past three years, have you gone to your wait list to admit? If so, how deep?

You may have to put a deposit down to reserve a spot at one school while waiting to find out whether you make it off the wait list at another.

“Depending on the selectivity of the college, there are years when some colleges do not go to their wait lists,” Aviezer said. “Last year, however, there was a sudden climate change in the number and size of wait lists across the country. Attributed to the increase in applications received by colleges and the jockeying for students that ensued as a result, more students received a wait-listed letter.”

The same seems to be true this year as well, though data remain scattered.

In fall 2009, 39 percent of schools went to wait lists, which was slightly higher than most recent years except fall 2007, when the percentage reached 41 percent, according to the “State of College Admission” report released last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The group represents 11,000 counseling and enrollment officials from around the country.

A student’s likelihood of admission off a wait list was about 1 in 3 in fall 2009, when schools accepted an average of 34 percent of students from wait lists, the report said. The number was up from 30 percent in fall 2008 and fall 2007, and from 29 percent in 2006, according to the annual report, the most recent available from the association.

Let the admissions office know of your continued interest, or let your high school guidance counselor take the lead, emphasizing gains in grades and any accolades since the application first landed. Ask if there’s anything else that would strengthen the application.

But sending too much information to get off a wait list could backfire, said Rod Bugarin, a consultant who worked in the admissions and financial aid offices of Columbia, Wesleyan and Brown. “Colleges already know about the student, so additional letters of recommendation or daily emails sometimes leave a negative impression,” he said.

Bugarin added that he believes the lists “favor wealthy applicants as many colleges do pay attention to a student’s financial aid eligibility if they do go to the wait list.”

Parents, he said, should carefully consider whether to withdraw an application for need-based aid to increase a student’s chances of admission if the student is on the wait list.

Heather McDonnell, associate dean of financial aid and admissions at the nation’s most expensive college, Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, N.Y., said withdrawing financial aid requests won’t help or hinder chances there.

About 60 percent of Sarah Lawrence’s incoming freshmen receive need-based aid from a pool of about $14 million. Top grants to “perfect fit” students can reach $62,000. The school received 2,000 applications for admission and plans a freshman class of about 360.

Finances are a big part of the final decision for many families. There may be wiggle room when evaluating aid offers from schools of equal stature. Presenting one school’s offer to a school you prefer might result in a bit more money.

Michael Steidel, director of undergraduate admissions at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said his school sets aside just under $1 million a year of a freshman aid allocation of roughly $18.5 million to renegotiate.

“We’re not going to better somebody else’s package, but we’re going to try to get closer,” he said. “We’re trying to close the gap, if there is one.”

Steidel requires students looking for better deals to submit competing offers. Last year, 954 of Carnegie Mellon’s accepted applicants did just that. Of those, 549 were offered additional money and 188 enrolled, he said.

“We’re really trying to put our resources on those students that really want to be here,” Steidel said.

Sarah Lawrence doesn’t require a student to submit a financial aid offer from another school, McDonnell said, but added: “I don’t turn down the offer if a family wants to do that.”

Another important step in making the final choice is to have a second look at overall campus life, as Olivia Lenson did, and a much closer look at academics in the intended major or field of study. Request a sit-down with a specific professor or a lunch with a group of premed students or a department adviser, for example.

It’s important to “consider how the prestige of a school affects your chosen profession,” said Jon Reske, vice president of UMassFive Federal Credit Union, with members that include employees, students and families from the University of Massachusetts and nearby colleges.

It’s unlikely, for example, that the starting salary for a high school teacher will be any different with an Ivy League degree than a less expensive state degree, he said. “Conversely, an Ivy League degree in other disciplines may make a significant difference in future pay scales.”

What about deferring your acceptance for a gap year? That doesn’t mean sitting around the house driving your parents crazy. Many private schools will welcome a sound plan of how you would spend a year off from school, holding open an admission offer. State schools, not so much. Most require a student to apply all over again.

“It’s still a pretty small percentage of students in the United States who look at gap years seriously,” said Robin Pendoley, CEO and co-founder of Thinkingbeyondborders.org, which arranges opportunities in other countries.

“A lot of students are turning to gap years because they realize that they’re burned out,” he said. “They’re just exhausted.”

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