What to do if you don’t get accepted at college

Katherine Cohen is an independent university admissions counselor, founder and CEO of IvyWise, a comprehensive educational consulting company working with students from more than 40 countries, and the author of two books about getting into college: “The Truth About Getting In” and “Rock Hard Apps,” which is about writing the killer college application.

Cohen graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University, then earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale University, where she also served as a reader in the Yale Office of Admissions, evaluating student applications. She received her certificate in College Admission Counseling from U.C.L.A. Extension.

College admissions isn’t what it used to be.

Over the past 10 years, the process of applying to college has changed dramatically, with dropping admission rates, more complex applications and the revision of the SAT and ACT tests. These days, it’s easy for students to fall behind on their college preparation, leaving them with few – if any – college options if they don’t get it done.

The key to success when applying to college is to start early and develop a balanced list of best-fit colleges, reach colleges (which are tougher to get in), and likely colleges (safety choices). For many students, this can be the most difficult part of the admissions journey. Many end up either applying to only one or too many out-of-reach colleges (that they end up being rejected from), or haphazardly applying to likely colleges thinking they’re a shoo-in, and not getting the outcome they expected. Colleges consider factors like demonstrated interest, how likely a student is to attend, and yield — the actual percentage of admitted students who enroll — when making decisions. And a sloppy application to a “safety” school can sometimes end in rejection.

Other factors can also leave students empty-handed when the colleges and universities start mailing out acceptances. Perhaps as a result of poor grades, disciplinary problems, or just lack of motivation, students may find themselves at the end of their high school careers without a clear path to college.

For those left with few or no college acceptances at the end of the senior year of high school, not all hope is lost. There are still options to consider in order to stay productive over the next year and eventually secure an acceptance to a best-fit college.

Take a gap year

This is a popular option for many students who were unable to secure an acceptance to a top-choice college, or any college at all. The growing popularity of the gap year isn’t just the result of students finding it difficult to get into college, though. Research has shown that, even for high-achieving students, a gap year can be an immensely positive experience that can increase motivation and chances of graduating from college once they do get to campus. Even some students who do get into one of their top-choice colleges choose to defer admission for a year in order to take advantage of a gap year.

For students who didn’t get into college, a gap year is a great time to recharge, reflect, gain experience through a gap-year project, and reapply to colleges. Use the summer to research colleges, build a balanced college list, and prep for college entrance exams should you need to improve your scores. Then, start working on applications again in August once the Common Application opens. Create a comprehensive college application timeline and stick to it. While filling your time during your gap year with activities like volunteering, traveling, or working will be necessary, so is staying on track for college applications.

Consult NACAC for colleges still accepting applications

Every year after the May 1 enrollment deadline passes, the National Association for College Admission Counseling compiles a list of colleges that are still accepting applications for the upcoming fall semester. This is good news for students who were unable to secure an acceptance during the traditional admissions season, as many colleges stop accepting applications for the fall in January or February. Many of these colleges are smaller, private schools looking to fill empty spots, but there are also a number of larger, public universities featured. If you didn't get into any college during the regular admissions cycle, consult this list to see if there are any schools that you might want still to apply to. You might be surprised to see a school or two that you may have considered before but didn't end up pursuing. In addition, because these schools are trying to manage enrollment by extending application deadlines, there might be some financial aid left over that they can offer these applicants.

Attend a community college

For those who may not have gained acceptance because of poor academic performance, attending a community college for a year can be a great way to gain college credit while establishing a solid college grade point average. A year at a community college also allows students to mature and ease into the rigors of a college workload – preparing them for the demands of a four-year college should they transfer. And there’s proof that this works: About 60 percent of students who transfer to a four-year institution from a community college graduate with a bachelor’s degree within four years.

Spend a year taking courses related to your field of interest, and perform well. Then in the spring, begin applying for transfer admission to schools of interest. Treat this as the regular admissions process by creating a balanced list, an application timeline, and allowing plenty of time to gather the required materials. The transfer admissions process is a little different than the undergraduate admissions process, so make sure you’re informed on the differences and you know what to expect.

Gain experience

Whether you consider it a gap year or just a year off to figure things out, you should stay busy, gaining experience related to your major or career of interest. Use the summer after high school graduation to find internship or part-time work opportunities that interest you and will help you gain relevant experience. When it comes time to reapply to college, schools will want to know how you've spent your time since graduation, and a resume of relevant work experiences will go a long way to show colleges that you're responsible, committed, and developing a specialty. Experience doesn't just have to happen in a work or internship setting. Take a few courses at a local community college or explore some Massive Online Open Courses that relate to your intended major. Continue to read relevant books and publications and find volunteer opportunities that also relate to your interests.

An unsuccessful admissions season can be extremely discouraging for students who had their hearts set on attending college in the fall. While it’s normal to feel disappointed, don’t let it cloud your view of the opportunities that you do have. There’s plenty that students can do to enhance their chances of admission the next time around, whether they apply as transfer or undergraduate students. This is just one bump in the road to your college dreams. Don’t let it be a roadblock!

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