Admissions

Tending Your December Deferral

Now that the holidays are over, the reality of a new year and any back-to-school blues are probably kicking in now. The “bigger” blues for you may be in the form of having to live (and deal) with the deferral you got from your Early Decision or Early Action college back in December. You have probably been wondering why that happened. More importantly, though, you should be pondering what you can do about it.Over the past several decades, I have dealt with a lot of seniors who have been deferred from their ED/EA applications. Some of them would have rather been outright denied, since that would have supplied a note of finality to their process at that particular school. Deferrals are a kind of purgatory that keep applicants in suspense until spring. Plus, as if that weren’t enough, there is always the possibility of a deferred applicant being placed on a waiting list in the spring. Talk about purgatory! However, the point of my post today is how to deal with your deferral. We’ll discuss waitlists in a few months.

There are several schools of thought out there about dealing with deferrals. The minimalist approach is to do nothing. “They said that my application would get another review with the Regular Decision pool,” these pragmatic applicants say. “So, I’m just going to let them do that. I thought my application was pretty good, anyway.”

Okay. So, these applicants are from the “No need to do anything further” school. Another more negative-thinking group might say something like, “Hey, get real. When you’re deferred in December, chances are very high that you’ll be denied in the spring. If they thought you were that good to begin with, they would have accepted us outright. So, I’m not going to worry about my deferral and look for greener pastures elsewhere.”


Thus, these two schools of thought amount to “Do nothing and hope something good happens.” Well, I’m not from that school. I believe that there are things that you can do that can possibly provide some weight to tip the scales in your favor. So, I thought I would share that approach with you here. Then, you can decide which school of thought you’re in. Fair enough?

Before delving into specifics, I’d like to give you a bit of perspective on my so-called deferral campaign process. Although I realize that you may want to jump right in with both feet and do everything possible to get that good-news email in the spring, please understand that there is a kind of “patient rhythm” to what you’ll need to do. You’ll have to do certain things at certain times, as I’ll explain, but resist the urge to deluge the admissions office with a weekly barrage of information. Strategically timed, significant contact spread over the weeks between now and mid-to-late March is the key to an optimum effort. Now, having said all that 

First, I would like you to think about anything that doesn’t appear on your application. I’m talking about examples of things that can set you apart from other applicants — special long-term hobbies, work-related experiences, or anything at all that is unique. Don’t hold back or fail to note (yes, write down your thoughts) anything, regardless of how unimportant or insignificant you may feel it to be. Maybe your Mom, Dad, or friends might be able to remind you of something. Be comprehensive. I’m talking about eclectic, broad-based, personal things you do (not resume stuff). Do you create quilts (yeah, guys do that, too), collect Civil War soldier figurines, fly airplanes, do creative photography, etc.? If so, make a note about that. The point is to let the admissions office know what makes you an interesting person, beyond the “usual” stuff most applicants write about.

Next, make sure that you understand some basics about dealing with deferrals. Your “marketing campaign” (that’s what it really amounts to) should have two main parts:

– Getting help from your school counselor and

– Helping yourself in the classroom and through contact with admissions.

Your counselor should have enough motivation and advocacy ability to contact your college’s regional admissions rep and lobby for your admission. This is something school counselors either know or don’t know. If you haven’t already done so, you should ask your counselor what s/he will be doing on your behalf regarding your deferral. S/he should ask the rep about what specific areathey would like to see you improve in order for you to increase your chances for admission. Once s/he finds out what areas they’re looking at, s/he can lobby in your behalf and brief you. Then you can conduct your side of the campaign while s/he does his/her thing.

Your job will consist of doing your very best in your academics and continuing to pursue your activities, perhaps even making something “dramatic” happen in one of them. You should also make a point to maintain regular contact (not to the point of being a pest, though) with your admissions rep. Have you done a campus visit and had an interview (either on campus or local alum)? If not, then this could be one way of showing your passion for that school.

You should also consider getting one more outstanding (hopefully extraordinary) recommendation. The qualifications for an additional rec writer include knowing you well enough to write about you at more than a surface level. The majority of recs are ineffectual because they don’t reveal anything other than platitudes about the applicant. A truly insightful, moving rec can do a lot to influence an adcom to make a positive decision. You’ve probably used your best teacher recs already. Think long and hard about someone who fits this description of knowing you well.

Many applicants tend to overlook competitive colleges’ seemingly arbitrary approach to college admissions. You may have read the posts on the College Confidential discussion forum about the applicants who are deferred, rejected, or waitlisted from their first-choice schools each year for no apparent reason. I mention this only to underscore the point that, in most cases with these competitive schools, there is no such thing as a “sure thing” when it comes to college admissions.

Last year’s ED/EA application season was, without doubt, the toughest year ever for admissions. Many seniors with stellar stats were either denied or deferred at the top schools. I find this situation almost unbelievable. I say these things not to discourage you but, rather, to prepare you for what lies ahead: a challenging deferral campaign and admissions process at your other candidate colleges. This coming year will be even tougher, as your case illustrates.

Back to your deferral campaign. You must tell your adcom rep of your intentions to prove, beyond a doubt, that you are a worthy applicant. This statement will take the form of a brief, but pointed, letter sent to your rep. A letter is preferable to an email at this point because it will certainly find its way into your folder. Sometimes emails don’t get printed out and they kind of evaporate into the ether, thus, losing their impact. Here’s a spec for that letter:

Length: 250-300 words, 3-4 paragraphs.

Tone: Upbeat, optimistic, eager. Kind of like “I can’t wait to show you all these additional great aspects about me that are sure to convince you that I’m worthy.” (Don’t use that exact sentence. It’s just a mood-setter for you.)

Format: Standard business letter.

Mailing: 1st-class USPS. Don’t waste money on any form of overnight delivery or express mail service. When to mail: As soon as possible, since the review of RD applications is already underway.

Key points:

– I’m not discouraged but relish the challenge of turning my deferral into an admit.

– There are some additional aspects to my profile that I will be revealing to you over the coming weeks.

– I plan on writing an additional personal statement to tell you about some special aspects about me that I didn’t have room to include in my application.

– I hope that you’ll take my appeal seriously and be willing to review my periodic contacts.

– [School name here] is still my absolutely clear first-choice school and I hope to prove that I am a worthy member of your incoming freshman class.

– Thank you for your time in considering my resolve. I’ll be in touch again soon.

Put these points into your own words and, as I mentioned, make three or four brief paragraphs.

Now, you’ll want to do an additional personal statement. The topic will be some aspect about yourself that you didn’t cover in your original application. Think hard and try to come up with something that ties you to what you want to pursue at your school. I see this statement as being in the range of 500-700 words. That would be 4-6 decent paragraphs. These are the key elements of a strong statement:

– attention-grabbing lead

– short, but effective sentence structures

– good paragraphing with logical transitions

– a firm thesis statement

– pointed anecdotes (mild humor would not be entirely inappropriate at least once)

– a conclusion that wraps up everything and ties back into your opening.

Finally, let me explain a little more detail about the competitive admission process, from an inside perspective, to help you understand how you were (and will be) viewed by your candidate colleges:

Admission committees build a freshman class much the same way that an artist creates a mosaic. That is, they use small pieces (the applicants) — each distinct in their own way — to work together to build the cogent whole of their incoming first-year student body. As they examine each application, admission staff members ask themselves, “Which piece is this?” Is it the squash player or the snare drummer? The Teen Jeopardy champ or the Intel Science winner? Did this young person grow up on a houseboat in Japan, with a cult in Montana, or in a South Bronx homeless shelter? A typical competitive-college freshman mosaic thus comprises athletes, underrepresented minority students, candidates with unique talents or accomplishments (published novelists, Broadway dancers, etc.), those with very atypical interests (beekeepers, race car drivers), and those with important connections (kids of the most influential alums or of VIPs in a larger sense).

Of course, most every mosaic has some sort of background — the sky, the sea, and so on — where there are pieces grouped together that may seem indistinguishable from each other. But at elite colleges, even the admitted students who make up this so-called “background” often have a particular reason for their selection. They may come from an unusual part of the country (or the world), they may be the offspring of alumni, albeit not the most generous or prominent ones, or they could hail from a high school with which — for whatever reasons — the admission office wants to curry favor. Thus, when all those mosaic pieces have been selected, the final picture is nearly complete and there are few spots left for what we dub the “average outstanding kids.”

One of the biggest unknowns regarding your overall profile is the relationship your school has with competitive schools. I don’t know how those adcoms view seniors from your high school nor what kind of personal relationship (if any) your school counselor has with their adcom representatives. This information isn’t public knowledge and, in most cases, not even seniors or their parents are privy to these relationships. In a sense, it’s a form of insider trading where the stock shares are the seniors who are applying.

A colleague of mine has a friend who used to work in the admission office with her at Smith College. They frequently used the word “solid,” to describe a candidate who was firing on all — or enough — cylinders to be accepted. Her friend, however, is now a top adcom official at Yale, where, she intimates, that calling an applicant “solid” is the kiss of death. Nearly every applicant is solid. “Now,” says her friend, “we ask: What’s uniquely special about this kid?” Again with the mosaic approach.

One particularly enlightening example of mosaic methodology can be seen in the way former Princeton dean of admission, Fred Hargadon, oversaw each year’s class selection. Fred would have his staff screen the many thousands of applications for obviously unqualified candidates then they would present their respective picks for his review, resulting in a class personally hand-selected by one man: Fred. That’s why the many classes that flowed through Princeton were known as “Fred’s Kids.” In this example, Fred was the mosaic artist.

The big “X factor” in the competitive admissions process tends to be the relationship that your school and counselor has with each college on your list. If you’ve read The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg, which follows a year in the life of the Wesleyan University office of admission, you’ll know how much politicking goes on among elite college admission officers and the college counselors at many high schools. Thus, there will always be one big variable about your chances that you won’t know.

In any case, the big picture here is that you should be prepared to develop a strong relationship with your adcom rep over the next two to three months. You should be ready to provide him/her with news about any kind of significant (emphasis on “significant”) accomplishment on your part. You won’t be in constant contact, but a good rule of thumb is at least two contacts of some kind per month. Your counselor can do his/her thing, too, along the way.

Although there are no guarantees, I can promise you that if you follow these guidelines, you will have done the very best you can to take your best shot at turning your deferral into an acceptance. It’s going to take some work, but that’s the price you must pay to pursue your dream school.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.