You’ve received a decision! Now what?

burnt_out_from_studying March can be a month of mixed emotions for high school seniors and their parents. As colleges wrap up the application season and finalize their freshman classes, decisions will begin to trickle out, often with little to no fanfare. With many colleges notifying via email or through online applicant portals, gone are the days of running to the mailbox, awaiting those thick envelopes.

There is an inherent injustice to this timeline; while students have been waiting several months for a decision, the universal college response date requires that they make the choice of where they will attend by May 1st, and must confirm their college of choice with a non-refundable enrollment deposit. Ideally, the front-runner responds with an acceptance and sufficient aid package. More often than not, however, it’s not so simple. Here are some tips for making heads and tails of decision season.

Create a decision game plan.

As with many things in life, it can be helpful to consider and discuss all potential outcomes: plan for the best, but prepare for possible disappointment. There is no harm in remaining optimistic about “reach” schools, but should they not work out, it will be easier to recover if the other options have been part of the discussion. Remember what made each college appealing enough to go through the admissions process in the first place, and try to remain excited about all options.

Try to make peace with unfavorable decisions.

No one likes rejection. As a parent, be supportive during this tough time, and remind your child that, although it feels personal, it’s not; the admissions process is a numbers game. Institutions have a finite number of beds on campus, and far more qualified applicants than they can admit. Being denied admission is not a reflection of one’s self-worth or ability. Every year, colleges turn away thousands students who could be successful on their campus. It may hurt at the time, but this can be a good exercise in handling defeat and bouncing back.

Addressing admissions ambiguity.

A student may be waitlisted when colleges have too many qualified students to offer admission, but want to reserve a buffer in case they don’t meet their enrollment target by May 1st. The first step is generally to accept a place on the waitlist; not every student will, so the waitlist itself is comprised of students who have opted in, and are willing to wait it out.

Colleges wait until after May 1st to evaluate what their class looks like, so it’s important to submit a deposit to another college to ensure that the student has a place for the fall. This means possibly losing that deposit, if the waitlist works out. In some cases, students won’t know until mid- to late-June if places will become available. Waitlist activity differs greatly from year to year, and can be very difficult to predict. It is definitely worth considering whether the school matters enough to hang in limbo until mid-summer.

Celebrate ALL acceptances, no matter what.

Negative and ambiguous decisions aside, there is much to celebrate this time of year! Students should remind themselves that for every school they were admitted to, there were many students who weren’t so lucky. This should not be an exercise in ego-boosting, but rather one of retaining a humble perspective; remember, nothing can, or should, be taken for granted when it comes to college admissions.

As positive decisions roll in, students will find themselves – finally – in a position of power. Remember what inspired you to apply to each school in the first place, and let yourself get excited by the prospect of attending. And don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for the hard work that got you here.

Crunch the numbers.

If excitement and interest are equal, it’s possible that a financial aid package or merit scholarship will make the choice easier. While not the most fun part of this process, crunching the numbers to determine what a four-year education will cost at each option is strongly advised, and it is important for students to understand what it will mean for them down the line.

Get all of your questions answered.

Throughout the month of April, colleges are likely to roll out the red carpet to host events on- and off-campus to help students make up their minds. Local receptions for admitted students, or open houses on campus will offer opportunities to meet again with admissions staff, and potentially with faculty and current students, too. Students are often given a chance to sit in on classes, eat in the dining hall, speak with advisers, tour lab facilities and more. If possible, attending these events can be quite influential in making a final decision. Colleges may also enlist current students and local alumni to reach out to recently admitted students, and these conversations may offer additional insight into the college experience at a particular institution. Be sure to take advantage of all of these opportunities to get any remaining questions answered.

Don’t lose sight of “fit.”

Ultimately, each student must identify the place where he or she is likely to feel most comfortable, academically and socially. Being comfortable academically doesn’t mean skating by; rather, it’s a matter of determining the kind of classroom environment where you’ll thrive, who you want your peers to be, and the academic opportunities are available. Socially, can you see yourself fitting in? Does the college offer the types of clubs and organizations you want to be part of, and does the “vibe” of the campus feel like one you could enjoy for four years?

It cannot be emphasized enough that this should be at the core of any choice: feeling connected to the place, and being able to find a sense of community, will help foster a positive classroom experience. If an enrollment decision is based on sincere interest and excitement, the choice is likely to be the best one.

Stacey MiltonYou’ve received a decision! Now what?