Last week we passed the January 15 application deadline. Most high school seniors should have submitted their college applications and now is the time most families wait to hear back from all the colleges on the list. It is also the perfect time to make sure your child has at least one quality backup school on his or her list.
I stress the word “quality” because many families assume that the ultimate backup will be the area community college. While community and junior colleges serve a great purpose, most of the students I know who applied to four year universities see these schools as unacceptable alternatives.
A quality backup school is one that is seen as acceptable to everyone in the family, meets the basic criteria (location, major, etc.), and would be viewed as a good alternative if all other plans fell through. I encourage every student to plan for a financial and admissions backup when they develop their college list.
The financial backup is there in case none of the scholarship possibilities work out or family finances take a downward turn due to the economy or job loss. The admissions backup is the school that will admit that student. The state schools in Texas publish automatic admissions numbers, so many of my clients are encouraged to find a school from that list, but I’ve also had clients who have added at least one four-year school with open admissions policies, meaning they accept all applicants.
Part of college planning involves preparing for the worst-case admissions scenario. I think it’s human nature to think “it will never happen to me.” I think back to a former student who came into the high school counseling office one spring day. She had just received her final college admissions notice and the news was not good. Denied! She applied to five schools and received five rejection letters. She was stunned. This was a good student in the top of her class with plenty of activities and personal strengths. But she also had a list of five very competitive universities with no backup schools.
We sat down and started brainstorming options. I suggested a number of universities where the application deadlines had not passed. Each time she said, “I’d rather go to Columbia” or “Brown or Swarthmore are better.” I kept reminding her that those ideal dream schools had sent her rejection letters; they were no longer options. She insisted that she didn’t want to apply to any state universities and she didn’t want to “settle for less.” It took a couple weeks and a few more meetings before she was ready to develop a better backup plan.
Ideally, students will plan ahead and incorporate quality backup schools in their college list in the fall. Here’s what seniors can do this spring if they need to add some additional options:
- Reevaluate criteria and priorities. Get into the mindset of finding the school that would be the next choice if all the others sent rejection letters. This doesn’t mean settling for less; it means finding a school that offers strong opportunities, but maybe be less well known or have easier admissions standards. (Think “If I can’t drive the new Mercedes, would I still be happy with a new Honda Accord?” Personally, I’d rather have the Honda than ride the bus.)
- Look for schools with late spring application deadlines. I’m familiar with the schools in my state that have late spring admissions deadlines. I also use the Common Application Deadline & Requirement chart. Keep in mind that schools with rolling decision may not list a final application deadline, but once they fill their incoming class, they stop accepting students.
- Take applications seriously. Just because a school may be a backup doesn’t mean students should assume they will get in without trying. I encourage my clients to take the same approach they did with all other schools – send quality essays, take time to review and proofread, and send in optional supporting materials.
- Check the “space available” colleges. In May colleges evaluate how many students have enrolled and how much space, if any, they have. If you are in need of a backup school in May, June, or July, contact your counselor to find out which colleges and universities still have openings for students.
It is best to plan ahead and start thinking about alternatives junior year, but even in spring semester of senior year, students can take steps to add quality backup schools to their list.