college admissions responses - what to expect

What to Expect: College Admissions Responses Beyond “Accepted” & “Denied”

Whether your student is a freshman, a senior, or in between, a response will be headed your way soon enough.

Last week, I wrote about the varieties of ways kids react once they submit their college applications. I want to follow up this week with notes about the kinds of responses you can expect from the schools themselves. Whether your student is a freshman, a senior, or somewhere in between, one or more of these college admissions responses will be headed your way soon enough. And you could see a variety of responses – beyond a simple “accepted” or “denied.”

What’s more, waiting to hear a response can be a very anxious time for your student (and your family!). Having an idea about what your child may hear can help you be a wise and supportive College Prep Parent. No matter what the response(s) your kid receives, the College Prep Parent gets a chance for special interaction with them in this season. This interaction may fall into the category of “rejoicing with those who rejoice.” Or it may be “weeping with those who weep.” But whatever the situation, you can journey with your child through the application process, experiencing with them moments of thankfulness, trust, sorrow, joy, persistence, humility, patience, and hope.

Below you’ll find the primary admission decisions that colleges send. (But note that terms and titles vary widely by schools.)


(Full acceptance to the school to which your child applied)

This is the one that says, “You’re in!” Congratulations are in order. But plenty of steps follow this response, and your student needs to take each one seriously.

For instance, pay close attention to the date by which a student must accept the college’s admission offer. Usually it is in late spring, but not always. Sometimes included with the notice of college acceptance is information about housing and/or scholarship application. Any letter, email, or text from the college that has action steps for the student needs to be read carefully, whether included with the acceptance or at any point after.

(Further, don’t let your student forget my earlier warning – a college has the right to rescind their acceptance.)

Provisionally Accepted

(Admission acceptance is contingent upon completion of certain courses, likely through summer school)

Some colleges will offer this way for an applicant to “prove themselves” by showing what they can do with college-level work. Some schools require attendance at summer school on their campus, while other colleges will accept work from any college campus.

Even though it might be frustrating, remember that this usually means Acceptance for the motivated student who is willing to do what is asked. What’s more, this could be an opportunity in disguise. Students I have known in this situation usually said that they were glad they were able to ease into college over the summer, with fewer classes and smaller crowds.


(Admission will be considered after the first group of accepted students has responded)

Waitlisted students are often told that they have been judged fully acceptable, but because of space restrictions, a record number of applicants, an unusually strong class of applicants, etc., they will have to wait for a decision. While patience often leads to acceptance in these situations, a student shouldn’t only wait during this time. For instance, they can usually ask a college admission rep how many, if any, applicants from last year’s waitlist were eventually accepted. The admissions office can also share when to expect a waitlist decision to be made. This is important information, especially for deciding next steps.

Further, some schools will invite students who have been waitlisted the opportunity to submit any significant new material that they wish to be considered. But note that an admissions committee inviting new material does not want “the same song, only louder.” They are asking if there is any truly important information about the student that they have not been able to consider. This could be things like new grades, new test scores, new awards, or projects completed. Further, you, your student, your guidance counselor, and others can brainstorm additional qualities or achievements that might have been left out the first time around.

From the Files: Next Steps for Waitlisted Students

Through the years, I have known waitlisted students who…

  • Retook the ACT or SAT and were accepted based on improved test scores.
  • Turned their focus toward other colleges and found a great school they would have otherwise missed.
  • Made no more effort toward admission… and yet were somehow surprised when they were eventually denied!
  • Submitted a significant letter of recommendation from a teacher who had seen them overcome a big challenge. They were accepted.
  • Wrote an honest, heartfelt letter, explaining why they were still convinced the college was a great fit. Whether these students were accepted or not, they were always glad they wrote the letter.


(An acceptance decision will be made later, based on additional information)

Whatever a college calls it, a deferral can take place in one of two ways. For usual applicants, “deferred” means the school is waiting for additional information, usually about the student themselves – like senior year grades, or possibly information they couldn’t find in the original application. In the case of students who applied through Early Action or Early Decision programs, the college has chosen to place the student in the “traditional” pool of applicants waiting for a decision.

In both cases, deferral is something like being “waitlisted,” since the school is giving itself further time to gather more information about the student or other applicants. See the options above (under “Waitlist”) for ideas on what a student might do at this juncture. But if your student’s acceptance is deferred, be sure to note any specific information or submissions the college states it wants.

Alternative Admission Plan

(Acceptance is contingent upon a certain level of success at an affiliated school for a specified length of time)

Going by a variety of titles, these plans provide a formalized way to enter the college eventually – a method that’s more concrete than starting somewhere else and then attempting to transfer into the intended school. Specifics differ, but most of these plans have a student go to an affiliated school for a year or so. Then, provided they have the required grades, they can be enrolled in the original school without going through a transfer process.


(Student is denied admission)

The applicant was judged to not be a good fit for the school. Occasionally I have seen schools offer an appeal process, which can involve submitting new material for consideration (like the waitlisted student described above). But more often this is a firm “no.” Even though this is a disappointment, it is useful to remember that admissions counselors are hired to help determine whether a student is likely to thrive at their school.

A Note on Timing

Parents and students need to remember that college admissions decisions can come quickly – or can take months. Schools with a policy of “rolling admission” usually decide on an applicant as soon as that student’s file is complete, and then immediately announce their decision. Other schools consider the applications as they are received, but acceptance announcements are not made until specified dates. This gives the college an opportunity to consider the whole applicant pool and manage their potential freshman class for the next year. Whatever the case in the college(s) your student applies to, it’s worth being prepared for any or all of the above responses, whenever and however colleges share them.

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