It’s Virtual College Night at your son’s high school. The head of college guidance shares his screen with an overview of everything from list-building to Naviance, followed by student responsibilities over the next several months. You can’t believe that your precious is going off to college in less than a year — when suddenly a parent raises her virtual hand and asks “What if my child doesn’t get into college?”
A specific college. No. “What if he doesn’t get in anywhere?”
Every year, school and independent counselors field this question. Is it valid? Are there students who don’t get in anywhere, or is this just anxious-parent talk? Let’s look at what’s fueling the question—and the worst-case scenario, which isn’t so bad at all.
Volume Went Up in Some Places
In the 2020-21 application season, doing away with SAT and ACT requirements spurred record volumes at name-brand colleges and large public research universities. UCLA applications, for example, were up nearly 25 percent. NYU broke a record with 100,000 applications. Harvard accepted fewer than 4 percent of applicants. You get the idea.
Most Colleges Want Your Student
You hear about the big names, but what about the rest? They’re (virtually) vying for your student’s attention! No wonder they’re asking you to register for webinars, encouraging students to connect, hosting instant-decision days, and negotiating offers of financial assistance. Some have marketing gurus and use the latest algorithms and metrics; others are just trying to secure their future.
What we do know is that all colleges want to fill seats, and the earlier the better.
Parents Need to Be Hands-off
If your student has her sights set high and has the numbers to back it up, the last thing she needs is an anxious parent. What’s that look like? The kind of parent who might say, “Our list is down to 16 schools. We think some are reaches, but we’re including some Ivies anyway and more liberal arts schools. But my husband and I differ as to what the essays should be about.” (All true, by the way.)
The college process is the student’s to own. Still, your high-achiever needs to have a list that includes colleges that will be happy to have him on campus. It’s your child’s guidance department that has the best handle on the high school’s placement history. You need to resist the urge to go into your student’s Common App account, and keep your hands out the essays! (Yes, it happens every year.) They’ll be just fine.
What if your student is less-than-ambitious, somebody who messed up in chemistry and precalc, or the type who’s more into gaming than application platforms? There will still be a place for him.
Every spring, NACAC releases a list of colleges still accepting applications. So, even if your student doesn’t have the results he expects, there will still be possibilities from which he could always transfer.
But let’s say your student didn’t get into college — anywhere. He could volunteer, get a job in a service industry, learn coding or take a class at a community college. Then he could reapply as a more mature young adult, in which case colleges will likely find him a more appealing candidate. That wouldn’t be too bad, either.
About the Author
Nina Berler is a founder of unCommon Apps, where she works closely with high school students and their families on all aspects of the college process. She is the author of two ebook primers: Supplementing the College Supplement and Mastering the College Interview. Nina is a graduate of Brown University and has an MBA from the Stern School of Business, NYU.