College Admission with a Catch

Over the next few weeks, the last round of admissions decisions will be released. The predictable outcomes of acceptance and denials seem clear cut—that is until a student is living through it. Colleges now use an arsenal of options to deal with an increasingly competitive applicant pool and unpredictable enrollment.

I remember my first year as a dean of admissions at a small liberal arts college which admitted a small cohort of students for spring semester as opposed to the fall. It was a surprising option for a newbie like myself, and for the handful of students who stared down an acceptance letter that didn't look like they imagined. Spring semester acceptances are just one of many acceptance decisions that students receive. Here is what you need to know about all those unexpected results:

1. Summer Acceptance

Many public flagship universities are the beneficiaries of a larger and more competitive applicant pool. Students that would have easily been admitted a few years ago are getting squeezed out due to the quality of the applicant pool. If a university sees potential in a student who may not have the same academic qualifications as the rest of the admitted pool, they may offer admission with the condition that they begin on campus during the summer before freshman year. 

For those students who had other plans for summertime, they often question if this option is worth it. However, it may be a small sacrifice to make for the student who will end up as a fully realized freshman in the fall at their dream college. The purpose of having a student begin in the summer as opposed to the fall can help a student acclimate to the new environment. Complicated bus schedules, multiple campuses, and a large student body are just a few things that take time to get used to. But more times than not, the college provides a for-credit course (or two) and/or a study skills non-credit course to give the student a leg up with their undergraduate education. As long as the student completes the required program (for-credit or non-credit), they can begin fall semester of freshman year with a clean slate.

2. Conditional Acceptance

Some public universities, including some elite private universities like Cornell, offer a guaranteed acceptance upon completion of one or two years at a community college or another four year institution. If the student maintains a certain GPA, they can transfer successfully and ultimately graduate from there. The reason behind this conditional acceptance often comes down to the university wanting to ensure the student is ready for the rigors of the academic environment. Getting a strong GPA at a community college or another institution for one or two years is solid proof of the student's ability to make that next step.

3. Spring Semester Acceptance

A growing number of private colleges and universities are offering some students a spring semester acceptance. These students don't arrive on campus until spring semester of freshman year. This scenario is a win-win for the colleges.

Here's why: Spring semester on most college campuses is less profitable for the institution with many juniors studying abroad and some students not returning after the fall semester. This leaves empty beds and less tuition dollars. By admitting a number of full-pay students to a spring cohort, the college can recoup some of those tuition dollars. 

Another reason colleges are employing a spring semester cohort is that the students admitted for spring semester do not get counted into the college's admissions data. For example, if a college really wants to admit a student but they are concerned about the student's lower test scores or lower grades, they can admit them for spring semester and the scores/grades won't be factored into the data that gets reported to the public. These students are often encouraged to attend a study abroad program specifically designed for fall semester freshman. For example, NYU offers a host of fall study abroad programs for future NYU and non-NYU students for credit. This allows the student to stay on track to graduate on-time. 

When I became a dean of admissions at a college that offered this, it was a tough sell as there was a stigma attached to the spring cohort. Nowadays, more and more colleges are offering this option and students are much more likely to accept the offer given the hyper competitive landscape of many private colleges and universities.

4. Deferred Acceptance

Once in a while, a college who is facing over-enrollment may offer a student a spot in the freshman class a year later. If the student elects this option, they can take a gap year during the year after graduating from high school. They can work, volunteer, or pursue a passion during that year. They begin the following fall as a traditional fall semester freshman. 

5. Acceptance to a Second or Third Choice Major or Campus

Most of the larger universities will give students a chance to list multiple programs, majors, and campuses they would like to be considered for. Generally, the more specialized the program, the more competitive it is to get admitted. While there is a limited number of students admitted to these specialized programs or more sought after campuses for fall semester freshman, many times the student has another chance to get admitted to their first choice program after completing one or two years in another program at the university. If the student is able to take a class in their preferred program and do well in it (along with a strong academic performance across the board), they will have a higher likelihood of admission one or two years later.

6. Acceptance from the Waitlist

With the rise of Early Action programs, ballooning applicant pools, and less time spent reading applications, colleges are having a hard time predicting which students will accept the offer of admission and which ones will turn them down. This has led colleges to use their waitlists more regularly and aggressively. The National Association of College Admission Counselors reports that 39% of colleges used the waitlist in the 2015-2016 admissions cycle and 23% of students who accepted a spot on the waitlist were offered admission that same year.

"These days, many colleges are using their waitlists more regularly and aggressively. That’s good news if you end up on the #waitlist at your top choice." TWEET THIS

And when one college doesn't look like it's going to meet their enrollment target and begins to use their waitlist after May 1st, they start a domino effect within their peer group. For example, a student must secure a spot at College A by paying an enrollment deposit regardless of whether they are on the waitlist at College B. If College B reaches out to the student and offers them a spot in the freshman class and the student accepts it, College A may lose that student and must fill it with another student (from their own waitlist). 

If a student has their heart set on the college that waitlisted them, they should accept a spot on the waitlist, follow up with an impassioned update to that college, and send in a deposit at another college just in case. Most colleges don't know if they are going to use their waitlist until the May 1st enrollment deadline. If they have room in the freshman class, they will typically reach out to students in May or June to fill the remaining spots in the class.  

Getting admitted to college these days is far different than it used to be. Colleges are admitting students on different timelines and for different programs. Understanding the options and strategies behind these alternatives can help students make the right choice for them.