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What to do if you didn’t get into your dream college

It’s that nail-biting time of year: Colleges have commenced sending acceptance letters to high school seniors.

“There’s still a lot of anxiousness out there,” said Thomas Griffin, N.C. State University’s director of undergraduate admissions.

And unfortunately, colleges can’t admit every applicant. “It’s certainly understandable to be unhappy for a couple of days,” said Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions. But don’t be upset for too long, he said. “All is not lost, and in fact, there are so many great things awaiting that it’s a shame to focus on what isn’t – it’s much better to focus on what is.”

So, didn’t get your first choice? Dry your tears, take heart and read on for the many options students can consider in making tweaks to college plans.

Don’t take it personally

Don’t take rejection letters personally, said Claire Kirby, admissions director at UNC Charlotte. The sheer volume of applications schools receive means there will be a lot of people who don’t get in, she said.

The numbers prove it: UNCC received 17,000 applications for 3,200 spots. UNC Chapel Hill got more than 31,300 applications and admitted 8,790. At N.C. State, close to 20,200 students applied, and about 10,000 were accepted. Duke University admitted 3,499 high school seniors from a pool of more than 32,500 applicants.

“That’s a lot of applications and you can’t take it personally with that many applicants in the pool. It’s really competitive,” Kirby said.

What if you’re wait-listed?

Some universities will put students they neither accept nor deny on wait-lists. Acceptance from those lists comes in May, after students must have enrolled elsewhere, said Guttentag said.

If a student is admitted from a wait-list and wants to attend, they will forfeit the other school’s enrollment fee, he said. Universities expect the number of enrolled students to decrease because of this, and Guttentag said there’s even a term admissions officers use for it: “summer melt.”

If you’re on a wait-list for a school you really want to attend, it’s worth contacting the school to express interest, Guttentag said.

Ask if more information is needed, and if the school would like you to send an additional letter of recommendation. But don’t contact the admissions office every week, he warned, and don’t be tacky: “You don’t have to be clever, you don’t have to be cute, you don’t have to be something silly or outrageous – most of the time those things don’t work terribly well.

“But it’s not inappropriate, every two to three weeks, to send an email to the admissions office or admissions officer saying, ‘I just want you to know I’m still interested; please keep me in mind.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Focus on moving forward

Admissions officers said they’re happy to set up times to talk by phone or in person about options for students their school denied.

“We feel horrible because the truth is we do disappoint many students who would be successful here,” said Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions at UNC Chapel Hill. “And we know how much they’re hurting, and we hurt for them. We are here to talk to them, and we are here for them.”

Admissions officers said it’s important to keep an open mind: Chances are, students got into at least one or more other schools, and chances are better that students could also be happy at those schools. A college experience, Memory said, depends not so much on the actual school but what students make of their time there.

Guttentag agreed and said he might have applied to different schools if he had to do it over again. But, he said, he “wouldn’t trade (his experience) for anything in the world. I think we forget sometimes that there are hundreds and hundreds and thousands of good colleges, and the students who approach the school ... with the right attitude and energy ... and a desire to learn and an interest in growing will have an outstanding experience.”

Visiting the campus or campuses of schools where you have been accepted is also helpful in making the choice for the best fit, Guttentag said.

If a school denies a student, officers said, it’s a good bet the student is a better fit at another school. Another option for getting experience at a dream school, Memory said, is graduate school.

Tools to use

Aside from speaking with high school guidance counselors and admissions officers, students who didn’t get into their top choice school and aren’t sure where to turn can go to the College Foundation of North Carolina website, at cfnc.org.

The site offers a free service called the College Redirection module. It’s connected with the state’s 58 community colleges, 36 independent colleges and the 17 schools in the UNC system, said Mark Wiles, director of the CFNC Pathways program.

Here’s how it works: Students enter information about themselves, including high school GPA, SAT/ACT scores and intended college major. Schools still accepting applications or with openings will search entries and contact students they’re interested in to get more information.

Wiles said the program began in 2003, and about 650 students who enter are placed with schools each year.

“We hope it will allow students to find some colleges they might not have previously considered in their search,” he said.

Another resource, available in eight Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, is called the Carolina College Advising Corps. Advisers from the Corps work full-time to offer guidance on college admission.

Rickita Blackmon, a Corps adviser at Garinger High, said it’s common for seniors not to get into their first choice. She recommends students look deeper at what drew them to that school. Then they can look at other school considerations and see which ones have characteristics similar to their dream school. She also discourages students from using the terms “top choice” and “backup schools,” because if you don’t get into your top choice, it wasn’t going to be a best fit.

“One of the other things I say to people, even before they get decision, is if ‘xy’ school is your dream, it may not happen right away,” Blackmon said.

The transfer option

That’s where transferring comes in.

Most schools consider transfer students after a successful year at college somewhere else.

Some schools have 2+2 programs, which means students can attend one public state school for two years and finish their degree for the next two years at another, all while staying on track for a particular major. At N.C. State, for example, Griffin said, an engineering student can enter the program and study for two years at UNC Wilmington and transfer as a junior into State’s engineering program.

There’s also the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, which says that if students complete a two-year associate’s degree at a community college, they can transfer to a four-year college and can consider their general education requirements fulfilled for schools in the UNC system, Griffin said. (“That doesn’t mean they can take pre-calculus and it fulfills the math requirement for engineering,” he said. “There may be specific major requirements.”)

Sometimes students miss out on a great experience where they are, Memory said, because they’re too focused on leaving. Universities like to see that students did well academically and made the most of their first year or years of college when they consider them as transfer students, she said.

Memory said often students surprise themselves. “Students end up enrolling at other universities that serve them well, and then end up being perfectly happy there.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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