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Articles / Applying to College / Dealing with Deferrals: An 8-Point Plan

Dec. 3, 2019

Dealing with Deferrals: An 8-Point Plan

Dealing with Deferrals: An 8-Point Plan

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Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) decisions will be released in mid-December, about two weeks from now. If you have applied EA or ED, your expectation level is surely building to a peak. Maybe you've already peaked and are holding at that max level, feeling as though you may burst with anticipation. I feel your excitement and nervousness.


You will be receiving one of three decisions: accepted, deferred or denied. While denials are the most rare of the three, there has been an increase in them over the past years. While a denial can sting sharply, at least there's not the long delay of a deferral, which won't resolve until March or April. Of course, an acceptance is pure gold, assuring EDers of admissions success and EAers of both success and the flexibility of likely choice options at other schools.

I have discussed deferrals a number of times over the years, but how to deal with them bears repeating. If you were accepted ED, congratulations! Your college process is now complete. You have signed on the line and now you can sleep well because your collegiate destination next fall is assured. If you were accepted EA, congratulations to you, too! You have the choice to enroll at a college right now or wait to see your Regular Decision (RD) 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.

For Deferred Candidates, Self-Marketing Is Essential

However, a December deferral can be perplexing. What can you do?

A while back, I wrote an article about "self-marketing" that addresses deferrals and how to handle them. Briefly, self-marketing is all about finding a key admissions contact at the school that has deferred you and then sending that person carefully planned information about your accomplishments and passion for that school.

Here are the key steps of the self-marketing process:

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. Don't put this off. First, you can check the school's website. Most colleges have a separate section devoted to undergraduate admissions. 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 addresses.

If this information isn't available on the school's website, then you'll have to call the admissions office. Don't chicken out here. Don't have (or let) Mom or Dad do the talking here. Why? Well, if an admissions officer ends up speaking with one of your parents, s/he'll immediately think that you don't have the 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 and would like to know the name of the admissions representative in charge of my application." Say it something like that. The receptionist will ask where you live and tell you the name of your rep. S/he may also ask you if you would like to speak with your rep. If you're prepared, great. If you're just calling for a name, politely decline and end your call. If you're ready to introduce yourself, then go for it.

Admissions offices are extremely busy places after decision letters go out. When you get the name of your rep, also ask for his or her email address (assuming that it's not on the school's website, as mentioned above).

If the receptionist will not give you your rep's name (unlikely), just ask for the name (and email address) of the person to whom you may direct correspondence concerning your situation. That should get you somewhere.

Bottom line: Your goal is to identify someone inside the admissions office with whom you can correspond.

2. Write A Letter to Your Rep

In it, present all your 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 ("Majoring in Socioeconomics at a small, single-sex school is exactly what I'm seeking.") If you will definitely enroll if admitted, be sure to say so clearly.

3. Encourage Your Counselor to Follow up

Now that you've made contact with your rep, you should ask your school counselor to do the same, by telephone. Sometimes it can work in your favor if your rep sees that your school is behind you. Ideally, your counselor can provide new information that wasn't on your application and/or added insight into your personal strengths. During the call, s/he may receive some clues about your deferral: "We were concerned about those dips in math and science grades." More likely it will be, "It was an extremely competitive year …"

Side note: It's conceivable that you could be deferred in December and then wait-listed 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 also work for that circumstance.

4. Plan Your Contacts and Updates

Keep the ball rolling. You're going to have about three months (give or take) to deploy your deferral self-marketing plan. Let's say you have 12 weeks. You'll want to make about three contacts with your rep (a guidance counselor call counts as one contact), depending on how much update news you can generate. You don't want your rep to see you as a pest. If you have something to say, then say it. However, don't just type so that you can send your rep some words.

5. Increase Your Academic Efforts

You may be thinking, "What else can I do? I'm already doing the best I can." You probably are. An early February mid-year report will report your academic progress for the first half of the school year. You'll want to show some positive improvement, if that's possible. This would be the time for you to consider entering or completing any competitions that involve your "specialties," be they forensics, writing, poetry, speech, moot court or whatever. Position yourself as a strong finisher. Hold back nothing. You get one shot, and this is it!

6. Think Like a Marketer

Think of yourself as a new 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 bump 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, how about combining this talent with your volunteer work at the soup kitchen and launching a fundraiser, creating new shirts for the cause? If you have examples of these new undertakings (e.g., newspaper clippings, photos of you in your custom tee), send these to your rep.

7. Be Persistent in Your Passion, an Important Part of Your Profile

As you execute your self-marketing campaign, don't forget to show your rep that you are passionate about their college. How do you do this?

Well, you don't do it by begging. Don't pander, whatever you do. It makes you look desperate. The positive way is to let them know that you know a lot about their school. Investigate the school's website and student newspapers (both official and unsanctioned). There's a huge amount of information available from these sources. This new information can be worked into your rep contacts. You're trying to project that you are someone showing a lot of spirit, energy and knowledge about this school. You'll stand out from the crowd because the majority of deferred applicants just sit and wait. Persist in your passion; press for the payoff.

8. Finally, Be Humble in Victory and Defeat

At some point, you will reach the end of your quest. The final decision will come in late March or early April. When you get it, I suggest that you remember what poet Rudyard Kipling said (paraphrasing): Treat victory and defeat the same, as the imposters they are. What does that mean? Well, in the context of college admissions, in general, things tend to work out for the best.

Whether you get good or not-so-good news in April doesn't mean that you're any better or worse than anyone else. 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 either way. The best days of your life are yet to come. Trust me about that.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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