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Articles / Applying to College / Creating a Plan B for Unexpected Early Decision/Early Action Outcomes

Creating a Plan B for Unexpected Early Decision/Early Action Outcomes

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 24, 2020
Creating a Plan B for Unexpected Early Decision/Early Action Outcomes


One week remains in November. What a year this has been ... and what a year it still is! High school seniors who have applied Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) don't need any more drama, that's for sure, but turning the calendar page to December opens the curtain to decision time.

Denials, Deferrals Aren't the Last Stop

Dealing with rejection is difficult. Many high school students tend to take being turned down by a college personally. They think the admission office's bad-news letter, email or portal post is really saying, regardless of how diplomatically its words are posed, "You are deficient and we don't want to have anything to do with you." Nothing could be further from the truth!

In many cases, some denied students could have done as well, if not better, than those who were accepted. One famous dean of admission once said that his university received so many outstanding applications that he didn't have the heart to send rejection letters. He noted that placing these fine young men and women on the waitlist was his way of saying, "We should have admitted you, but we didn't have room." In reality, everyone who is good enough to get in isn't always offered admission.

Being denied from a college or university doesn't make you a failure. Unfortunately, some high school seniors see themselves in a less than positive light when they read the bad news from a first-choice school. Rationalizing rejection is difficult, so how can you deal with it?

Here are some tips that you ED/EA seniors — and juniors who will be exploring ED/EA next fall — may find useful in dealing with some of those December D words.

Spread Your Risk

This advice is mainly for seniors who are considering ED/EA II: Develop a reasonable list of college candidates. This may be old news to some of you, but it's surprising how many seniors overlook the obvious advantages of creating a candidate list that is not ridiculously top heavy. A typical top-heavy list might include the usual suspects: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and so on. Sometimes applicants will throw in a hastily picked "safety" just in case. A spread like this is way out of balance.

However, if your overall profile compares favorably with previously admitted students at your candidate colleges (stats about this are usually available on college websites), you may have a chance of getting in. Don't just go by numbers alone, though. There are also the essays, your recommendations, your "marketing" efforts and those ever-present intangibles. These can make a significant difference in your favor.

The strategy here is to minimize the number of schools from which you might be rejected. That seems obvious, doesn't it? You'd be surprised how many seniors load up on low-percentage candidates. Notice that I said "minimize" rather than "eliminate." You should include some risk ("reach") candidates. The unpredictability of highly selective admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in.

Have a Plan B

Let's say that your Plan A consists of an Early Decision application to your first-choice school. Most top-level ED programs have a deadline of November 1-15. Since your ED application should represent your best application efforts, you'll already have the material in place to execute your Plan B applications if (or when) they become necessary.

If you followed the "spread" advice above, you should have a nice selection of possibilities on deck ready to go, in case Plan A (a thumbs up from ED/EA) doesn't go as planned. One tactical error many seniors make is not having their full candidate list assembled before they send in their ED or EA applications. There's a four-to-six week waiting period for finding out about early applications. They go in by early November and colleges send out their decisions by mid-December. Once you get your decision, here are some smart things to do if you have to deal with some of those "D" words.

Express Continued Interest

Being deferred is like holding your breath for more than three months. However, you have some "marketing" options available that can help. Self-marketing is all about finding a key contact at the school that has deferred or wait-listed you and sharing information with them about your additional accomplishments and passion for that school.

In most cases, this person will be the regional admissions representative for your area of the country. You can find out who they are in several ways. First, you can check the school's website. Some pages 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 website, then you'll have to call the admissions office.

Once you have located your admissions rep, you need to communicate your continued interest and do some self-promotion. This should be done by letter or email. The purpose of this is to:

  • Emphasize your ongoing interest in this college and that you will definitely enroll if admitted.
  • Explain why this school is a great match for you. Be as specific as possible — "I have done research in and written about human physiology and how exercise builds the immune system. Plus, I have read Professor Schepkin's journal articles on this topic." Don't be generic, as in, "Bucknell is a top-rated school. I fell in love with the beautiful campus when I visited!"
  • Provide updates on what you have done since you submitted your application. Include significant achievements — "I won a national cryogenics competition." If you have no national honors to report, since you've been too busy with academics, mention something like "I pulled up my Calculus grade from a B- to a B+." You can follow up later with updates. New, positive information about yourself is golden.
  • Get your guidance counselor involved. Ask them to telephone the admission office to lobby on your behalf by adding expanded positive information to augment your application. It doesn't have to be just academic plaudits; it can include personal insights about your character or overall admirable attitudes.
  • Be humble in victory and defeat, regardless of what eventually happens. 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 to find out how many are on the list. It may be many hundreds. Obviously, if you choose to hang in there indefinitely on a waitlist, you're going to have to enroll somewhere else by May 1.

Look for the Silver Lining

Many times, disappointing outcomes can lead to positive lessons in life, and often better results. If, after the dust settles on your college process, you find yourself feeling disheartened about what happened, take a little time to feel disappointed about not getting into your most-desired school(s). It's perfectly natural to feel bad. Don't dwell on it, though, and, by all means, don't develop an obsessive attitude about it.

Don't hate those schools and see dark clouds whenever you see or hear the names of the school(s) that denied you. Don't view your peers who did get in as undeserving or elitist. Accept the fact that you didn't make the cut — for whatever reason — and get on with your life. Welcome those schools that have welcomed you. Select the one that best suits your needs and prepare to have a great college experience!

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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