It's About Time!

It occurs to us that the concept of time has become a significant dynamic in the college admissions process in recent years. Time measured in planning and dealing with deadlines has turned time into a version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, where time loses its true reckoning. Which is to say that we have been thinking and talking a lot about time in relation to what has become a longer and more drawn out admissions process for most students, yet which starts earlier than ever to preoccupy the minds of both students and parents alike. When we begin discussions of college admissions with families today, one point we make (time and again) is that the process is going to begin earlier, and likely last longer, than students imagined, and than parents experienced if they went through the American college admissions process a generation ago.

The ever accelerating marketing efforts by colleges of all sizes and stripes has pushed the time line forward by encouraging students to apply on one of the many, and ever more confusing, early deadlines. Can a family, not to mention an experienced counselor, keep track of which colleges have Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, Early Decision I and II, priority early application plans, or “VIP” apps, let alone how these play out in the actual admissions selection process? One keeps ever expanding lists of deadlines and requirements, and must check websites constantly to stay up to date on options, but even then, students must decide on strategies.

There is a hurry up and wait dynamic at play here. We see more and more students and their families believing they need to apply on one early plan or another to enhance a student’s chances for acceptance. With a wink and a nod approach in many instances, admissions representatives are encouraging this belief. Yet in the final analysis a majority of applicants will be denied if not deemed qualified, deferred for later consideration if a potential admit in the larger pool, or in thousands of instances held on a wait list well into the end of the school year. This is the outcome of the hurry and wait dynamic. Time moves forward at an accelerating rate and then all too frequently is frozen for applicants like 6:00 at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

This effort not only to widen the funnel of the applicant pool, but also to stimulate students to commit earlier and earlier is typical of a majority of selective colleges these days, and this situation represents the conundrums and questions many families are bringing to the college counseling office, and to admissions information sessions. Advisors and admissions officers should be able to address admissions approaches among varying colleges, or how their institution, shapes its class.

Second, for counselors, we believe it is essential to help frame the “normal” college admissions calendar for families early in the process, and through senior year. No student or parent likes to hear in Junior year, or September of Senior year, that they should frame the college admissions process as one that is likely to last well into Senior Spring. However, they will thank you later for hearing that advice. If a student applies to a first choice college ED (after appropriate analysis and consideration) and is accepted, he or she will be thrilled. If the ED (or EA) decision is a deferral or denial, he or she will have been duly warned about the importance of completing other regular decision applications ahead of time, keeping up grades, and expressing appropriate continuing interest in the ED and other institutions. One can also point out the chance to compare multiple need- and/or merit-based financial offers once multiple colleges have offered admission in the Spring.

We try to approach all of this in as positive and reassuring a manner as possible. Having senior year to continue to show good grades, or improving grades when necessary, can really help a student who is on the borderline for admission to a college of strong interest. There are multiple test dates to take advantage of, as late as December or January, for an ACT, SAT, or Subject Test. There is a chance to secure another supportive recommendation letter from a senior year teacher. There is time to consider appropriate colleges and particular academic programs that will fit a student’s developing interests. Finally, we likely speak for many counselors when we recognize the importance of maturation in the college process, and the prevalence of changes in a student’s preferences from the beginning to the end of Senior year. Visits to campuses post-admission in April can be essential for students to confirm the kind of college experience they are looking for, and the particular colleges that is the best fit for them. Now is the time to remind students, whether Sophomores or Seniors, that time can be of great value to them in the college admissions process.

A version of this article appeared in CollegeBound Newsletter, October, 2015