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Grieve, Grumble and Get Up: Time for More College App Essays

As I write this, students I know are waiting to hear from dozens of schools, and many have already heard from a vast array of colleges and universities, from Arizona State to Temple and the University of Pittsburgh.
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Those clever folks at MIT have made something of a numbers joke about when early action admissions decisions will be announced: this coming Saturday, at 3:16 P.M. What? When you write it in numerals, it looks like this: 12/13/14 15:16. But the news will not be fun or funny for the great majority of those who receive it, since MIT's early action admit rate is a bit under 10 percent -- and overall, it's 7.9 percent. (For those who want a thorough, MIT-style breakdown of numbers for the class entering in 2014, click here).

As I write this, students I know are waiting to hear from dozens of schools, and many have already heard from a vast array of colleges and universities, from Arizona State to Temple and the University of Pittsburgh.

The next few days -- with many schools announcing on Dec. 15 and Yale, to my knowledge, on December 16 -- will be exciting, fraught, gleeful, and agonizing for tens of thousands of young men and women across the globe, from Alaska to Zanzibar. As the news comes in, dreams will feel realized and disappointments will pile up.

What to do with all of this high emotion? Here are some thoughts for parents, students, and family members.

If the answer is YES from a first-choice school, parents and children should talk about when and how to announce it to others, either personally or on social media. Understand that most people will be happy for you, and that some might well feel more envy than shared joy. Be prepared. In your announcements, consider expressing an attitude of gratitude, not entitlement or triumph.

If the answer is YES from a first-choice school, think long and hard about whether you need to make further applications to other schools. If financial aid is a major consideration, and you can anticipate a better offer, that's important, but if you're merely applying elsewhere to see how you do, take a moment to decide whether that's necessary, given that other students might really want that additional school, or those additional schools, as their first-choice. Of course, there are wait-lists, but they push decision-making to the limits for everyone involved. Short version: Celebrate your success and let others have theirs.

If the answer is DEFERRED or NO, take some time to grieve before moving onto Plan B -- because Plan B is where you're headed. And that's OK. Life is about planning on Plan B and moving on.

If you're the parent of a son or daughter who gets a 'no' or a deferral from a first-choice school, help the child put this in perspective. If it's your alma mater, remind yourself -- and your kid -- that the numbers at very selective schools are brutally hard. The days of near automatic admissions for legacy students are over.

When schools are admitting five, six, seven, and 13 percent of the applicants -- fill in your own numbers here -- the competition is not only stiff but it often defies prediction or explanation. "But my son got perfect SATs and has an A+ average! What happened?" When 35,000 students apply for 1500 places, the decisions can be baffling.

Admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford have said that two-thirds or more of the applicants to their schools can do the work. Decisions are made based on a multiplicity of factors, including geography. If you go looking for logic or transparency in the decisions, you will find neither. Which is why it's so important that parents help students not take a 'no' as an ultimate judgment on their talents or promise or their future. It bears repeating: there are many fabulous colleges and universities for even the smartest, most accomplished students that are not called Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Brown.

I've known too many families where the grief of not getting into a particular school is devastating for all -- and it makes it even harder for students to go on and make applications to the other schools on the list. If you're a parent, you can set an example by reminding your son or daughter of the numbers involved, and the holistic approach that the most selective schools take. There is much more at play here than just grades and scores. And much that applicants -- and parents -- will never know.

If you're reading this blog, you are probably ahead of the game and have a Plan B list in place. Many students have already done the essays and applications for the Plan B schools. Now's the time to dust them off, give them another look, do a final polish of the essays, and get ready to press SEND for the January 1 deadlines. Life goes on. Yes? Yes, absolutely.

For those who've been counting on Dream School Number One and haven't made more plans, your work is cut out for you. Get the chart into shape and the list of required essays, with topics, word counts, and due dates. Since you've already written an essay or two or three, see whether any of those pieces can be revised, recycled, updated, or given a shinier gloss.

If you're a student who never showed his or her essays to parents or other adults, this is the time to share and find out whether the essays can be improved for the Plan B schools.

If you haven't written many application essays or supplements, now's the time to start. Write in your own voice, not the voice of a student trying to show off complex sentences, big words, or a poetic sensibility. Answer the questions being asked as clearly, directly, and personally as you can. Many students believe that simplicity is a sign of stupidity. It's not.

As you take notes and go through essay drafts, think about what it is you want the schools to know about you -- what sets you apart from other applicants. Don't repeat what's on your activities list. Remember that you're a student applying to a college or university. They want to know how you think, how you process your experience, what your academic and career ambitions are, and how your high school activities -- academic and other -- have prepared you for college.

When writing essays about why you want to attend a particular school, get very well acquainted with that school through its website, but also through College Niche and The Best 379 Colleges. What about the curriculum interests you? What courses look great? Which professors' research looks appealing? If you've visited the campus, be sure to mention it. And apply to schools where your academic profile makes sense. Ten Reach schools may not be the best use of your resources or your time.

And take your time. Work hard, but don't rush.

Elizabeth Benedict writes the Don't Sweat the Essay blog and is the founder of Don't Sweat the Essay.