Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

The College Waiting Game

Thanksgiving is over, and your high school senior returns to school for one of the most nerve-wracking periods of an already stressful year.

Your high school student may have chosen to apply Early Decision (“ED”), Early Action (“EA”), priority application or rolling admissions. Even if your teen chose Regular Decision, the atmosphere  will be wired with contagious tension for all seniors during the next few weeks.

For early applicants, the white-knuckle, nail-biting suspense really sets in now. That wilderness of free-floating anxiety and acceptance stress between Thanksgiving and December 15. It is such an all-or-nothing feeling, as though your kid’s whole self-worth and future destiny rests on one online message. It starts: “Congratulations…” or perhaps something else. You won’t need to read the rest.

As a parent, keep it in perspective, and pass on your wisdom to your student. This is not an all-or-nothing verdict. “ED” was a college enrollment invention to guarantee yield, not for families’ benefit. It is a Faustian bargain that gives applicants an acceptance advantage and early relief in the tortuous college process, in exchange for losing financial aid package choices and a longer incubation time for college exploration. “EA” was created to help admissions people spread out their workload, sometimes with an acceptance advantage, depending on the school.


Be realistic during this time period, and prepare your student for the most likely outcome. Was this university in the realistic range, perhaps a slight reach, for which the early advantage will likely compensate? Or was this school a pipe dream, a “Hail Mary Pass”, to which your teen applied early to maximize advantage but still a long shot? You probably know the answer in your heart already.

If it’s a long shot, help your student put it on the back burner. Emphasize that it is only one of many options. Keep preparing application forms for Regular Decision schools for your guidance counselor. Keep your son or daughter working on essays for “RD” schools. If December’s decision is disappointing, your student will not be overwhelmed by consequential application work required over the holidays before January deadlines.

As J.S.  Mitchell advises in 8 First Choices: An Expert’s Strategy for Getting Into College, all the schools on your teen’s college list need to be genuine, appealing choices, not halfhearted backups. This will mitigate the all-or-nothing feeling about December news. Help your student to take the long view: even if there are short term disappointments, by April he or she will probably be quite pleased.

Advise your student to keep a low profile. If December news is disappointing, your teen may be uncomfortable keeping up a “game face” with peers, especially students receiving happy news. The opposite is also true. Friendships can become strained, at least temporarily. The best approach? Keep it on the “DL” : follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy. The news will become clear soon enough. Follow this advice yourself with other parents. If you’re going crazy, remember to keep distracted by  painting!

If your student chose not to apply early, what should you be doing now? Completing essays and applications. And “pushing the button” as soon as you can! Although “RD” applications are not due until January 1 or beyond, it doesn’t hurt to get applications and supporting documentation in early. The sooner an application is complete, the sooner it can be reviewed, by readers who are “fresh” at the start of the evaluation process, not overwhelmed and burnt out.