Preparing for College

Deferrals and Waitlists

College Confidential senior advisor, Sally Rubenstone, posted a thoughtful question on the College Confidential discussion forum:

College Students: Do You Attend a College that Once Deferred You?


If you are a current college student who now attends a school that deferred you in the Early Action or Early Decision round, what--if anything--did you do to improve your admission chances while you waited for your Regular Decision verdict?

Did you write a letter that included information about new accomplishments? Did you send extra recommendations? Maybe try something cute or gimmicky? Call on clout from VIP alums? Etc.?

You can check out all the responses from parents and students, but one reply in particular stands out:

My friend's daughter was deferred ED at Duke (double legacy) a few years ago. She continued to politely update the admissions office about a grand community service project that she headed. She did nothing gimicky, she just sent a couple of well written letters letting the admissions office know of her success. She got admitted with the RDers.

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So what should this mean to you? Hang with me here and let me tell you about dealing with deferrals and waitlists.

Deferrals are the purgatory of Early Decision and Early Action (ED/EA) college admissions. You're not in, but you're not out. You're just hanging there, waiting for the April decision-shoe to fall. It's exquisite anguish. Many applicants would much rather be rejected outright so that they can just get on with things, without the unfinished business of "admit" or "deny" hanging over them.

For the uninitiated, a word of explanation might be in order. ED and EA admission programs allow students to apply early. The deadline is usually November 1 (sometimes November 15 or even later). The application process is exactly the same as Regular Decision (RD), except that in exchange for the early application, colleges promise to respond with their decision before the year-end holidays. This can be a great gift for a high school senior. Having his or her college process wrapped up before winter break can give an entirely different flavor to the second half of senior year. Oh, one other note about ED/EA: ED requires a signed promise to enroll if accepted. EA doesn't; accepted applicants have until May 1 to decide whether or not they choose to enroll.

Most ED/EA candidates use early application to court their first-choice college. In some cases, qualified applicants stand a slightly better statistical chance of being accepted early than do their RD counterparts. There's a lot of strategizing involved in making the decision to apply ED/EA, particularly in Ivy League admissions and similarly selective processes. One issue involves financial aid, but that's not what we're going to talk about here. We'll do that in another article. For now, though, just be aware that there is an early application option.

Waitlists are the nasty first cousin of deferrals. Waitlisting generally occurs in April, or at the time when RD accept/deny letters come out. If you are waitlisted, you're also neither in nor out. You're just waiting for a decision that may never come. Colleges use their waitlists to make sure that every bed is filled in their dorm rooms. If not enough accepted students enroll, waitlisted applicants are offered admission. At the very top schools waitlists are used relatively infrequently because of the high enrollment percentages of accepted students. Still, if you've had your heart set on a particular school and you end up on the waitlist, it can be agonizing. You'll most likely be forced to enroll at another college while hoping for that call from the waitlist. Frankly, it doesn't seem fair at all. Waitlists were designed wholly for the advantage of the college, not you, so keep that in mind.

Now, to the issue at hand: What should you do if you end up deferred or waitlisted? The approach is essentially the same for both. You must undertake a carefully deployed program of self-marketing to further enhance your "almost good enough" application. After all, if the colleges deferring or waitlisting you weren't interested in you, they would have rejected you, right? Let's take a look at what you can do to improve your chances of getting in.

Your job is twofold. First, you need to establish a distinguishable presence with the admissions office without becoming a pest. Second, you need to reveal more of yourself and your sincere passion to attend your target college. How do you do this? Well, you should start to execute this plan the moment you find out that you have been deferred or waitlisted. Don't sit around and mope. Take action immediately. If you don't, who will? To borrow a phrase from Paul Simon, then, here's the plan, Stan:

First, you need to find a human being in the admissions office who is willing to communicate with you by e-mail or phone. This may well be the regional rep for your area of the country. Your job is to find out who this person is. Call admissions and ask for that person's name and e-mail address. If they won't reveal the e-mail address, ask to be connected to that person by phone. If they won't do that, get the person's name (they should be willing to give that out) and write him/her a letter requesting an avenue of contact (again, e-mail is preferable).

Once you have established contact with the admissions rep, then you must keep that person informed on a regular basis about your recent accomplishments (academic, EC, personal life) and deepening passion for that college. Over the course of your marketing campaign, you should make four-to-five contacts with this person. In addition to your e-mails, you can snail-mail any cool things that involve you from the school newspaper, local newspaper, or anything else where your name appears in print. This is part of marketing your ongoing progress as an outstanding student, athlete, theater arts person, or whatever.

Try to get one more significant recommendation from someone who really knows you well and who may have a unique angle on your intangible qualities (personal integrity, creativity, etc.). That might be a friend, parent, relative, pastor, or supervisor. The important condition is that this person must be able to write extremely convincingly and with great focus on who you are as a person. They should use anecdotes to illustrate your uniqueness and how you are perfectly suited to that college. If this person knows something about the particular college in question, that's even better.

A real clincher would be if you could win some kind of major honor or award, such as a state- or national-level title or something. This might not be possible, but if you're a high performer, one never knows.

Deferrals & Waitlists Summary: Find the key person in admissions, establish contact, and keep in touch regularly with meaningful communications. Granted, this takes a lot of careful and diligent effort. However, when that deferral or waitlist letter arrives, you have to ask yourself one critical question: "How badly do I really want to attend this college?" Your answer to that question should determine your course of action. If you decide to go for it, use this plan. It should give you your very best shot. Best wishes on your college admissions quest!

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.