Preparing for the college decision letter

By Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
Posted on Apr 11, 2019

Few days in a teenager’s life are more important than the days when they find out which colleges have accepted or rejected them. Indeed, parents may feel these are some of the most important days in their own lives as well. Most families will experience a combination of good and bad news — rejections from top picks, acceptances with insufficient financial aid, wait lists — so it’s good to be prepared for every outcome. And to remember the strength that comes from mutual support.

Acceptance

An acceptance is a cause for celebration.

“College acceptances should be accompanied with great joy: Students’ hard work and achievements, not to mention their skill in composing the college application, have paid off,” said Jeremy Hyman, coauthor of " The Secrets of Picking a College" and "The Secrets of College Success."

But acceptance can be tricky when it comes from more than one school. How can students choose between two or more worthy suitors?

Cost

“Financially, it's important to incorporate how you will pay into your consideration of your options,” said Sabrina Manville, a former university administrator and the founder of Edmit, which helps families with college financial decisions. “An acceptance is a cause to celebrate if it also includes a financial aid award and price that you can shoulder as a family. Make sure you understand your actual price by considering what is ‘free money,’ in the form of grants and scholarships, and what will need to be paid back in the form of loans.” ( Learn more: What high schoolers should know about college loans )

To simplify the process, use this college comparison tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to compare first-year costs of attendance, first-year financial aid, and debt at graduation for up to three schools at a time. And if you have financial aid offers from more than one school, use them to your advantage.

"Shop the offers,” Hyman recommended. “Many colleges, especially well-capitalized ones, will match financial aid offers of schools they consider similar—for example, schools of similar caliber that offer need-based financial aid.” Cornell , for example, says it will try to match an offer from another Ivy League school, Stanford, Duke, or MIT.

If, however, you don't have a competing offer, the only thing you can do is present financial information that has changed since you applied, such as a new kid in the family, a parent’s job loss, an expensive illness, and so on, Hyman explained. And not all schools will work with competing offers—they may not have the funds to do so, or they may have different criteria for financial aid.

Some people opt to consult a financial advisor to help figure out their own specific options for college funding. ( Find an advisor)

You can also use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to evaluate information such as the average cost of attendance for students in various financial brackets and the average salary of the schools’ federal financial aid recipients 10 years after graduation. This information can help you figure out if paying more to attend a certain school might be worth it.

Qualifications

To separate schools on factors other than finances, consider gathering information from several sources:

  • Additional college visits.
  • Current students.
  • Trusted high school teachers, advisors, and school counselors.

Also think about these things:

  • Which school checks most of your boxes?
  • Where can you get the most credits for AP and IB test results?
  • If you want to study in a specific field, which school has the best reputation or most unique opportunities in that area?
  • How often do you want to visit home, and how easy will it be in terms of time and cost?
  • How will the weather affect your quality of life at different schools?

               (Learn more: Choosing a college )

Getting back to budgets for a moment, Manville recommends that families start to budget in the spring and early summer for college living expenses and the cash on hand their student will need. Housing deposits, tuition, and fees will be due soon after acceptance. And if student loans are necessary, she said a typical rule of thumb is to not borrow more for all four years than a student’s expected salary right after graduation.

Finally, while students are celebrating acceptance, they should be sensitive to friends and classmates who may have been rejected by those same schools. They should officially decline offers from schools they aren’t attending to open up waitlist spots. It’s also important to keep working hard while finishing senior year so as not to jeopardize an acceptance . Colleges want to see final transcripts upon graduation.

Waitlist

Getting placed on a school’s wait list might be less devastating than getting rejected outright. But it comes with its own set of challenges and next steps.

First, students will need to decide whether to accept their spot on the waitlist. Accepting that spot means keeping hope alive. But it also means remaining in a state of limbo for even longer. Some students might prefer the certainty eliminating the wait list option and simply choosing to attend a school that’s provided a firm acceptance.

Students commonly had a less than 10 percent chance of getting admitted off the wait list for the 2017–18 academic year for most of the 142 schools college admissions consultant College Transitions collected data on. Boston College reportedly offered 6,477 applicants a wait list spot and admitted only 16 of them. You may accept a wait list position if you like, but it’s probably advisable to make other plans as well.

If you want to make a final push and hope for the best, consider sending a “letter of enthusiasm.” Ivy Coach , a college admissions counseling firm, coined this term to describe a letter of continued interest to a college from a waitlisted student. The company believes that doing nothing is the worst thing a waitlisted student can do and that submitting a highly specific letter within a few days of receiving a waitlist notification is essential if you want to become one of the rare few to gain acceptance.

Rejection

It can be hard not to take a college rejection letter personally after everything a student puts into the application, including the personal essay and all the time —years, really — of studying and extracurricular activities that went into creating the profile of an promising applicant.

Ideally, teachers, parents, and school counselors will have been preparing students for the possibility of rejection from the moment they started picking potential schools. It’s less likely to come as a shock this way, and discussing coping strategies ahead of time can make not getting into a first-choice school easier to deal with.

“It's tempting to think there is one perfect dream school for you,” said Manville. “The reality is that you will be able to thrive at a variety of schools—and the data shows that, in terms of future career success, it matters more what you do when you’re in college than which college you go to.”

Further, you can do everything right and still not get in. Rejection rates are higher than 90 percent at the nation’s top schools. Acceptance often has more to do with the vagaries of the admissions process and the limited number of spaces available than with an individual’s qualifications. That’s the unfortunate reality of today’s college landscape.

Students and their parents should allow some time to process the rejection, perhaps a week, but not allow for shirking responsibilities such as homework or self-care. Getting out of the house, hanging out with similarly situated friends, exercising, falling into a good book, and snuggling with pets can help ease disappointment.

Not getting into a school doesn’t erase any of a student’s accomplishments — a message parents can reinforce while empathizing with disappointment and reminding their child of the importance of aiming high and taking smart risks even though not every opportunity will pan out.

And while it won’t feel like it at the time, rejection can be an opportunity to develop resiliency—a key skill in becoming a successful adult. So is being gracious in the face of disappointment, so it’s important to congratulate friends and classmates who did get into their first-choice schools.

Then, it’s time to start working on plan B, because the schools that do say yes will often require an acceptance decision by May 1. Check the acceptance letter for the school’s deadline.

Bottom line

A college rejection is no indication of a student’s worth or accomplishments, nor does it predict the future. Choices, work ethic, and relationships are what will determine a young adult’s future success or failure—not the specific college he or she attends. Recognize that getting on a wait list offers little hope of acceptance, but a final push might help. Finally, wherever a student does decide to attend, they will likely find close friends, develop new interests, and make great memories — and if things don’t work out, transferring is always an option.

And remember, whatever the decision, that everyone arrived at this point through mutual support, and will go forward in the same way. Because we're stronger, together.

Learn more from MassMutual...

Biggest college freshman financial blunders

How to save on college? (without a scholarship)

6 ways to cut college costs in half

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.