After going through a tough college admissions cycle, I want to share a story that might give some of you a more realistic picture of the nature of what happens with college admissions and how to manage your expectations in a complicated system. I will not be covering my whole admissions story here ( that would be way to long and dilute the discussion of this post) but I can say I am happy with my choice of college and that this post is in no way meant to promote cynicism or negativity towards the admissions office or the particular college that gave me this experience.
I set really high goals for myself throughout high school, so I knew I was going to aim far and wide when applying to college, and when the application period came around, I knew I would have to work on showing demonstrated interest. Due to the country being in a lockdown, most colleges started holding online events where staff members and students would promote their schools. I came onto this school through receiving its mail frequently, and thought I could be a good fit. The most distinctive features of this school was its location in a prominent north-western city, it’s small size, and its highly dedicated academic culture. The school was far from my top choice because I was more interested in the arts than the liberal arts, but as I got to know this school better from the frequent emails and physical mail, I knew I was going to give this college a shot (the fact that the application was free didn’t hurt).
The first time I had an actual interaction with this school was when I signed up for an online interview with my admission counselor. I looked up this individual to see their background and read some articles on how to do a successful college interview. The interview went over pretty smoothly, with the only hiccup being that I spoke with a different admission counselor than the one assigned. The questions were casual, and the interview evolved into more of a conversation about the college over an evaluative format. Overall I came out with a pretty good feeling about this college, and a positive impression about my chances of getting in.
I submitted my application a little after my interview, and honestly pulled the regular decision deadline pretty tight due to the high volume of applications I was working on. I know that the best way to maximize your chances is to apply early action, but I felt like my first semester senior grades would strengthen my application, and I had a rough year on my transcript that brought down my average gpa. I worked pretty hard on the college specific prompt, and made sure to submit ample additional materials through the colleges admission portal. I might have even leaned into over-submitting supporting information, but the online portal took all of the recommendations from my school, and even allowed for a resume and a variety of additional information to be submitted.
Around February, this college started emailing my family and me at an increased frequency, and I even received a personalized postcard written by a current student in the mail. Around this time I also got offers to attend additional online events run by the college, including the chance to sit in on an actual class and attend a guest lecture.
I had an interesting experience attending the live class. I signed up online and was emailed a link and additional guidelines for attendance. I was also told that the admission office would track attendance by prospective students and that space was limited in these classes. When the time came for me to join the class virtually, the meeting link turned out to be broken. I called the office overseeing these classes, which happened to be the campus visit team (this will be important later) and no one picked up, so I left a rather urgent sounding message. I also emailed the department, and received a link to an empty zoom meeting. After sitting in on the empty meeting confused, another prospective student joined, and helped me get to the actual meeting where the live class was taking place. After all of this, I was a good 30 minutes late to this class. The actual class was good, and I could see how this college lived up to its reputation for strong teaching. The class was in person, so my ability to participate was limited, but I could see that the students were pretty active and asked good questions. After the professor finished her lecture, she actually set some time aside to speak to me and the other prospective student. I also got to speak with a student in the meeting who told me she had attended this exact class when she was a prospective student and really enjoyed the college.
Overall, all of these interactions made me feel almost a part of this college’s community without even stepping a foot on campus. Although the college still wasn’t my top choice, my level of interest in attending had really grown and I honestly felt like I could have a future at this school.
The beginning of the end happened in March when I received my decision, a waitlist offer. Of course, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t ready to move on yet, since this year was very unpredictable for admissions and my stats weren’t the best. I gave this college the benefit of the doubt and sent in a thoughtful waitlist letter detailing my previous interactions with the college and increased gpa, along with an update on this PSA I made that was airing on local TV. Honestly, the way I received my decision was weird, because I was emailed my waitlist offer (over the admission portal being updated), and the waitlist process involved an open invitation to directly email the admission office a letter of any length and send in anything that could help me get additional consideration. I was also waitlisted at two other colleges, and their processes were a lot more systemized and close-ended.
Ex: Get an admission portal update, check a box to accept waitlist offer, write a short response about continued interest.
In April, I got the opportunity to visit my top choice colleges. My third choice happened to be located within 30 minutes of this college I’m writing about, and I would have gladly chosen this college over my third choice, so I wanted to sign up for a in-person visit. When I looked at the college’s web page regarding visits, I saw that there was a limited number of spots open, and that admitted students were welcome to sign up. I emailed the campus visit department, explaining my circumstances and hope to visit the college if a tour spot was available. The particular person who emailed me back, let’s just call her “Amelia”, said that the college was taking admitted students only, but that spots would be opening up soon. Based off of the college’s email about the waitlist and discussion online about when people would be accepted off the waitlist, the timing of my visit could have worked out to be around the same time as an early waitlist admission offer. This was also the only chance I would get to physically visit my college options, and I was still very undecided about where I wanted to go. My dad told me he got a different response from the college when he called the campus visit department, and he went ahead and registered us for a visit.
After a week and a half of traveling, my scheduled visit to this college was a day away. I had recently received the final confirmation email, including parking directions and a covid-screening questionnaire. I was sitting around the place I was staying when I got a phone call from an unknown number in the region. I answered and guess who it was… it was Amelia. Amelia confirmed it was me on the line before rudely speaking about how she had checked the admitted student list and I wasn’t on it. She informed me that she was going to cancel my visit, but I spoke up and tried to justify my case to her, including my active waitlist status, my previous interactions with the college, and the fact that I had already traveled to the area to visit the college. She wasn’t very receptive, and hung up after somewhat condescendingly saying that there was plenty of space on the tour tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be fair to admitted students if I was allowed to go. I was kind of upset after the phone call, and told my dad that we wouldn’t be allowed to visit.
After exploring the area for a bit, my dad and I decided we were going to wing it and turn up to the college tomorrow during our scheduled visit time. We had already come this far, so the worst that could happen is that we get turned down at the door. We both knew we didn’t want to miss out on our last possible chance to see this college.
When I arrived the next morning I was nervous, I was worried Amelia would be waiting at the tour meetup point ready to angrily ask why I had come. Instead, we walked over and saw three people at the meetup location. It was just a student tour guide, and a student and her mom here for the same reason as us. The student guide was friendly, and when I said I was here for the tour, he said he wasn’t expecting another party, but would still take us. My dad and I made small talk with the other family for the next five minutes while the student guide started to nervously look around. He told us he was waiting for an admission ambassador from the campus visit team, but we were running so behind time he decided to start the tour. My dad and I were well prepared for this visit, so we were ready with the required go notification from the covid-safety check. The tour was going well, and the guide was entertaining. He told us about the famous alleged haunting in a residence hall and the best places to study on campus. Then, the guide’s phone rang, he picked up, and the tour stopped dead in its tracks.
The guide looked confused and told us we were going to wait for an admission ambassador to reach us because of a situation. We made some more small-talk before I saw a man wearing black approaching us. When he reached the group, he asked for me to come forward and speak with him away from the group.
Off to the side, he said that Amelia had spoken to me beforehand about coming here. Due to college policy the tour was meant for admitted students only, so my dad and I would have to leave immediately. I spoke up one last time and told him how this was my last chance, and he looked like he was about to cry. He sadly told me that he was sorry, and I walked back over to my dad and we drove off, leaving the lush, quiet campus behind.
Due to everything that occurred, my experience applying to this college wasn’t a happy one. There is something sad about the large disconnect between the academic and experiential soul of a college and the gatekeeping administration. Both wouldn’t be able to exist without each other, but this experience helped me understand that there is a cold, hard reality under the fantasy surrounding the college experience that ambassadors and ads sell you. College is a business, and in this case, this particular school valued the judgement from an in-perfect process over the community standards and honor it strives to promote. Colleges, especially selective liberal arts institutions, sell the image of a community that thinks critically and promotes light in a dark world. These colleges want be the progressive and inspirational places that foster the best in humanity, and in turn, draw in the best people to praise the four years they spent making memories in the college’s old, green clutches.
Yet, colleges have the same faults as all of us, and their less-than altruistic needs can cause harm even with the best of intentions. There are two messages from this story, one at a more practical level and one at a much deeper one. At the practical level, don’t go as far as I did with this particular college. Chasing after that one school by giving many more hours of your time and energy than it is worth is exhausting. Let yourself like a college for what it is, but also manage your expectations and allow yourself to keep some emotional distance. Think about this idea like the way we think about celebrities. Some of them have this larger than life and highly desirable image that makes people drawn to them, but you don’t really know them, and there is still a person there. Some people can be real jerks, and some people aren’t everything you hope they are. At a deeper level, I think the growing selectivity and elitism occurring in admissions is a flaw, not a virtue. It is causing colleges to have less and less boundaries due to a desire to “rank high”, which means they are going to disappoint a lot more students due to false promises and gatekeeping their communties while simultaneously wanting you to feel like one of them. Be willing to look at a variety of different options for schools and understand you can like a lot about each of them, but overall, there is no perfect fit school for you and it’s what you make out of your time and life after school that matters.
TLDR: Try to have a healthy prospective about college admissions! I had a bad experience with a selective school that would make me turn down a waitlist offer.
(If the school is willing to give me one after they kicked me off their campus)