College Decisions: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Spring is in the air and college is on the mind of many seniors across the country. Some seniors have made their college choices, some are waiting for more decisions, and many are comparing and awaiting financial aid offers. In the next three weeks or so, seniors should finish receiving college decisions. Then they will need to make their own choices. Here are a few things for seniors and their families to keep in mind. 

Variety of decisions.  It used to be that you could be admitted, denied, or waitlisted. Now there are more possibilities, such as:  

Admit: Congratulations! You are admitted and need to make a decision by May 1 about whether you will attend.

Deny: You are not admitted, and there is likely little you can do to change this decision. Occasionally, as in the case of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University, you can ask to be reconsidered for a different program or campus. At most other schools, a deny is the final answer. 

Wait list: You are not admitted and not yet denied. Most of the time, it is best to focus on where you are admitted and let go of wait list possibilities, as they are usually a long shot. Here are some wait list strategies and next steps we suggest.

January admit: You are admitted for the spring semester, typically starting in January. Why do colleges do this? They want to keep every seat filled when students transfer or study abroad. Generally, this means that they liked your application a lot, but couldn’t find room for you in the fall semester. Sometimes you can also access special study abroad programs for the fall semester. Example: Hamilton College

Conditional admit: You are admitted to the university, but not the program, department, or campus for which you applied. (I say “university” because at smaller colleges you are almost always applying to the college, not a specific program or department.) Example: You apply for Penn State main campus but are offered Penn State Brandywine instead. This can still be a good choice to reach your ultimate goal —in this case— graduating from Penn State in University Park after two years at Penn State Brandywine (or another campus).  

Summer admit: You are admitted but must start over the summer. Example: Penn State’s LEAP program. This is a great way to get more support as you transition to college. (Fun fact: if you’re admitted to Penn State for the fall, you can ask to transfer your admission to the summer to take advantage of this program.) 
Special programs: You are admitted to a program that includes a first year abroad or other nontraditional start. Often you are asked when you apply if you want to be considered. Examples: Northeastern University’s NU in program, University of Delaware’s World Scholars

Guaranteed transfer or transfer option: Note that the transfer option is actually not guaranteed! You have not been admitted, but you are encouraged to apply as a transfer after a year at another college where you must earn grades above a specific average (typically 3.0 or 3.5) to be a good candidate. Example: Cornell University’s transfer option. This is a good plan only if you remain completely in love with the college offering it, which is sometimes not the case after a year at another college.   

Financial aid. If you have received an admission from a college but not your aid award, check with your school’s college counseling office. If they indicate nothing is missing, contact the financial aid office by email or phone to check that your financial aid application is complete. Note: Colleges won’t share this confidential information with college counselors — the student or parent must reach out. 

 Financial aid can be confusing. Unfortunately, there is not one standardized format for financial aid award letters. Here are some helpful links: 

How To Read Your Financial Aid Award Letter – with five sample letters. This is a great overview of award letters. Unfortunately, there’s no rule that they all have to look the same, and it can be confusing to compare offers. That brings us to…
Financial Aid Comparison Worksheet– this is an interactive page where you can enter the different aid awards and compare them.  Here’s a PDF version that you can print and write on. 
Evaluating a Financial Aid Letter

Understanding and Comparing Financial Aid Letters 

What if you’re just not getting enough aid? Unfortunately, colleges expect families to pay up to 48% of their adjusted growth income — almost half of your parents’ salaries, in some cases. (The greater your income, the more you are expected to pay.) Need-based aid is often in the form of loans, not grants. However, sometimes it is still possible to ask for more aid. Here’s an article on how to appeal for more aid. It helps if you have more information to share, like a change in your parent’s job, a medical situation with a lot of unexpected bills, the cost of supporting family members, etc.  This article talks about information you need to ask for more aid if your financial situation has recently changed. Here are three more: 

How To Write a Financial Aid Appeal Letter + Examples

Appealing a Financial Aid Award During Covid-19
How To Appeal a Financial Aid Letter

While the information here is helpful, one of these articles suggests waiting until April so colleges will be more nervous about filling the class, but the College Counseling team at Westtown agrees that it is better to appeal now (or as soon as you get your aid award, if it is still forthcoming) while there is still flexibility in colleges’ financial aid budgets.  

Making college decisions. This process is a little different for each student and family. Sometimes cost is the deciding factor, sometimes location, program, campus, or something else. Some students like to make spreadsheets or pro/con lists. Others need time to themselves or want to talk about their thoughts. Your counselor can help you consider your options. If you need to miss school to visit colleges, remember to plan ahead, get permission from your school, communicate with your teachers, and make up all missed work.  

 Please reach out to your counselor along the way as you need help with any of these aspects. Seniors, as Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part. We are here to support you on this last stretch of your college application process.