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Plan B: What to Do When You Can’t Attend Your First-Choice School

college application
advice for students
By Selene Angier
Last updated on November 2, 2022

Didn’t get into your first-choice school? Our university enrollment expert walks you through why that’s OK — and outlines a plan B for international students.

Three international students sitting outside, studying together

About 23% of students do not get into their first-choice university. If you are finding yourself among them, we want you to know it’s OK to feel disappointed — but not discouraged. There are many other high-ranking, elite universities in the USA who want bright, driven international students just like you. Tricia Ortega, director of Operations, Enrollment Management at Shorelight, talked with us about why you should embrace plan B and how to decide on the best alternative school for you. 

“While your first choice might not have been possible, it doesn’t mean that other universities will not actually be a better fit for you,” says Ortega. “With so many universities in the US offering many of the same programs, you can find a great option that fits your needs — maybe even better than you initially thought.”

“I encourage you to think about shopping for schools like shopping for anything — a vacation, for example,” says Ortega. “You might be all set to visit one place, but if another place offered a better experience, would you turn it down? Being open to searching for comparable schools will help you ensure that you are aligning yourself with a positive college experience.”

Ease the “First Choice” Pressure

During the US university application process, go easy on yourself. Applying to university is probably one of the most stressful experiences you’ve had to date. Here are a few things you can do to take the pressure off: 

  • Plan ahead and research: The best advice is to work with an enrollment counselor who has experience with US universities. Set realistic expectations by doing your research on admissions criteria for your dream school and its costs to attend. 

  • Know there are plenty of comparable options: There are 5,000+ universities and colleges in the US. Yale, New York University, and UCLA might be household names, but they are also known for lower acceptance rates and very competitive application criteria. Work with your enrollment advisor to explore the USA’s other top 200 universities — also known as Tier 1 — and identify your “best fit” university. It’s very likely that your alternative school will equate to an A+ experience.

  • Recognize success comes in many forms: A Purdue University and Gallup study suggests that it’s not where you go to college, but how you go to college. Students who reported having positive experiences with engaged professors, mentors, internship opportunities, hands-on experience projects, and extracurricular activities were more likely to graduate on time and report a positive college experience. This reminds us to go beyond rankings when researching universities in the US.

  • Remember what you bring to the experience: Just as the Gallup-Purdue study suggests, you are in control of more than you might think. Your involvement on campus and participation in internships are as influential as the university reputation itself. Picture yourself (not the admissions board) in the driver’s seat, and that’s exactly where you’ll be. 

Develop Your Plan B 

The most important part of your plan B ideally started in your plan A: working with an enrollment counselor, applying to several schools, and understanding the chances of acceptance. 

1. Work with a Trusted Education Counselor

An enrollment advisor with US university experience will be able to give you good advice on which schools are within your reach, based on what’s most important to you (e.g., finances, grades, experience, or affordability). They will also be able to guide you if you do not get into your first-choice school and can identify which of the remaining possibilities are the best fit for you. 

“Navigating the application process can be overwhelming,” says Ortega. “Finding ways to filter [and] explore options you didn’t think were possible, or simply navigating the visa process, may feel impossible. Shorelight is here to help guide you in your exploration of programs, preparing your application documents, and helping you get ready for your visa interview. Speaking with our team and having an honest exploratory conversation can help you find your way in your educational journey.” 

2. Apply to Several Schools 

In the US, we have a saying: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Applying to five to 10 schools is normal for first-year students and increases your chances of being happy with your options. An advisor can identify universities similar to your first-choice school and steer you in a good direction so you are happy with your alternatives. 

3. Set Realistic Expectations 

You may have to accept that a “dream school” is a long shot. US education counselors know your first-choice university’s acceptance rates and what admissions teams are looking for in an “ideal student.” This can help you understand acceptance criteria and adjust your expectations accordingly. In the end, you may have to shift your thinking from “dream school” to “what’s possible.”

Understand Why You Didn’t Get In

“You may not have been selected for any variety of reasons, which is typically not limited to just your grades,” says Ortega. “When admissions advisors review application submissions, they may be looking for an entire profile of [a] student that matches the overall applying population — similar GPA, SAT, English level, etc.” 

If you don’t quite match the ideal profile, this doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong, Ortega says. It’s more big picture criteria, rather than individual merit.

“This is why it’s so important to cast a wider net when applying for schools,” she says. “Please don’t get discouraged!” 

Ortega breaks down a few common reasons why you may not have been selected for your first-choice school and how you can prepare or respond.

Required Courses or Grades

Admissions criteria for each school varies significantly, says Ortega. Talk with your counselor before you apply to understand the criteria and how you can supplement your application.

“Look for other ways to reach your end goal,” she continues. “Find ways to help yourself stand out. Be sure to list your volunteer experience, your clubs, and organization participation. If you have done an internship, list it. Be sure your personal statement tells your story. If a specific program requires coursework or experience you do not yet have and you are really set on that program and that school, you will need to find ways to fulfill those requirements.”

ESL and Other Test Scores

“If your English language skills are not yet there or you need more confidence, keep practicing!” says Ortega. “Submerge yourself into the English language as much as possible. Take extra ESL courses, read in English, watch TV in English, and (most importantly) speak in English to help you enhance your skills. Test preps or a full semester might be all you need to help improve your skill set to meet that English requirement.”

Finances

Attending university in the USA is expensive. As an international student, you will have to prove your financial abilities on both your university and visa applications. In addition to tuition costs for your specific program, you will need to consider housing costs, a meal plan, required health insurance, fees, incidentals, and travel costs to and from your home country. If you are struggling with your decision, weigh the costs of different university programs (and their locations — big city locations like Manhattan can be much more expensive to live in) before making a decision. Additionally, ask your advisor if financial aid or scholarships are available to you.

Visa Issues

Embassies have been overwhelmed with visa applications since the start of COVID, says Ortega. “Do not wait until two months prior to the start of classes to begin the entire process,” she advises. “The earlier you apply and are admitted, the earlier you can get in line for a visa appointment.”

“Even if you did plan ahead and it didn’t work out, talk to your advisors at the school and seek a deferral early!” she suggests. “It might be worth enroll[ing] at that school online to get started and keep yourself on track.”

Embrace the Possibilities

While you might be disappointed about not getting into your first-choice school, you do have options. This is where having a trusted advisor is important. Talk to your counselor about which route might be best for you. Some options are:

  • Attend your second- or third-choice university: If you applied to several schools and researched application needs and acceptance rates, then you likely received offers from many schools. Talk with your counselor about the pros and cons of each to come to an informed decision.  

  • Start your first year with a preparatory program: If grades or ESL scores are an issue, prep programs — like Shorelight’s American Collegiate Live — will give you confidence in the American classroom and make you more comfortable learning in English. You can earn general education credits toward your degree, while building a stronger application for transferring to your dream school

  • Enroll at a community college: Similar to prep programs, beginning your school experience at a community college may be a great option. You can earn general education credits while you regroup and decide your next steps. 

  • Wait and reapply: Did you miss a visa deadline? Can you take a semester to improve a required course grade? Should you take a language prep course? This might be a sign that you were not quite ready for the demands of the university classroom. By waiting a semester and reapplying to your first-choice school, you can take any needed courses, save up more money, or reapply for your visa with plenty of time to spare. 

  • Take a gap year: Taking a year off between high school and university is common. You can volunteer, work, or intern, while you decide where to reapply. 

Important Considerations for International Students

International student resources, other “best fit” university attributes, and your career ambitions are additional factors you might not have considered when setting your sights on your first-choice school. 

Three key questions to ask yourself when considering a second- or third-choice university are:

1. What Is the Best University for You?

The ideal university goes beyond rankings and reputation. Sit down with your advisor and really dig deep into which university is the best fit for you.

”It’s so important to know the type of school you want to be at, and by that I mean, what size, location, private vs public, etc.,” says Ortega. “If a small school in a smaller town is where you’re going to thrive the most, do not look for an urban campus school in a major city. Look at options that fit your style — from there you want to focus on what can the school offer to you during your four years with them.”

2. Does this University Offer International Student Support Services?

Attending college is a stressful experience for any student, even more so for international students traveling far from home and learning in their non-native language. As an international student, you have unique needs that some universities are better suited for.

Look for schools — like Shorelight universities — that are equipped to meet the demands of the international student experience. For instance, we have support teams on campus that offer programs and resources, including pre-arrival preparation, visa assistance, orientation, cultural experiences, ESL and course tutoring, Curricular Practical Training (CPT)/Optional Practical Training (OPT) guidance, internships, and career services. 

3. What Is the University’s Track Record with Career Placements?

Your first-choice university may be your dream school, but what does post-graduation success look like for students? Are students employed full-time after graduation? What is the average starting salary for recent grads? Do graduates report being happy and successful in their careers? Research the school’s career services department, internship programs, and CPT/OPT opportunities.

“Find the school that can offer you guaranteed internships, a variety of clubs and organizations, professional clubs and organizations and such that will help you build your resume toward graduation,” suggests Ortega.

Turn a Second-Choice School into a First-Rate Experience

The success of your plan B depends on your attitude. Focus on the positives of your alternative schools. Is your second-choice school less expensive? Easier to travel to? In a city with many more internship opportunities? Does the school offer more international student support programs? Does it have a faculty with higher ratings and better likelihood of mentor matching? There are so many other silver linings to consider. 

“Sometimes the second-choice school is the school where you thrive,” says Ortega, adding that success in college life is dependent on you: your choices, hustle, and positive outlook. “Often it’s not the school you attend, but the experiences and opportunities you seize during your time.”

“While your first choice might not have been possible, it doesn’t mean that other universities will not actually be a better fit for you,” she says. “With so many universities in the US offering many of the same programs, our team can help you find a great option that fits your needs — maybe even better than you initially thought! It’s important to know and believe in your passion and your journey. Sometimes things don’t happen in the way we think is what we want; [that] doesn’t mean it cannot happen at all. Stay positive and focused, and your dreams of studying in the US can happen.”

Shorelight can help you find the right US university for your goals