Waitlist pursuits: grit, sincerity and a bit of hope required

Call me crazy, but I love a waitlist.

Please, do not misinterpret!   I don’t love the fact that seniors are waitlisted every year.  But these decisions are part of the college application landscape, and we have to negotiate them.  I like the creativity and challenge these quests demand.

Waitlist offers aren’t going away any time soon.  Imagine, for just a brief moment, that you are the director of a college admission office . (David duKor-Jackson: does this raise memories of the recent past for you?)  Your job, as dean of admission, is to enroll a precise number of freshmen in the first-year class by May 1st–also known as Candidates Reply Date.  Do you presume that you will collect  hundreds of enrollments by the specific date without fail–as well as the accompanying deposits of six hundred dollars each?  (…In a fairly harsh economy, no less?)

Most deans who love their jobs would not presume this feat; they therefore depend upon a “Plan B”–that’s the waitlist margin, to use if and as needed.

Seniors  and parents, on the other hand, just want to be done with the application saga.  Most students desire a clear admission decision (accept or deny!) and wish to conclude the long sequence in early April.

That’s where we, the college office, come in with a last blast of energy.  Waitlists are an April reality.  If you look at them on the bright side, a waitlist decision presents a silver lining: one last chance, one last opportunity at X or Y College.  (I love that sense of possibility!)   I say:  let’s do our best to advance the cause! I don’t think we want to look back with a senior at a later date and wish we had utilized the extra inning represented by a waitlist decision.

Sincerity and regularity of contact:  those are the hallmarks of an MB waitlist plan over the course of six or eight weeks in the spring.   (Most colleges let Moses Brown students know what they are going to do with waitlist candidates in late May or before Commencement–rarely later. )

So, I know it’s a lot to ask a senior to forge ahead in the college process after all admission decisions have arrived. We know it’s hard for weary  parents to roll up their sleeves for another inning.  But we have had some nice waitlist successes in recent years (MB students have been admitted from places such as Harvard and Emory), and we would love to help any student who has a genuine desire to pursue a alternate list offer.  We have LOTS of ideas to share.

Pursuing a waitlist requires extra stamina and some hope.  There are, after all, no guarantees that an acceptance will emerge. Most admission deans, during the month of April, don’t have a clue whether they will utilize the waitlist.  That all depends upon the enrollment numbers just before and after May 1!

We also understand that pursuing an alternate list offer can be a a lonely road.  My husband, (an informal observer of the college office and process for a long time), recently noted that some seniors must be very aware that their closest friends are completely done with the college process (and celebrating a liberation from related tasks and deadlines), while their own search marches on.  In the college office, we provide support, resources, advice–and company during the last stretch.

by Helen Scotte Gordon


College Fair Dos and Don’ts


At a time when the seniors have all but concluded their college searches (except for those holding out for a waitlist decision), all the juniors and a number of underclassmen are ramping up the process by poring over printed and online resources, exploring campuses near and far, while adding and removing schools from their respective lists.

Even though the information available in print, whether in conventional ink or electronically, is extensive, it is often difficult to pick up on institutional nuance. Visiting campuses to get a sense of “feel” is absolutely essential, but is it really practical to travel to every campus that you have a passing interest in? So what is the solution? How can you investigate a broad range of institutions, gleaning insights only possible through direct interaction with people who know both campus and community, without leaving the East Side?

Answer: the Providence Independent School College Fair, sponsored by Moses Brown,Wheeler, Providence Country Day, Portsmouth Abbey and Lincoln School.

On Thursday, April 25, representatives from more than 100 institutions from across the country and around the world (France, Italy & Ireland) will descend upon the Wheeler School’s Madden Gymnasium from 4:30 to 6:30 PM to share information about their schools.

With so many colleges and universities available to talk to, fairs like this can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Knowing what to expect, and having some sense of what you want to accomplish can ensure that you get the most out of the experience.

So what can you expect? It will be crowded, a little hectic and probably even a bit loud. The representatives, while happy to talk about their institutions are present primarily to identify potential admission candidates, with whom they can communicate further, whether to cultivate even more interest or to encourage those less familiar to further investigate and seriously consider their institutions. They will have institutional materials to share and will encourage you to “get on the mailing list” for additional information. Since there is no opportunity for the colleges to conduct presentations, the discussions tend to be driven by student and parent inquiries. For the institutions in which there is the greatest interest, leisurely conversations are hard to come by.

If you are just starting your search, you may simply want to browse at the fair, engaging in more general discussions with a wide variety of schools. You will need to ask questions that help you really differentiate one institution from another, as you begin to identify college attributes and programs that appeal to you. If you have a clearer sense of what you are looking for, it will be easier to focus on specific institutions in pursuit of more detailed information. Either way, the basic goal is the same. You need only determine, whether a school goes or stays on your list, and if you know enough to warrant further exploration and possibly a campus visit.

In order to get the most out of the fair, I offer a few simple dos and don’ts:

• Visit with representatives of colleges that you have never heard of. (It is ok to say, “I’m not familiar with this institution, how would you describe it?”) Even if an institution does not appeal to you, the representative can often be a great source of information and advice.
• Ask questions that elicit perspectives and insight not available online or in publications. (See sample questions at the end…)
• Provide your contact information to learn more about specific institutions that interest you.

• Focus exclusively on admission requirements and the profile of admitted students. Having a sense of how your academic credentials match up can be helpful, but you will be better served exploring questions of institutional match and campus opportunities.
• Grab and run. Picking up materials indiscriminately from each institution is not the most efficient way to refine your list of potential schools.
• Arbitrarily fill out contact cards. See above…
• Allow your illegible handwriting to prevent you from getting additional information from schools that you are interested in. (Pre-printed labels with your name, gender, birthdate, address, email, phone number, school, graduation year and intended major can reduce both the time it takes for you to fill out contact cards, and the time necessary to decipher what you have written.)

As far as questions to ask, you are free to make inquiries about anything that helps you understand what a college offers or is “about.” While questions concerning location, average class sizes, majors offered and the like are certainly valid, these more demographic characteristics can be easily found independently. College reps are unlikely to make qualitative distinctions between their offerings and those of peer institutions, and those that do can hardly be expected to be objective. Similarly, any inquiry that requires a value judgment like “How is your Pre-Med program?” or “How are the dorms?” will generally result in a quite favorable review.

Better questions tend to be the ones that you might ask a friend who is currently enrolled. A few of my favorites are:
• What are the primary reasons that students choose this college?
• How would you characterize the student culture?
• Beyond academics, what qualities make someone a good candidate for admission?
• Are there any featured or distinctive programs that the college is especially proud of?

Obviously, there are others, but hopefully this is enough to get you started.

Congratulations on your acceptance for JANUARY entrance!

MB Front Circle, spring 2012

MB Front Circle, spring 2012

When I was a senior in high school, I was accepted to my first choice college–but not for enrollment in September.  My letter offered entrance in January for the start of second semester.

Whaaat?  I had never heard of such a thing.  Looking back, I don’t think another student in my class received a mid-year acceptance.  I remember being totally confused.

These days, January offers are much more common.  I don’t want to give the impression that all or most colleges extend this type of acceptance.  But many colleges with which we work at Moses Brown admit for both September and January; we think students and families should be aware that both possibilities exist.

In recent admission cycles, a number of colleges and universities have offered MB seniors winter enrollment.  The list includes Babson, Colby, Middlebury, Northeastern, Brandeis, Skidmore, U. of Maryland, U. of Miami, the University of Southern California and New York University–among others.

Why do some colleges offer mid-year admits? 

Institutions need to balance their number of enrolled students (and accompanying revenues) during first and second semesters.   Managing enrollment on a campus is tricky.  Some students graduate early and leave spaces open in classrooms and residence halls.  Occasionally students must leave college at mid-year (or earlier) for financial, health or family reasons.  Sometimes college just doesn’t work out and students withdraw.

Who tends to be chosen for January entrance versus regular September admission?

I can’t offer an absolutely scientific answer, but I can give a general sense.  Applicants accepted for January typically come close to the standard profile of an admitted student–but not quite.  Admission deans typically like the student being considered for January a lot and do not want to turn him or her away completely. Rather than placing him or her on the waitlist (with highly uncertain prospects for acceptance), deans sometimes prefer to offer a concrete place in the class. Ironically, while most seniors feel a mid-year acceptance is somehow second-rate, admission deans don’t feel that way at all.  They are doing their best to make room for an applicant and attract him or her to the campus.

Our colleague David duKor-Jackson notes that sometimes an admission staff perceives a strong match between the background of a candidate and the opportunities associated with mid-year acceptance programs–especially if the college involved sponsors fall or summer experiences leading to winter entrance.  David encourages students and families to understand the highly positive aspects of January offers.

What should a senior do who has been admitted for January?

First of all, slow down and really contemplate the acceptance–don’t write it off because it seems weird, uncommon, or unusual.  Go see your college advisor right away to seek insight and advice.

Consider your alternatives during the fall semester prior to enrollment. Think creatively.  Dream a bit.  Imagine what half a “gap year” might be like.  Or consider how much money you could earn if you worked for several months.  Many colleges that offer mid-year admission automatically invite candidates to participate in fall travel or internship programs that they sponsor and organize.  Would you like to go abroad during your first semester in college?  Would you be excited to pursue an internship in a political setting?  As our colleague David emphasizes, “All these things offer opportunities to explore a place.”  You might also be able to take courses part-time (or even full-time) at an institution closer to home and begin to accumulate credits.

Ask questions of our liaison at the college that has accepted you for second semester.  Gather their advice; learn all that you can about services and resources for students entering in January.  Ask  whether the college sponsors an orientation–even a brief one–for students joining the freshman class in January.  What kind of housing will be available? Will you likely have a freshman roommate–or live with sophomores or juniors? Would the college accept course credits from another institution during the fall semester?  Can you catch up and graduate “on time” with your college class by taking summer courses?

What you should avoid doing

It’s tempting to call the college that has admitted you for mid-year and try to convince them to revise their offer to September.  It is highly unlikely a change will occur.  A board of admission has spent a lot of time making an appropriate decision about you.  Admission officers work with highly sophisticated predictive models for enrollment; they know how many students they can accommodate for September–and how many they need to fill spaces during second semester.  The overall budget of the college depends upon this proper planning.

In summary, don’t ignore or toss out a winter acceptance.  A number of Moses Brown graduates have had great experiences prior to joining a campus community in January.  Our students have traveled to London and France; they have also worked and taken courses.  The possibilities are substantial; let’s talk about them in College Counseling.

In the words of one  admission officer, “there are different paths through college.”

by Helen Scotte Gordon

PS:  As for me, I did not enroll at the college that offered January entrance.  I commuted to a nearby school for a semester and then moved onto the campus.  I remained there and had a fabulous experience through graduation.  But… I wish I had known more and asked more questions about the opportunities associated with mid-year acceptance.

The Common Application announces the five new essay prompts!

Chalk project in the arts center at Colorado College

Chalk project in the arts center at Colorado College

 A preliminary message from MB College Counseling:

Our staff devotes a tremendous amount of time during the fall to helping seniors with their essays.    We assist with every phase of the process, from explaining the purpose of the essay to brainstorming approaches to the prompts.  (The lengthy questionnaire juniors complete prior to the first family meeting in College Counseling draws out many topics and themes; juniors often generate the perfect opening sentence for the essay on this survey!)

During the fall, we constantly read drafts, offer reactions, and highlight places to improve and strengthen the essay.  Most importantly, David and I help students communicate a unique aspect of their individual life stories and experiences.  We guide them to write in their own voice and language, from their own personal perspective.   Later in the spring, we’ll offer specific suggestions and advice about essay writing in this blog–especially for rising seniors who might like to tackle a draft during summer vacation!

Our program provides active and thorough support during the essay writing phase–while emphasizing the importance of the senior’s integrity as a writer.  We are careful not to engage in heavy proofing and editing; these tasks belong to the student.  (Please see our September 30 post for more about our philosophy in this regard.)

As a group, our seniors generate excellent essays.   Admission officers look forward to reading MB applications every season; they regularly compliment our student writers.

A brief statement from the Common Application: 

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice.  What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores?

Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

The prompts:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

by Helen Scotte Gordon

Advice straight from admission deans

Back in a November post, I promised advice collected from admission deans who visited Moses Brown this fall.   It has taken me a while to share their perspectives, but I think  juniors and parents entering the application process will find them particularly useful.   (I’m including some photos from my College of Charleston tour to provide a hint of  spring.  C of C possesses a handsome campus and versatile curriculum.  As a member of the public system in South Carolina, the College also features a more economical tuition.)


Advice from the Director of Admissions at Kenyon College regarding essays:

If you read most of them in my favorites binder, most of them are about “nothing”–for example, a walk on the beach with Granddad.  You can choose the most mundane topic.  Share a story: the essay is not supposed to be a report or an assignment.


Below are some thoughts from our representative at the University of Southern California regarding the short answer on the Common Application.  The prompt reads as follows: “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below.”   (The word limit allows for a very short paragraph; constraints are tight.)

I really think a missed opportunity on the Common Application involves the short answer.  I often see a well-written (central) essay that is thoughtful and mature.  Then the short answer is just straightforward.

Most kids don’t take time to edit the short answer and make it well-rounded.  Students get dry describing what they do–rather than emoting the satisfaction they get out of it.  It’s really exciting when you feel their excitement!


Reflections offered by two admission deans on choosing majors or careers: 

From a member of the staff at Franklin and Marshall:

“Undecided” can be a very mature answer.  We know kids are going to figure it out.  There are new things to learn and you better be ready for it.

The Director of Admission at the College of the Atlantic  offers his view:

Knowing a language is a door opener.

I want you all to read John Dewey.  You learn by doing.  (John Dewey was an influential twentieth century American philosopher and educator.)


Admission officers are keenly aware of the struggle most families face in financing college.   At a breakfast meeting with college advisors and guidance counselors, a  member of the staff at Brown cautioned:

Students need to look really hard at debt–and how debt (specifically, monthly repayments after college) affect career and graduate school.

Finally, our liaison at Vanderbilt offers some family-friendly counsel to students:

Be nice to your parents.  They have to fill out the financial aid forms.


We’re fortunate that so many admission representatives are eager to visit Moses Brown every fall–and interact with our students and parents at the Five Independent School College Fair each April.  These dedicated professionals are incredibly generous with their time and wisdom.

by Helen Scotte Gordon