The Coaching Educator

Not So Fast: When Colleges Rescind Acceptances

colleges revoke offers

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

“Call no man happy before his death,” Sophocles wrote. In other words, it’s never too late to ruin your life.

Late winter and early spring mean the end is in sight for high school students waiting for the verdict from college admissions offices. A sizable percentage have already received good news and can look forward to enjoying what remains of their high school experience without being burdened by uncertainty over their college destinations. Application forms and essay prompts disappear from daily life, and it’s time to relax.

Up to a point.

Last year, in our article on Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College (August 31, 2018), we warned against senioritis:

By senior year, you can almost see the finish line. If you’ve enjoyed high school, you also might be thinking in terms of maximizing the pleasure of the remaining time. Especially with colleges making early decisions about admissions, the temptation to let things slide can be considerable. Don’t give in. Colleges do in fact care what courses you take in your final year of high school, and how you perform in those courses. Make sure you run hard all the way to the finish.

Indeed, colleges care so much that they sometimes rescind offers of admission. According to the most recent report on the topic by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), more than a fifth of colleges do reverse their decisions, at an average rate of about ten rescinded offers each. The reasons are unsurprising:

Disciplinary Problems

We say “most recent report” but must offer a caveat: The NACAC stopped compiling data on admission retractions after 2009. With social media, and naughty behavior thereon, playing an increasingly large role in American society over the last decade, we would be interested in knowing whether the number of revocations due to misconduct has increased.

In 2017 Harvard decided that at least 10 successful applicants weren’t exactly Harvard material, after those prospective members of the Class of ‘21 “traded sexually explicit memes and messages that sometimes targeted minority groups in a private Facebook group chat.” Harvard explained that it “reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

Inappropriate conduct on the internet was actually one of the least-cited causes for admission reversal in the NACAC’s 2009 report, which found that 35 percent of colleges reporting had revoked offers because of disciplinary problems. Truancy and underage drinking also were low on the list. Violence, academic dishonesty, theft, and drug abuse were the most common reasons. While more than a third of private institutions cited theft as grounds for rescinding an offer, only 9 percent of public colleges did so.

Bad behavior at school, a common manifestation of senioritis, can prompt admissions officers to reconsider their decisions. There is no such thing as a propitious time for a high school student to get suspended, but senior year is undoubtedly the worst. Leaving a mule in the girls’ restroom might seem like a frightfully good idea when you’re feeling lively on a balmy April day, but the dean of admissions at the college of your choice is unlikely to take an indulgent view of the episode.

We could debate whether the criminal justice system works as it is supposed to, but there can be no argument about whether college admissions offices work the way the criminal justice system is supposed to. They don’t, because they don’t have to:

“Innocent until proven guilty is a concept and standard within the criminal justice system and does not restrict a private school unless that school has voluntarily bound itself to such a high and exacting standard of fairness,” says Harvey Silverglate, a Massachusetts attorney who advises students facing disciplinary action.

Falsified Application Materials

Colleges understandably frown mightily upon applicants who provide false information or who embellish, and the success of an application does not preclude eventually getting caught. Twenty-nine percent of colleges in the NACAC study reported that they had reversed themselves with applicants who displayed the wrong kind of creativity. It would be irresponsible of us to conjecture regarding how high the number would be if such matters were not so difficult to police.

Declining Academic Performance

The overwhelming majority of revoked admission offers, 65 percent, fall into this category, with the rate of occurrence being higher among public institutions, 84 percent of which withdrew offers for academic reasons, in contrast with 49 percent of private colleges doing so. Private schools in general attract applicants who are less likely to fade in the homestretch, so they have fewer occasions to take action. But selectivity level is also a factor in the withdrawal of offers: Among schools classified as highly selective, 57 percent rescinded at least one acceptance. 

Colleges require a final transcript at completion of senior year, and they expect successful applicants to continue performing at the level that got them accepted in the first place. A decline of one letter grade here and there is no cause for concern, but a batch of significantly lower marks is likely to scare the horses (not into the girls’ restroom, we hope), and a previously strong student with a D or F should expect some unwanted attention from the college admissions office.

Grades are not the only performance criterion under scrutiny, as the rigor of a student’s senior-year courses can be a deciding factor. Finishing up the high school’s graduation requirements with a slate of undemanding senior-year courses can be harmful, perhaps fatal, to an admissions offer already on the table.

Most colleges will send a warning letter to any applicant who has come under scrutiny for whatever reason. The recipient should respond promptly, offering an explanation for misbehavior or academic deterioration. Time is of the essence, as such crises normally arise during the summer, when other options for college are rapidly disappearing.

Colleges tend to be reasonable about extenuating circumstances contributing to a slippage in grades. Contrition for irresponsible conduct is vital. Outright reversal of admission offers without warning does occur but is far less common in cases of academic decline than with criminality or other serious wrongdoing. Admissions officers are not out to trip anybody up, but the nature of their work requires them to consider what sort of applicants will be most likely to prosper academically and make a positive contribution to the campus community. Though only a tiny percentage of admissions offers are revoked, successful applicants who falter conspicuously during senior year may at the very least have some explaining to do, and at worst may find that the admissions office is willing and able, in Andy Griffith’s verbiage, to tote one off and run another’n on.

Seldom do colleges rescind acceptances, but it does happen. TCE can help you run a strong race all the way to the finish.

We at The Coaching Educator have amassed a decade of experience helping high school students select the right college, secure the financial aid they need, take the courses that are most compatible with their goals, and stay on time, on task, and on target during the arduous process of getting into and succeeding at the right college.

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Credits, References, and Recommended Reading About College Admissions 

Image courtesy of effyerulkar.com

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

Kane, Jessica. “How to Avoid Having Your College Acceptance Rescinded,” HuffPost, 6 December 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/20/avoid-college-acceptance-rescinded_n_6507536.html

Miller, Tyler. “Why Colleges Rescind Admissions Offers, And What To Do If It Happens to You,” NoodlePros, 20 March 2018, https://www.noodlepros.com/blog/2018/03/20/why-colleges-rescind-admissions-offers/

Natanson, Hannah. “Harvard Rescinds Acceptances for At Least Ten Students for Obscene Memes,” The Harvard Crimson, 5 June 2017, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2017/6/5/2021-offers-rescinded-memes/

Thompson, Daphne C. “When It Rescinds Admission, Harvard Weighs Several Factors,” The Harvard Crimson, 11 September 2015, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2015/9/11/rescinding-harvard-weighs-safety/

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