THE BLOG
12/11/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

Hearing Back From Colleges Soon? Read With Caution

High school seniors across the country are keeping a close eye on their inboxes and mailboxes, as dozens of colleges prepare to send out admissions decisions this week. Many of these applications were submitted as early decision agreements, where the student agrees to attend the college, if they are admitted now.

This kind of commitment is only made by students who really love that one special school, so it's easy to understand why it's hard to wait -- and it's even easier to understand why these students might not read their entire decision letter once they find out they haven't been admitted. That would be a mistake for any number of reasons, especially this year -- so if you get a "No" or "Maybe" from a college in the next couple of weeks, make sure to take these important steps:

Don't worry if your friends hear first. This has been an unusual year to apply to college, largely due to the technological challenges that came with a new version of the Common Application. Some colleges reported having trouble downloading student information from the new Common App, and that has put some of them behind in reading applications. The end result is that some students who applied early may hear back sooner that applicants whose information was held up by a computer.

Since these delays have nothing to do with test scores or grades, it isn't wise to assume the students who hear first will be admitted, and the students who hear later will be denied. It's more likely than ever this year's decisions will come out in a random fashion -- so hang in there.

If you're admitted Early Decision, you have work to do. A yes from an Early Decision school is a pretty amazing high, and that's very understandable. At the same time, you need to keep reading your admission letter to find out:

• When your financial aid award will be mailed to you
• If you have to let them know you're coming or submit a deposit

Once that's done, you have to contact every other college you've applied to and ask them to withdraw your application. You promised you would do this when you applied Early Decision, so you don't get to "see what happens" with your other applications -- you know where you're going to college, so it's time to honor your commitment.

If the answer isn't yes, find out why. With all of the technological challenges facing colleges and college applicants this year, there's a better chance the college may be writing to say they can't give you an answer because they're missing a part of your application. This won't be the first time they've tried to contact you about this, but if you didn't read their emails or didn't send in the missing material, they can't admit you. If your application is incomplete, contact the college immediately, find out what's missing, and send in the final pieces so you can be reviewed as a regular applicant.

Deferred? Find out what to do next. Colleges will defer a decision if they like what they see, but want to know just a little bit more about you. This is usually a request for your latest grades or test scores -- but the letter will tell you what more they'd like to know. Read closely, send the extra material -- and if you can, send along a note expressing your continued interest in the college. If they tell you not to send anything "extra", give them only what they ask for; in this case, colleges don't award students for creative interpretation.