Interpreting Outcomes for Bewildered Applicats, Q&A with Peter Van Buskirk

Interpreting Outcomes for Bewildered Applicats, Q&A with Peter Van Buskirk

GuidedPath recently hosted a webinar called, Interpreting Outcomes for Bewildered Applicants, with special guest, Peter Van Buskirk. This webinar was the third in our Winter 2014 professional development series, Today’s Higher Education Landscape. We had a record number of attendees and we are please to present the Q&A that Peter ran out of time to answer on the webinar!


Q: So is it important to have a good relationship with the admissions officers? How can this benefit our students, or can it be detrimental?
A: Peter: Relationships can be incredibly important in affecting a good college fit. Think of it this way. Would you hire someone to work with you without first meeting the person or engaging him/her in substantive conversation along the way? I doubt it. Your students need to take initiative to reach out in appropriate ways as they engage colleges. In particular, they should identify the institution’s regional recruiter and, as important questions emerge, address them to that person. You can help by making the introductions. Just remember, though, the relationship isn’t for or about you. If you can gain the trust of an admission officer, the resulting connection can help with the introduction. The rest is up to your student. In the final analysis, the critical relationship is the one that exists between the student and the institution. Your students don’t want to be regarded as strangers by the persons who are otherwise in a position to support them.

Q: In the regular application pool, does the early bird catch the proverbial worm? In other words, do they fill spots as they go? Are procrastinators waiting until the last week of admission cycle at a great disservice?
A: Peter: Colleges that operate with “rolling admission” fill spots as they can until they are all filled. The same is true for financial aid at such schools. Rolling Admission schools are usually tuition-driven and tend to admit a very high percentage of their applicants. They want to wrap them up as quickly as possible and will provide a range of incentives to get kids to apply and commit early in the game. On the other hand, deadline-driven schools typically want to see as much of the competitive pool as possible before making any decisions about whom to admit and how to distribute their funds. In either case, waiting until the last week of the admission cycle does put the applicant at a great disadvantage at least for financial aid and, quite probably admission. This is particularly true at schools located further up the Pyramid of Selectivity.

Q: Can you discuss the thought processes behind college’s use of likely letters before they give a final decision? What is the impact of these practices from both the student and the college perspectives?
A: Peter: The likely letters are all about yield enhancement. While highly selective schools go to great lengths to abide by the time-honored tradition of waiting until April 1 to send out admission decisions, many are prone to strategically “leaking” the news to likely admits. The premise is that the earlier a student starts to associate with a given institution, the more palatable the choice of the school becomes in his/her mind—especially in the absence of other options. Early Action is a more formal version of the likely letter phenomena.

Q: I am wondering why the January admit students tend to be full pay?
A: Peter: It is important to remember that, in almost all cases, January admits are academically at greater risk than any other category of admitted students. Not all are full-pay. However, most are. Imagine that you are a landlord with space to rent. If the odds are likely that your tenants will be short-timers, are you more inclined to rent to individuals who pay cash up front or those whose credit history is worrisome? The offer of January admission is essentially a cash grab opportunity for colleges. By taking full-pay kids, they know that, at the very least, they have a semester’s worth of revenue. If the students manage to “stick,” they get more. Taking students with financial need might be the noble thing to do, but the institution stands to gain little financially and may, in fact, end up investing significantly in student and academic services to support the student.

Q: Any suggestions for students who are deferred? Is deferral also a planned enrollment strategy?
A: Peter: I’m afraid this question is a bit ambiguous. If an Early Decision or Early Action candidate is deferred, the message to the student is, “We like you, but not enough to admit you now. Come back in a couple of months with stronger credentials and we might admit you.” The message is similar for students who are offered Wait List status. Some colleges will accept a student into the class enrolling a year later rather than the one intended by the student. Often, such offers will encourage the student to attend another school for a semester or two with the promise that enrollment will be guaranteed later. This is another planned enrollment strategy as the institutions making the offer are effectively stashing low profile, but high yielding full—pay candidates off the “radar.”

Q: How do you convince the family that the school that values them (that might usually be the target or safety school) is the better choice than the reach school? I once had a student say “well if College X offered me a merit scholarship, they must not be a very good school”. He’s now somewhere where he’s full-pay.
A: Peter: It’s all about family values, self-awareness and courage of conviction. You can make the argument about “fit” until you are blue in the face, but if the family—and I stress this because Mom and Dad are often the ones who foster the expectations—is not willing to listen, then you have to let them find their own way. Presumably, the quoted student didn’t need financial assistance or never bemoaned the fact that he didn’t receive any. If so, he could afford to be so bold as to make such a naïve—and ridiculous—comment.


Q: I am surmising that now in addition to ED being fertile ground for full paying students, the waitlist is now the same. So, what in fact are the strategies for need-based students? Is their only strategy applying regular decision and, if so, isn’t there a chance they will get lost in the mix?
A: Peter: The best strategy for students with financial need is to target schools where they will be valued for what they have to offer. Those places will admit them and take care of them financially. Accomplishing this will involve managing expectations and this is where you can help families understand the marketplace. The further up the Pyramid of Selectivity a student aspires, the harder it will be to prove value that will result in meaningful financial aid. Research the financial aid practices for ED at schools across the board. Some schools will be very generous with financial aid for ED candidates whom they value highly. Others will want to wait to see how the candidate stacks up with the other needy candidates in the Regular process.

Q: If a student is not offered a spot on the wait list, can a student call and ask a school for spring, summer or deferred? Arguing stat issues?
A: Peter: It is always possible to make the call, but the results are not likely to be positive. The student is better advised to move on. Personally, I don’t think it is very healthy for a student to hang onto false hope when more positive, constructive options can be explored.

Q: Do you see this pattern of using the waitlist to manage the incoming class, especially with full pay students, at selective publics as well as private institutions?
A: Peter: The dynamics of the wait list are likely to be the same at selective publics as well as privates. Full pay kids will get the “call” first until the institution is able to determine the availability of financial aid left over from the Regular decision enrollment process.

Q: For schools that state they are “need blind” (like U Chicago), do full pay students still take priority on the WL over students with a modest need?
A: Peter: I cannot unequivocally state that a particular school will not take needy students from the WL ahead of those who are full pay prior to May 1. It would be illogical to make that assumption, however, so it stands to reason that full pay students would take priority in the circumstance you describe.

Q: If a student is applying to a special program such as performing arts, does early action take a different path than described in the presentation? For example, are most of the spots filled by EA and there really isn’t any possibility for admission if one applies during the regular admission process?
A: Peter: I can’t answer this question with a degree of certainty; every program will operate differently. I would observe that schools that offer EA are typically trying to preemptively skim the “cream off the top.” Most selected candidates will eventually come from the Regular decision process.

Q: How do you tell your students to respond when they get the phone call from admissions asking them if they want to be admitted off the waitlist, with a 24 hour window for the decision?
A: Peter: I tell them to be ready. Thank the caller for the information. If a campus visit is warranted before the decision is rendered, ask for an extension of several days—they might or might not get it. If the family has applied for and definitely needs financial aid, ask for the details. The decision should not be made blindly. Again, that is why the family should be tracking down this information as soon as the offer of WL status materializes.

Q: If you, as a waitlist student, tell the college you will be a full pay or no scholarship acceptee, can you apply for consideration for more money the following years?
A: Peter: Yes. There are no guarantees, though, even with an exemplary academic record.

Q: I’m surprised that students can be required to respond to a waitlist offer in 24- 48 hours before May 1- how is that ok?
A: Peter: Before May 1, it shouldn’t be okay and, as a result, the response time often extends until May 1. Callers can be pretty good at squeezing students, though, without actually demanding a response prior to May 1.

Q: Can you clarify the relationship between wait list commitments and financial aid offers?
A: Peter: Colleges cannot extend financial aid where none exists. They will have offered substantial amounts of aid to students admitted Regular decision and must wait to see the yield on those offers before extending any more financial aid to students from the WL. If there is money left from the Regular decision offers, then needy students from the WL might be considered for that money after May 1.

By the way, it would be presumptuous of families to expect generous need-based awards or even scholarships for students taken from the WL. It can happen, but it is highly unlikely.


Q: How does being an athlete factor into waitlist decisions? Does “preseason” create this statistical effect, or only something like summer classes? I’ve always looked at the admits with low statistics as potentially athlete’s, in the money sports.
A: Peter: For the most part, recruited athletes will have been thoroughly vetted through the admission process by the respective coaches earlier in the year. Those of interest (to the coach) who end up on the WL are typically either late-bloomers athletically or kids who fell through the cracks at higher levels of recruitment and are now available. By bringing enrolled athletes in for pre-season and summer classes, the institution is effectively taking them off the radar with regard to the academic profile for their entering cohort.

Q: If financial aid can be a deterrent to acceptance on the WL, do international students have an advantage as higher tuition AND usually don’t qualify for Financial Aid anyway? Any advantage for “low maintenance” foreign students e.g. Canadian, British, Australian as not ESL/no TOEFL etc., easier Visa issues for F1/I-20’s; fewer cultural clashes once arrived?
A: Peter: Full-pay international students who present “ball park” credentials are always of interest to most schools. It seems, however, that many of the most strongly credentialed international students have need that put them into a much different category for institutions that are willing to give aid to international students. (The competition is often most intense for financial aid supported offers of admission.) Like athletes, however, the pool of international candidates is usually assessed very thoroughly at the outset of the admission process so those who are most attractive, with or without need, will be admitted Regular (or Early) decision. The Pyramid of Selectivity is a good guide in this regard, though, as opportunities become increasingly limited at the more selective schools. I can’t comment on the question regarding “low maintenance” foreign students as those matters need to be explored with each institution.


Q: How do you incorporate the concept of “good fit” into today’s college search process? I feel like much of finding a good fit (program, style, rigor) is great but no longer primary. Families have to be able to afford 4 years. Isn’t it as important to shop for the best price?
A: Peter: Interestingly, the choice of a college is ultimately a reflection of family values. Some value prestige at all cost while others look for the best bargain irrespective of educational value to the student. I urge an honest reflective process at the outset of the college search during which the student identifies her priorities and the parents acknowledge their willingness/commitment to provide financial support. If that happens, “fit” can work. You’ll recall that the fifth element of a good college fit is that “the best college will always be the one that values the student for what she has to offer.” The money is out there for those who need it. They simply need to be prepared to look for it.

Q: What about the dilemma of committing to a school, then getting a better “financial” offer from another school after May 1? I witnessed that happen several times last year
A: Peter: This gets dicey and borders on ethical infringements with regard to the school making a better offer. If the better offer comes as the result of an ongoing appeal initiated by the family before May 1, then the student can reasonably accept that offer and forfeit his enrollment elsewhere. Otherwise, the school making the better offer is “fishing.” Personally, I’d advise against taking such an offer.

Q: How does the financial aid matrix which you are saying is used from the get go jibe with so-called “need-blind” admissions?
A: Peter: The matrix provides further confirmation that “need blind” admission can’t exist except at institutions that are essentially open in the admission process. The underlying premise of “need blind” admission is that the institution possesses an endless supply of funding. Even the wealthiest institutions, however, must function with operating budgets that account for every dollar taken in and every dollar spent. By definition, they can’t be “need blind.” The concept itself is wonderful but not truly attainable. The sad thing is that those who buy into “need blind” admission do so with a fervor associated with a moral imperative. The reality is that even institutions claiming to be need blind will admit and provide financial support to the students whom they value most.

Q: On many applications, it asks, “Will you be applying or financial aid?” Since most financial aid officers say, “Everybody should apply!” parents think that they should, but what we are seeing in acceptances is that a student is penalized for seeking financial aid. Would you recommend that a family with no need say that they are not applying for financial aid?
A: Peter: Families need to respond honestly to the question about financial aid on the application for admission because doing so allows folks in the admission office to track the process of the financial aid application to completion. An absent or incomplete application from a candidate who expressed intent to apply will trigger follow-up messages to the family.

It is important to understand that colleges that discriminate on that particular information are fools! They know that about one-third of students who indicate they intend to apply for financial either elect not to (because they know they don’t need it) or they do apply and demonstrate they don’t need it. So, to discriminate on that bit of information would be an exercise in bad judgment. The real point of discrimination occurs anytime between mid-February and mid-March when the admission committee has access to the completed applications for admission and financial—and can assess the candidate’s value within the context of the overall pool of likely admits.

Q: In terms of appealing a financial aid award letter, should the family still visit if you can’t get the admissions office to give you an interview appt.?
A: Peter: An appeal of a financial aid award should be made to the financial aid office, not the admission office. It should definitely be made in person if at all possible.

Q: Does a student on w/l have to commit without seeing their financial aid offer?
A: Peter: No. A student with financial need who is admitted from the WL should be able to see the terms of the financial aid before committing. In some cases, this might involve an extension of the response time.

Q: Will they “forgive” some or all of the EFC if they really want the student in your Preferential Packaging slide?
A: Peter: Colleges that forgive some or all of the EFC are effectively offering merit scholarships. Remember, grants are need-based funds; scholarships are merit-based. A college that covers part or all of the EFC is providing assistance beyond need.

Q How do I get a copy of the Financial Aid Comparison sheet Peter used in his presentation?
A: Peter: Write to Peter at


Q: How do you find wait list numbers per school?

A: Cyndy: In MyCCA or GuidedPath, ED, EA and waitlist numbers are listed in the Admissions section of the school profile (if the college provides that information.) For example, Wooster shows ED applications received, ED enrolled students, number placed on waitlist, and number enrolled from waitlist.

Q: Are the tag lists for searching for financial or admissions criteria in Guided path yet? If yes, where can I find them?

A: Cyndy: Yes! Over 50 tagged lists are available in the dynamic GuidedPath Search. The tagged lists are divided into four categories: General Information, Academic, Financial Aid, and Social Experience. Find them under the Colleges tab in GuidedPath.

Q: In creating a college list for a full-pay student looking for a strong liberal arts school, how can I find out which schools offer the most merit aid?

A: Cyndy: Using the powerful search in GuidedPath, you can search for schools under the Financial Aid section, using Financial tagged lists such as High Scholarship Coverage or High Scholarships for Out of State students.

Q: How do I help a student find the schools that value him/her and what they have to offer the campus?

A: Cyndy: Using the CSQ’s (Competitive Student Quotient ™) in GuidedPath, you can find schools where the student is at the top of the academic profile, or in the “green”. This helps identify colleges the student will be a great fit for academically. This will increase the chances of merit awards as well.

Q: What other resources will GuidedPath have to help identify merit scholarships?

A: Cyndy: Watch for the inclusion of the Academic Scholarship Report (now available in MyCCA) into GuidedPath. It displays the number and amount of merit scholarships available at colleges on a student’s college list.


Q. Which of the University of California campuses use waitlist? Do they all use waitlists now?

A: Cyndy: Eight of the nine UC campuses will be using waitlists for 2014-15. They are: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz. Only the newest campus, Merced, does not use waitlisting to manage enrollment. Any student that is UC eligible is usually admitted to UC Merced.

Q: Do the UC’s call about the waitlist? Or is it just responding from the kids’ part?

A: Cyndy: The UC’s send emails or post on a student’s account that they need to respond to the waitlist request. The deadline for responding to a waitlist request will vary, but will be before April 20. Sometimes the students are just notified they are off the waitlist and admitted via their student accounts, without an email.

Q: Hi. My U of Minnesota waitlisted student did what I suggested and filed an appeal. He received a reply from a freshman admissions counselor saying that he was currently working on the appeal and had submitted all to the appeals committee. “Please allow time for us to review everything carefully and get a decision out to you in a timely manner.” My client asked if he should add anything other than a thank you in reply. I counseled him to send a short note of grateful acknowledgement, including the phrase: “I remain hopeful that my academic success during senior year is enough to tip the balance. UMinn is my top choice, and I will definitely attend if accepted!” Other than that the admissions officer was essentially saying: “Don’t call us we’ll get back to you.” Do you agree? I did NOT suggest he visit again. Is that a good idea, as you suggested. Is it too late? Or will it violate the spirit of “give us time to review.”
A: Peter: I agree with everything but the visit advice. It is not too late to visit and, should he visit, it would not be inappropriate for him to make his presence known to the counselor who had communicated with him.

Q: I just went to an info session at Northeastern and they announced that they will have ED, as well as EA this year. I’m curious as to how that will impact merit $$ for students, as I had several students who applied EA there this year and got very generous merit $$. Don’t know if those kids would choose ED over EA, but I’m curious how this will play out.
A: Peter: Good question—and one worth asking the folks at Northeastern.

Q: I have an athlete that has been admitted to summer term at Northern Florida U and understand that all public schools in Florida require one summer term. Is it wise to have her start in summer and just get this term out of the way instead of trying to negotiate a fall start, which is her preference?
A: Peter: The summer term is a fairly benign commitment that is probably more important to the coach for team building and training purposes. Unless your student has other, more productive designs on the summer months, it can’t hurt her to participate. Welcome to the world of D-I scholarship programs!

A very special thank you to Peter and the entire team at Best College Fit for presenting this webinar! There’s still time to register for the 4th and final webinar in the Today’s Higher Education Landscape series with Bill Dingledine called, Trending in College Admissions, Non-Cognitive Assessments and More! Register today!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *