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The College Admissions Process: How to Navigate Hearing Back from Colleges

Updated: Feb 5

Springtime has arrived! Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and you’re starting to hear back from colleges. Though you won’t likely hear back from all your schools at once, you should still prepare yourself for each decision. There are several scenarios that could happen with each school, so it’s important that you’re ready for each of the possibilities.

You’ve been accepted!

Congratulations!!! This is a huge milestone, no matter if it’s a “safety” school or a “reach.”

Every acceptance is a show of your hard work and is worth celebrating. Get some ice cream ASAP and tell the people who have been supporting you the good news. At this exact moment, you don’t need to think about scholarship offers, majors, future roommates, or any logistics. For today, just relax and enjoy your accomplishment.

You’ve been rejected.

This is a total bummer. It really hurts to work hard and put yourself out there, only to get a less-than-positive answer. Take the time you need to wallow a little, then do something that makes you feel good, like exercising or talking to a friend. Remember, many of the schools you are applying to are likely very selective. Even if a school has a 50% acceptance rate, that still means that half of the people who apply will be rejected. In many cases, a school’s acceptance rate is much lower than that. Even if you’ve had your heart set on a particular school, getting in will not make or break your future.

Your friends have heard back, but you’re still waiting.

This is understandably very frustrating. It can be hard to celebrate the wins of your friends while you’re still waiting to hear back, especially if you applied to the same school. However, it’s really important to keep your support system around you. Be excited for your friend, and at the same time know that they did not “take your spot.” It’s very likely that your application is still being reviewed. Even if they ultimately got in somewhere that you did not, it simply means that the admissions committee (who has been doing this for a long time) thought that your friend would be a better fit for that particular school—not that they are “better” or “smarter” than you.

You’ve been waitlisted.

This outcome can be totally nerve-wracking and emotional. Take the time you need to process. While the fact that it’s not an outright acceptance can be it’s disappointing, a waitlist is not a rejection! After you’ve had some time to reflect, there are a few steps you can take.

  • The first is to decide how important this school is to you. Maybe you’ve already received a few acceptances that you’re excited about and don’t feel the need to proceed further. In that case, you can stop here!

  • If you are interested in pursuing this school further, you can sometimes check the admission's website for FAQs about their waitlist. Some schools only waitlist a few people, while others may waitlist hundreds. Some schools have ranked or tiered waitlists, while others do not.

  • In addition, some schools may find it helpful to write Letters of Continued Interest, or—if it’s your first-choice school—letting them know that, if accepted, you plan to attend.

  • As you’re planning, be aware that many waitlists do not let people know until pretty late in the cycle, often after the deadline to commit to another school. Keep in mind that you may have to commit to a different school while waiting to hear back from the one you’ve been waitlisted at.

You haven’t received scholarship money to a dream school.

As exciting as it is to receive an acceptance, scholarship money is a big factor for many people in determining where they will ultimately attend. You may be accepted to your dream school but not be offered any money, whereas a different or “safety” school could offer you much more. Here are some tips and tricks for different scenarios:

  • First, it’s incredibly important to fill out the FAFSA so that you can be offered scholarships. Even if you don’t qualify for merit aid, most schools require that you have a FAFSA on file.

  • In some cases, especially at a school where your ACT or SAT scores are very competitive, you may have the opportunity to negotiate. Some schools are willing to match or beat scholarship offers that other schools have offered you. If it’s a school that you’re interested in, it’s definitely worth calling the admissions office to ask.

  • Know your walkaway point. As set as you might be on a certain school, you need to ask yourself what amount of debt you’re willing to take on by the time you’re 22. That level might look very different for different people, but it’s crucial to take into account as you make your decision. The prestige of the school or program may be important, but so is the location, job outcomes, and most importantly—your happiness.

Good luck on your decision-making process, and congratulations! These are huge milestones, and you deserve to celebrate every step of the way. Whatever decision you make will be the right one, and if it’s not, The Whole Kid will be there to give you advice about transferring schools, switching majors, getting more involved on campus, better preparing for tests, and more.

Sarah Tibbitts is a 2020 graduate of The Ohio State University and currently works as a Social Justice Fellow at Hillel at Stanford University. She is also currently navigating the law school admissions process (so she gets it!).


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