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How to handle a deferral

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Harvard deferred 3197 applicants to regular decision out of 4692 students who applied “single-choice” early action this fall. Brown deferred 71% of its 3088 binding early decision candidates, while MIT deferred 4538 of its 6820 early action applicants and Princeton deferred 3042 out of 3854 applications.*

Duke, on the other hand, deferred a more sensible 691 out of 3108 early decision applicants to regular decision, while Stanford deferred only 593 students out of 6948 restricted early action candidates.

Although each of these schools has its own enrollment strategy for dealing with deferral, it’s clear that way too many students who applied early this fall are finding they’ve been neither accepted nor rejected, but deferred to the regular admissions pool.

And if you’re in this position, know you’re not alone.

Because many colleges received record numbers of early applications, it stands to reason that unless acceptances increase, you have considerable company—mostly a little disappointed.

But try to put the best face on your disappointment. Think of deferral as a kind of holding pattern. Colleges are sending a signal that they need to know a little more about you before making a final decision. Often they want to see your application in the context of the entire application pool or they simply want to see how well you’re continuing to do senior year.

Although there are no guarantees, you can either respond to the challenge or let the chips fall where they may.

I recommend responding. And here’s how:

1. Don’t crash—finish those applications. There’s no question this is a setback. It’s normal to feel disappointment, but don’t let it be crippling. This is not the time to slack off. Most importantly, don’t let this minor bump in the road delay completion of the rest of your applications. Finish those remaining essays as soon as possible and try to submit well in advance of due dates.

2. Contact Admissions. Try calling or emailing the admissions representative for your area. He or she most likely read your application and possibly remembers who you are. It’s a busy time of year for admissions, but if you’re lucky you might get personal feedback and a sense of how your application stacked up against the rest of the early pool. You might also get ideas on how to strengthen your candidacy by clarifying misunderstandings or by submitting additional test results, information, or recommendations. But whatever you do, resist the temptation to complain or badger the staff.

3. Update your application. Although colleges require mid-year grades sent directly by your high school, take the initiative to forward a copy of your most recent grade report with a cover letter firmly restating your commitment to attend if admitted—only if that’s truly the case of course. Include reference to any new and improved standardized test scores, additional leadership positions, new memberships, recent events or community service activities in which you have been involved, and any special awards you received. Also consider sending an additional writing sample or essay. And feel free to enclose any relevant supplementary information such as newspaper articles. Remember colleges really only want to know what’s happened since you submitted your original application, so don’t rehash the past. And don't snow them under with paper. Be deliberate in what you send.

4. Consider a campus visit. If you haven’t already spoken with the area representative, try to make an appointment to meet sometime in January or February. This can be an opportunity to make your case for admission face-to-face. If the rep is not available, don’t be discouraged—it’s peak reading season and time is limited. Instead, visit a class, have lunch, and take a closer look at the campus. You may find subtle changes in your feelings about the school that open you to other possibilities.

5. Send another recommendation. Make arrangements to have another recommendation sent on your behalf. Look for someone who can speak to qualities other than those represented in recommendations the college already received. Consider asking a coach, your employer, a faculty sponsor for one of your membership organizations, or a senior year teacher who has gotten a chance to get to know you. Do not flood the admissions office with hundreds of additional recommendations. This won’t help.

6. Try retesting. If test scores appear to be a barrier to admission, try retaking either the SAT (January) or the ACT (February). Who knows? Your scores may improve significantly enough to make a difference in your admissions prospects.

7. Make academics your first priority. Now is the time to reveal your true character by working even harder to improve class standing. Don’t be lured into senioritis. Colleges on the fence about your candidacy will be impressed by a continued upward trend in grades.

8. Step-up community or school involvement. This is definitely NOT the time to quit participating in school- or community-based activities. Instead, you should seek out leadership opportunities and have a continued impact on your community. Colleges want to see a commitment to service that doesn’t just end because the paperwork was submitted.

9. Talk to your school counselor. Be sure to provide your counselor with the most up-to-date information on additional accomplishments that may be relevant to your application and ask for these accomplishments to be included along with mid-year grades. If the college remains your first choice, suggest your counselor make this point somewhere on the form or possibly in a cover letter. In some cases, a call from your counselor to the admissions office will help, particularly if he or she has a strong relationship with the college.

10. Move on. Consider your deferral an opportunity to explore other options. It’s hard not to be miserable over a less-than-positive response to all the hard work you’ve put into being the best possible candidate for admission. But once you have done everything possible to persuade the college to admit, turn your attention elsewhere and don’t dwell on the negative. Even with this small detour, remain confident in your prospects.

*Updated 12-17-13

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