Mid-December Decisions (And Beyond)

Here’s some college knowledge that bears repeating every year at this time. So, I’ll once again note some of the things that I have said in past years because the facts (and the angst) remain the same.

Of course, I’m talking about admission deferrals. You may be a high school senior this year who just got (or are about to get) a deferral notice from your Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) college. Getting deferred is disappointing. Sometimes getting deferred is more agonizing than being denied admission altogether. Your anticipation level was through the roof as you approached mid-December, the traditional time for ED and EA outcomes to be issued. It’s like opening Christmas presents. You never know what’s going to be inside. In the case of a deferral, getting that December decision is like opening a beautifully wrapped gift, only to find a small card inside that big box that says, “Come back in the spring and we’ll tell you more!” Now, you have to hold your breath even longer.

If you were accepted ED, congratulations! Your college process is now complete. You have signed on the line, which is dotted (a cool movie reference there) and you can sleep well because your collegiate destination next fall is assured. If you were accepted EA, you have the choice of enrolling at a college right now or waiting to see further Regular Decision results in the spring before you make that important May 1 enrollment commitment. If you have been denied outright, at least your reality is clear — you must forge on with applications to other schools to assure that you’ll have a spot next fall. However, a December deferral can be cause for consternation. What can you do?

As if a December deferral isn’t bad enough, the spring can bring further misery in the form of waitlists. The waitlist is a special kind of torture because you’ll be sitting there neither accepted nor denied, many times past the May 1 response deadline for enrollments. If you have been waitlisted at your first-choice school, the agony can be significant because, if it’s past May 1, you will have had to enroll somewhere else to guarantee a seat at college. If your first-choice school comes through with an acceptance for you off the waitlist, that’s terrific, but then you’ll have to withdraw your previous enrollment and likely lose your enrollment deposit. The odds of getting in from a waitlist are quite long, though. So whatever you do, don’t count on scoring.

But, back to deferrals. I wrote a long article for College Confidential about “self-marketing” that addresses deferrals and how to handle them. Here’s some wisdom from that:

Briefly, it’s all about finding a key admissions contact at the school that has deferred (or waitlisted) you and feeding that person carefully planned information about your accomplishments and passion for that school.

#1 – Find out the name of the person who has authority over your application. In most cases, this will be the regional admissions representative for your area of the country. You can find out who s/he is in several ways. Start searching immediately. Don’t put this off. First, you can check the school’s Web site. Most colleges have a separate page or segment of their site devoted to undergraduate admissions. In some cases, depending on the size of the school, they may have the admission officers’ names, their geographic assignment, and (if you’re really lucky) their email address.

If this information isn’t available on the school’s Web site, then you’ll have to call the admissions office. Don’t chicken out here. You’ve got to remember that you get one shot at the process and this is your chance. By the way, don’t have (or let) mom or dad do the talking here. Why? Well, right off the top, if an admissions officer ends up speaking with one of your parents, s/he’ll immediately think that you don’t have the commitment or maturity to handle this important task for yourself and may even question your true motivations about attending that particular school. Make these calls yourself.

When you finally make phone contact, briefly explain who you are and what your situation is: “Hello, this is Julie Smith calling. I was deferred [or waitlisted] and I would like to know the name of the admissions representative in charge of my application.” Say it something like that. The receptionist will then probably ask you where you live and quickly tell you the name of your representative. S/he may also ask you if you would like to speak with that person. That’s great, if you’re prepared to say something intelligent. If you’re just calling for a name, politely decline and end your call. If you’re ready to begin stating your case, though, then go for it.

Most times, however, the receptionist will just give you the name of your rep without offering to connect you. Remember, there are probably lots of other deferred or waitlisted applicants vying for their rep’s attention too. Admissions offices are extremely busy places after decision letters go out. When you get the name of your rep, also ask politely for his or her email address (assuming that it’s not on the school’s Web site, as mentioned above).

Of course, there’s always a slim chance that the receptionist will not cooperate in giving you your rep’s name. This is unlikely, but if it happens, just ask her for the name (and email address) of the person to whom you may direct correspondence concerning your situation. That will get you somewhere. Bottom line: Your goal is to identify a human being inside the admissions office with whom you can correspond.

#2 – Write a letter. Direct this letter to the aforementioned representative. In it, present all significant accomplishments and new activities since your application was submitted. Granted, you probably haven’t published a novel or cured cancer in the past few months, but “Raising my ailing calculus grade to an A-” would certainly count as an achievement. So would “Teaching myself the fundamentals of classical guitar.” If you’ve won any awards or been elected to any offices, these would be high on the list. Your letter should also stress how much you want to attend this college and, especially, why it is a great fit for you. Avoid generic reasons (“From the moment I stepped on the lovely campus, it felt like home”) and, instead, highlight specifics (“The opportunity you offer to major in Human Resources at a small, single-sex school is exactly what I’m seeking and is almost unique.”) If you will definitely matriculate if admitted, be sure to say so clearly. (This is especially critical for waitlisted candidates because colleges hate to waste time admitting students from the waitlist who ultimately don’t enroll.)

#3 – Encourage Guidance Counselor Follow Up.  Now that you’ve made contact with your rep yourself, you should politely ask your school counselor to do the same … by telephone. Sometimes it can work in your favor if the admission folks see that your school is really behind you. Ideally, your counselor can provide the college with new information that wasn’t on the initial application or added insight into your personal strengths. (“Julie probably mentioned that she is on the headmaster search committee but she doesn’t know that she was the only student in this select group who was a unanimous choice.”) During the call, your counselor may receive some reason(s) for your deferral or waitlisting, which your counselor will share with you (“We were concerned about those dips in the math and science grades”) but steel yourself for a more generic response like, “It was an extremely competitive year …”   Occasionally, reps may comment on the “degree” of deferral. That is, s/he might say something like, “Julie was a high (or strong) deferral,” or some similar comment.

Side note: It’s conceivable that you could be deferred in December and then waitlisted in April, a kind of exquisite, special torture that I wish on none of you. However, if this does happen, the self-marketing process described here will work for you nonetheless.

#4 – Schedule your contacts and updates. Now that you have the ball rolling, get ready to keep it rolling. If you’ve been deferred, you’re going to have about three months (give or take) to deploy your self-marketing plan. Let’s say you have 12 weeks. You’ll want to make about three contacts with your rep (including guidance counselor calls), depending on how much update news you can generate. Keep in mind that you don’t want your rep to feel that you’re a pest. If you have something to say, then say it. However, don’t just talk to hear yourself talk, or type so that you can send your rep some words.

#5 – Turn up the academic heat. This is mainly for those who have been deferred. You may be thinking, “What else can I do? I’m already doing the best I can.” You probably are. However, recall that you submitted your application in early November and you learned of your deferral in mid-December. There’s an early-February mid-year report waiting to go in on you that will report on your academic progress for the first half of the school year. Obviously, you want to show some positive improvement, if that’s possible.

This would also be an excellent time for you to consider entering or completing any competitions that involve your “specialties,” be they forensics, writing, poetry, speech, moot court, or whatever. Your goal is to position yourself as a strong finisher, someone who has not yet realized his or her full potential. Since you’re a quality, talented student, you probably have some reserves that have thus far been untapped. Now is the time to call them into play. Hold back nothing. You get one shot, and this is your shot.

#6 – Think like a marketer. Think of yourself as a new, unproven product that’s just been released to the public (your first-choice college). You’re an unknown quantity who has to prove him/herself beyond the confines of the official application.

Think about how you can ratchet your interests and achievements to a higher level. For instance, if you’re already the movie reviewer for your school newspaper perhaps your local city or regional newspaper might welcome a monthly column providing the teen perspective on new films.

If you design t-shirts for yourself or friends, how about combining this talent with your volunteer work at the soup kitchen and launching a fund-raiser, creating new tees for the cause?

If you have “show and tell” examples of these new undertakings (e.g., newspaper clips, photos of you in your custom tee), send these to your admissions-office contact.

#7 – Be persistent in your passion. We’ve talked a lot about passion because it’s an important part of an applicant’s profile. As you execute your self-marketing campaign, be it to clinch admission after deferral or to jump off the waitlist into a dorm, don’t forget to show your admissions rep that you are passionate about their college. How do you do this?

Well, you don’t do it by begging to let get in. Don’t pander, whatever you do. It makes you look desperate. The positive way to show your passion is to let them know that you know a lot about their school-your school-and you’re not afraid to show it. Take the time to investigate the school’s Web site and student newspapers (both official and unsanctioned). There’s a huge amount of information available from these sources. Another source we’ve mentioned before is the students. Check out the student Web pages and pick a couple of likely candidates for contact. You might even want to ask a student if s/he knows anyone there who was admitted after deferral or from the waitlist. If so, ask what that person did to get in. You never know what secrets you might learn. Bottom line: Don’t put your brain to bed. Use it.

All this new information, then, can be worked into your regular contacts with admissions. The overall impression you’re trying to project is that here’s a young man or woman sitting on the fence who is showing one heck of a lot of spirit, energy, and intelligence about getting into this school. You’ll stand out from the crowd because the majority of deferred and waitlisted applicants are content to just sit and wait, which often turns out to be the death knell for their chances. Persist in your passion; press for the payoff.

#8 – Be humble in victory and defeat. Finally, at some point, you will reach the end of your quest. For those who are deferred, the final word will come in late March or early April. For those on the waitlist, things are less specific. Sometimes, waitlisters can find out where they stand on the list, if the school ranks its list. You may be able at least to find out how many are on the list. Sometimes it’s many hundreds. Obviously, if you choose to hang in there indefinitely on a waitlist, you’re going to have to enroll somewhere else in the meantime. This can happily lead to the loss of an enrollment deposit if your waitlist marketing pays off.


In any event, you’re eventually going to learn your fate. When you do, I suggest that you remember the lesson of the words emblazoned over the entrance to Wimbledon stadium’s famous grass Centre Court. They tell us to treat victory and defeat the same, as the imposters they are. What does that mean? Well, in the context of college admissions, it all goes back to what I said at the top of this article — in general, things tend to work out for the best.

Accordingly, whether you get the fat envelope or the thin one in April and whether or not you ever hear from the waitlist doesn’t mean that you’re any better or worse than anyone else. Accept it all as good fortune and, if you come up short, don’t pout and go negative, blaming this person or that circumstance–or worse, yourself. On the other hand, if you get in, don’t gloat.  It might have gone the other way just as easily. Be humble and gracious regardless of the outcome. In either case, the best days of your life are yet to come. Trust me on that point.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.