Preparing for College

Help With Columbia Deferral Reversal

I first of all want to say how much I appreciate the amount of insight about the college application process that is available on College Confidential. I would truly be lost without the advice. That said, I am a high school senior who worked really hard on her college applications, especially the one to Columbia University in New York City. Last Thursday I checked my application status and was deferred under Columbia's Early Decision program. Is there any hope for me in the regular applicant pool? Is there anything I can do between now and March that will increase my chances of getting accepted? I would truly appreciate any advice you can offer me. I've done my research and strongly feel Columbia us the school for me.

Thank you for your kind words about College Confidential and condolences on your Columbia Early Decision deferral. But don’t give up hope! Colleges do not defer applicants who have no prayer of Regular Decision acceptance. (Well, okay, occasionally they do, but those are special circumstances, typically reserved for the children of faculty, big-donor alums, or other VIP's. If you don't fall into any of those categories, then it means that Columbia may still want you ... even if they don't seem to want you right now.)

So what to do in the meantime? Start compiling an “Update Letter” that you will send to Columbia in late January or early-to-mid-February. For starters, it should include anything new and important in your life since you submitted your application a few months earlier. Granted, most students, who have spent those intervening weeks studying for finals and finishing off other applications, probably haven’t had a chance to cure cancer or publish a novel since the start of November. But the sample letter you’ll find here will give you a sense of the types of “accomplishments” you can include. Sure, some students will have a couple “biggies” on their list (e.g., they nailed the lead in the school musical or even got named as a semi-finalist in a national science competition) but few seniors will have truly stellar new achievements to report.

You can also go out of your way to create some breaking news, perhaps by taking a current interest or activity to a higher level. For instance, if you’ve been volunteering at a local animal shelter for two years, and the shelter is short of volunteers, perhaps you could launch a campaign to recruit high school students from your region and report your efforts to Columbia. If you've always written poetry for pleasure, maybe it's time to try to get your work published (preferably somewhere outside your high school but definitely not in one of those publications that charges a fee for submissions).

When you send your update letter, you can also include the reasons why you feel that Columbia is the perfect match for you. However, do this only if you have very specific reasons that may set you apart from the crowd. Don’t merely say, “I love New York” or “Columbia has a great biology department” or “I felt so at home when I visited and everyone was so nice to me.” All of this may be true, but it won’t be enough to make the admission folks nod and say, “Y’know, she really does fit perfectly here.” Keep in mind, however, that this is an extremely busy time of year for admission officials, and they don’t need extra pen pals. Just one letter from you will suffice. Send a second only if you get a reply that demands it (highly unlikely) or if there is yet another big news item to report later on. (When you follow the link to the sample, you'll see a recommendation to write directly to the Columbia staff member who oversees applicants from your high school.)

You’ll often see deferral reversal advice that includes, “Send additional recommendations.” However, I don’t agree. Only submit more recommendations if you feel that there is some critical piece of information that a new reference might impart and that your previous references didn’t. You can, on the other hand, ask a supportive guidance counselor to call Columbia and lobby on your behalf. Some counselors are willing to do this and some won't. And some who do try will get rebuffed by admission offices ("We don't take counselor calls"). But it's worth a shot if your counselor is in your corner.

Finally, try this little game: Invite a couple people who know you well (e.g., parents, siblings, close friends) to go through your entire application. Then ask them, “Why key aspects of me are missing here?” For example, does the application reveal your unique witty sense of humor? Does it show that you’re the student that teachers most often pick to read your papers aloud in class? Does it mention the hand-made doll houses that you labor over or discuss a horrible family ordeal you endured as a freshman?

You may not want every aspect of your life to be an open book, but there could be some major part of you that you would like Columbia to know about that your initial application didn’t tell them. If that’s the case, you might want to share this information. How you share it will be dependent on what it is, and it may be time for some creativity on your part as you decide your approach.

Meanwhile, as you gear up your deferral reversal campaign, also try to gear up your enthusiasm for other colleges on your list. Although you are definitely still in the running at Columbia, don’t put all your eggs in that basket. Focus especially on the Realistic and Safe colleges on your roster and try to get excited about what they will offer you as well.

Good luck to you next spring. Even though I know you’re disappointed, I have seen this crazy process often end in a “meant-to-be” kind of way. So I hope this is true for you, too, whether you land at Columbia or elsewhere.

(posted 12/11/2010)