What to do if you didn't get into your dream college

lruebens@charlotteobserver.comApril 14, 2014 

It’s that nail-biting time of year: Colleges have commenced sending acceptance letters to high school seniors.

“There’s still a lot of anxiousness out there,” said Thomas Griffin, N.C. State University’s director of undergraduate admissions.

And unfortunately, colleges can’t admit every applicant. “It’s certainly understandable to be unhappy for a couple of days,” said Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions. But don’t be upset for too long, he said. “All is not lost, and in fact, there are so many great things awaiting that it’s a shame to focus on what isn’t – it’s much better to focus on what is.”

So, didn’t get your first choice? Dry your tears, take heart and read on for the many options students can consider in making tweaks to college plans.

Don’t take it personally

Don’t take rejection letters personally, said Claire Kirby, admissions director at UNC Charlotte. The sheer volume of applications schools receive means there will be a lot of people who don’t get in, she said.

The numbers prove it: UNCC received 17,000 applications for 3,200 spots. UNC Chapel Hill got more than 31,300 applications and admitted 8,790. At N.C. State, close to 20,200 students applied, and about 10,000 were accepted. Duke University admitted 3,499 high school seniors from a pool of more than 32,500 applicants.

“That’s a lot of applications and you can’t take it personally with that many applicants in the pool. It’s really competitive,” Kirby said.

What if you’re wait-listed?

Some universities will put students they neither accept nor deny on wait-lists. Acceptance from those lists comes in May, after students must have enrolled elsewhere, said Guttentag said.

If a student is admitted from a wait-list and wants to attend, they will forfeit the other school’s enrollment fee, he said. Universities expect the number of enrolled students to decrease because of this, and Guttentag said there’s even a term admissions officers use for it: “summer melt.”

If you’re on a wait-list for a school you really want to attend, it’s worth contacting the school to express interest, Guttentag said.

Ask if more information is needed, and if the school would like you to send an additional letter of recommendation. But don’t contact the admissions office every week, he warned, and don’t be tacky.

“But it’s not inappropriate, every two to three weeks, to send an email to the admissions office or admissions officer saying, ‘I just want you to know I’m still interested; please keep me in mind.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Focus on moving forward

Admissions officers said they’re happy to set up times to talk by phone or in person about options for students their school denied.

“We feel horrible because the truth is we do disappoint many students who would be successful here,” said Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions at UNC Chapel Hill. “And we know how much they’re hurting, and we hurt for them. We are here to talk to them, and we are here for them.”

Admissions officers said it’s important to keep an open mind: Chances are, students got into at least one or more other schools, and chances are better that students could also be happy at those schools. A college experience, Memory said, depends not so much on the actual school but what students make of their time there.

If a school denies a student, officers said, it’s a good bet the student is a better fit at another school. Another option for getting experience at a dream school, Memory said, is graduate school.

Tools to use

Aside from speaking with high school guidance counselors and admissions officers, students who didn’t get into their top choice school and aren’t sure where to turn can go to the College Foundation of North Carolina website, at cfnc.org.

The site offers a free service called the College Redirection module. It’s connected with the state’s 58 community colleges, 36 independent colleges and the 17 schools in the UNC system, said Mark Wiles, director of the CFNC Pathways program.

Here’s how it works: Students enter information about themselves, including high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores and intended college major. Schools still accepting applications or with openings will search entries and contact students they’re interested in to get more information.

Wiles said the program began in 2003, and about 650 students who enter are placed with schools each year.

The transfer option

That’s where transferring comes in.

Most schools consider transfer students after a successful year at college somewhere else.

Some schools have 2+2 programs, which means students can attend one public state school for two years and finish their degree for the next two years at another, all while staying on track for a particular major. At N.C. State, for example, Griffin said, an engineering student can enter the program and study for two years at UNC Wilmington and transfer as a junior into State’s engineering program.

There’s also the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, which says that if students complete a two-year associate’s degree at a community college, they can transfer to a four-year college and can consider their general education requirements fulfilled for schools in the UNC system, Griffin said.

Sometimes students miss out on a great experience where they are, Memory said, because they’re too focused on leaving. Universities like to see that students did well academically and made the most of their first year or years of college when they consider them as transfer students, she said.

Memory said often students surprise themselves. “Students end up enrolling at other universities that serve them well, and then end up being perfectly happy there.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens

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