Tips For Finding Quality Backup Schools

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:

  1.  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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.



Sending Red Flags for College Admission

This week I was driving with my two kids in the car.  My six-year-old son turns to his big sister out of the blue and says, “I have more points that you could ever have on Disney games!”

This sounded like the start of a fight.  They’ve been home all summer and are beginning to get on each other’s nerves.  But before I launched into another lecture, I asked, “Why did you say that to your sister?  It sounded like you wanted to make her feel bad.”

He was surprised, “No, I want Margaret to be proud of me.  She doesn’t even play the Disney Junior games on the computer.”  A simple misunderstanding.

This type of communication error was exactly what I explained to some students earlier in the week– it’s not only what you say, but also how you choose to say it.  In my son’s case, he thought his eleven year old sister would be impressed with his accomplishments, not knowing that the way he said it came across as hostile.  Many students have the same problem in clearly expressing their achievements to colleges and universities.

Whether in an admissions essay, interview, email, or casual encounter with an admissions officer, too many students don’t think and send out red flags with their words.  Here are just a few examples:

“I didn’t make good grades in middle school, but I’ve been an honor student every year in high school.”  Colleges won’t have middle school grades.  Why undermine the achievement by starting with a negative fact that isn’t relevant?

“I only advanced to the quarter-finals.”  This came from a student describing his experience at a national speech and debate tournament.  ONLY!  “Only” the quarter-finals at a highly competitive event is a BIG deal.  Don’t let disappointment or a fear of appearing immodest lead you to phrase accomplishments as if they are setbacks.

“I am president of the Spanish Club, but we don’t do much.”  A former student revealed this in a mock interview.  The interviewer was looking to start conversation by saying, “I see on your resume you are president of the Spanish Club.  What do you do?”  Not only is this a lesson in “think before you speak,” but it also underscores the importance of knowing the value of everything listed on your resume.

“This year I am president of NHS at my school.  It was an honor to be elected, but some of the people are difficult to work with.”  As part of a greater essay that would explain the challenges of leadership and how this student was able to overcome them, this statement might be acceptable.  However, on its own, it unnecessarily raises questions.  Is this student unable to work with others?  Lacking in leadership skills?  Is there more to the story?

Every applicant has control of the information given to colleges during the admissions process.  Avoid sending red flags for college admission or unnecessarily drawing attention to negatives while in the process of presenting positives.



, ,

College Admission: Can We Beat The System?


My son is applying to a bunch of state schools in Texas, but Texas A&M is his top choice. He is not in the top 10%, so won’t be automatically admitted.   He wants to apply to engineering, but it is so competitive at A&M. Would he be better off listing his first choice major in engineering and his second choice in another less-competitive field?  (We were thinking agriculture.)


This is a popular question. Essentially it boils down to whether or not students who are applying to a competitive school can game the system by choosing a particular major. In other words, this parent is asking if it would it be easier for her son to get into A&M if he chose a major other than engineering.  Would it increase his odds?

First, a word of caution, at some schools it’s very difficult to change majors. There are some universities where it is almost impossible to transfer into a popular major if you are not initially admitted into that program.  Some students trying to find ways around competitive admissions standards find themselves stuck in a program they don’t like.

One example…I was touring North Carolina State University two years ago. One of their most competitive programs is Elementary Education. At the time they were admitting 60 students per year and the only way you could transfer into Elementary Education was if one of those 60 people left.

Be very careful in applying to things that aren’t really your intention with the idea of being able to increase your odds for admission.

Second, schools are going to look at a student’s first choice of major and if that student doesn’t qualify, they will offer another department before rejecting the student.  Going back to the question, if the son doesn’t qualify for engineering at A&M but A&M would have him in another department, they will make an offer of admission.  In other words, the school will say, “We don’t have a place for you in engineering but we do have a place for you at the university in general.”

For years I’ve heard rumors generated by students looking for short-cuts. Some of them are just laughable. When I worked as a school counselor I heard students strategizing about how they would get past their lower class ranks and gain admission to the University of Texas.  One said,  “Man, you’ve got to apply to UT as a nursing student. They don’t get a lot of applications from guys in nursing. You’ll be in.”   I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation as I was eavesdropping, but the school of nursing at the University of Texas is pretty competitive. True, they do get more women applying, but they still get a number of very well qualified, very interested, young men. That strategy was not going to work!

Most often when you hear the latest way to get around challenging admissions standards, it isn’t true.  If you are torn between different majors and aren’t sure what to list on your application, give the university an honest answer based on your top choices at the time.  If the student from this question is honestly interested in both engineering and agriculture, it would be fine to list engineering first and agriculture second.  When in doubt, you can always call the admissions office and speak to a counselor.

As my grandfather always told us, “When you tell one lie, you have to tell 100 more to keep covering it up.”  Don’t play games with your college applications.  Answer honestly.


Do you have any questions about admission rumors you’ve heard?  Want to share some of the crazy strategies people are discussing in your area?  Leave a comment below.



Do Colleges Care About Gifted & Talented?



My daughter will be entering high school next year. She has always been in the GT program. How important is it for her to continue in GT? How do colleges view GT?

A lot elementary and middle schools stress GT – or the Gifted & Talented program. In my experience, GT is not a significant factor in most high schools and it plays a very minimal role in college admissions. Read more