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Articles / Applying to College / Rejections, Deferrals, and Wait Lists: Part 2

Rejections, Deferrals, and Wait Lists: Part 2

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Sept. 29, 2015

As they say on TV … previously on Admit This! …

This post is the first in a series aimed at high school seniors who have begun or are about to begin their college application process. In past posts, I have covered just about every aspect of the college process, from choosing candidate schools, to visiting campuses (“campi”?), dealing with the Common Application, writing essays, etc., etc.

In this series, though, I want to be proactive, thinking ahead, to prepare seniors for the possible inevitability of a denial, deferral, or even a wait listing. It’s important to understand the current state of college admissions, particularly the state of competitive admissions, and especially the state of extremely competitive admissions — the Ivy League and other so-called “elite” schools. It’s time to get your mind right, seniors!

When you play the high-stakes game of college admissions these days, sometimes you may lose. Rejection comes with the territory. It can hurt badly. The good news, though, is that things seem to tend toward working out for the best — most of the time …


We left off with this thought:

“So then, if your overall profile compares favorably with those of admitted first-year students at your candidate colleges (information usually available on college Web sites), you’ll know that you at least have a chance. As I mention above, though, don’t just go by numbers alone. There are also the essays, your recommendations, your application packaging (marketing extras), and those ever-present (or never-present) intangibles …”

Now, the best way to deal with rejection 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 in this paragraph’s lead sentence, I said “minimize” rather than “eliminate” the rejections. I believe that every senior should include some risk candidates (usually referred to as “reach” or “stretch” schools). The unpredictability of competitive admissions is such that sometimes even apparently marginal candidates get in. There’s no reason why you couldn’t be among that group, especially if you’re much more than marginal!

The classic “spread” consists of a handful of stretch candidates, some carefully considered “ballparks” (a.k.a. “target”) schools, and a — once again, carefully chosen — safety or two. How, then, should you think about spreading your candidates for maximum effect?

I like to see a minimum of five-to-six colleges on a candidate list — two reaches, maybe three or four ballparks, and a safety or two. Your list should not be HYPSM (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, etc.) plus your local state university. That’s just irresponsible and foolhardy planning.


A solid Plan B should be the ideal complement to your Plan A.Let’s say that your Plan A consists of an Early Decision application to your clear first-choice school. Most top-level ED programs have a deadline of November 1-15 (mostly November 1). Since your ED application represents your best application efforts for your most highly desired school, you’ll already have the material in place to execute your Plan B applications if (or when) they become necessary.

If you followed the college-candidate “spread” advice outlined above, you should have a nice stable of great possibilities on deck and ready to go, in case Plan A 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 application(s). Let’s look at some timing consequences.

There is anywhere from a four-to-six week waiting period for finding out about early applications. They go in by early November and colleges send out their letters by mid-December. The question you need to ask yourself is: “What am I going to be doing to facilitate my college process during those 30-45 days?” Here are some smart things to do:

Let’s assume that your candidate list looks something like this:

– First-choice early-apply candidate: Swarthmore College

– Other reaches: Williams, Trinity, and Haverford

– Ballpark candidates: Bard, Bucknell, and Lafayette,

– Safeties: Dennison University and home-state university’s main campus

Get all your candidate schools’ applications ready as soon as possible. The advantage you gain from having all the applications completed and ready is conservation of energy, especially when it comes to essays. Since Swarthmore is your early first-choice school, look at the essay(s) you’ll be required to generate for their application. Chances are, you may see a supplemental essay along the lines of “Tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn from the other parts of your application” (or something that amounts to that).

There may also be some shorter questions asking for specific information such as what is it about Swarthmore that motivated you to apply (the famous [or infamous] “Why [this school]?” essay). These types of specific-information questions usually require original answers and don’t lend themselves to recycling. Be careful!

If you try to adapt college-specific statements to other applications, you can commit application suicide. More than a few carelessly lazy applicants have cut and pasted their way to the reject pile. Imagine the terrific impression you’ll make on the Trinity admission officer who reads your response that begins, “When I first started my college search, I was looking for a school that had an ideal combination of small class size, senior faculty teaching first-year courses, and modern campus resources. Swarthmore offers all of those and more . . .” Just be careful, okay?

It’s conceivable that you might be able to get away with writing just one major essay that can satisfy the main supplemental essay prompts of most of your applications, but the odds are pretty much against that. Your early-application school may have a general supplemental essay prompt, such as the “tell us something” approach mentioned above. If you’re not quite that fortunate (likely), at least you’ll be able to minimize your essay production by not having to move through your applications one at a time. The “group-think” strategy pays handsome time dividends. You can shore up other details too, such as your other applications’ nuts-and-bolts personal and statistical data (all that boring stuff you have to enter in the supplemental section of each school’s application).

Brief your recommenders about your application strategy.Since you won’t be finding out about your early application(s) until mid-December or so, that leaves only a couple of weeks until most of your other applications’ Regular Decision (RD) deadline (usually the first of January or thereabouts). Notice anything else about those two weeks? Yep, they’re sitting there like toads, right in the middle of your winter break. It’s also going to be your teachers’ winter break too. They’re not going to appreciate having to generate additional recommendations for you during break if you come running to them after your deferral letter (or worse) arrives on December 15.

That’s why you should let everyone — your teachers, your counselor, your summer-job supervisor, or whomever — know what to expect. Brief them on your Plan B. Chances are, most of them will have their letters on a computer file, and they can just change the date and print out a new copy. However, there is the possibility of danger here too. Just as you can commit application suicide by not being careful in changing college names as you adapt your essays and short statements, so too can your recommenders damage your application’s impact.

Just to play it safe, ask your letter writers if they have mentioned the college’s name anywhere in their letter. If so, ask them (nicely) to be sure that they get the right letter in the right envelope, if your Plan B is called into action. This is a relatively small point, but one that needs to be heeded.

Have your RD applications on deck and ready to go by mid-December. Now, back to those two weeks comprising the second half of December. Do you really want to spend your winter break scrambling to complete the remainder of your Plan B applications? You do? Okay, that’s fine, but don’t come crying to me when your buddies ask you to go skiing with them for a few days and you can’t because you “have to write all these essays.”

If you would really rather go skiing, or whatever, have those others apps ready to roll before you get the not-so-good news from your early school(s). Obviously, if you’re accepted ED, or get into one or more of your multiple-EA schools, that’s all the good news you need. You can then enroll and finally, after all this time, exhale and scrap your Plan-B applications. On the other hand, if you get the dreaded deferral or, worse case, get rejected, you’re going to be disappointed (at least) but you won’t be defeated and have to generate new, exciting, and enthusiastic applications while moping under your cloud of negativism. Your heads-up Plan-B planning will have taken care of all that.


Next time on Admit This! …

Rejections, Deferrals, and Wait Lists: Part 3 …

“Being deferred is like holding your breath for more than three months. Ending up on a wait list is like going to purgatory. Nevertheless, you do have some active marketing options available to you, which I’ll explain in a moment …”

Stay tuned!


Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.

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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