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Articles / Applying to College / Rejections, Deferrals, and Wait Lists: Part 3

Rejections, Deferrals, and Wait Lists: Part 3

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Oct. 1, 2015
This is the third — and final — installment of a multi-part series on rejections, deferrals, and waitlistings that (unfortunately) some current high school seniors may experience in the coming months as they deal with the increasingly complex word of college admissions. I ended my last installment this way:

“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 …"

So, let's now take a look at both deferrals and wait lists …

Marketing options can accomplish two things. First, this structured approach to promoting yourself and your position will help time seem to pass more quickly. In the case of deferrals, you'll be waiting up to three-and-a-half months (up to 15 weeks) to find out your fate. If you're just going to sit and wait, doing nothing, these months can seem endless, especially if you live in a cold and snowy climate where there's a conspicuous lack of sunshine. Snowy weather sometimes seems to hang on until July.

If you are waitlisted, you'll have to make a fundamental decision: Do you want to stay on the wait list or pursue other options and enroll elsewhere? Obviously, you're going to have to enroll somewhere before May 1, just to assure that you'll have a college to go to in the fall.

In most cases, though, there's no concrete termination point for your wait list uncertainty, the lack of closure can be maddening. Your self-marketing actions to get off the wait list and onto the roles of accepted applicants will help you in another crucial psychological way. Once you've followed this self-marketing plan and you're still on the wait list, you can then withdraw and look elsewhere with peace of mind. Why? Well, if the actions I'm about to describe don't have any positive effect on your status, I can almost guarantee you that — barring a miracle — you wouldn't have been accepted anyway. It's important to bring closure to your college process within a reasonable amount of time — for everyone's sake: yours and your parent's.

Okay, so what is this great self-marketing plan? Briefly, it's all about finding a key 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.

Here is your eight-point plan:

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 admissions officers' names, their geographic assignment, and (if you're really lucky) their e-mail 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 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 (probably not) 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 should get you somewhere. Bottom line: Your goal is to identify a human being inside the admissions office with whom you can correspond.

2. State your case. Okay, so now you know the name of your admissions representative. Good. That's your first crucial step. My recommendation is to make your first contact with your rep in person, by telephone. S/he'll be able to make some mental notes about your tone and infer the level and quality of your commitment to attend that school. You may think that you'll be too nervous to sound convincing. However, the thing to remember is that admissions reps are people too. They understand how stressful and important your application process is. Accordingly, any admissions rep worth his or her salt will give you more than the benefit of the doubt when you speak with them. Try not to be nervous, though.

Above all, be organized and to the point. Tell your rep that you're calling to get some perspective on your deferral or wait listing. In most cases, the rep will retrieve your folder or look up your data on their computer while you're on the line. Then, s/he'll do a quick review of his or her notes and be as forthcoming as possible about why you were deferred or waitlisted. I've even heard of reps commenting on the “degree" of deferral. That is, s/he might say something like, “You were a high deferral," or some similar comment. If you hear a positive comment like this, that should charge your up even more and invigorate your self-marketing energies.

After these preliminaries, you'll want to tell your rep briefly that you're still extremely interested in attending that school and you would like to stay in touch and provide further evidence of your worthiness to become a student there. Regardless of how you put this — as long as your sincerity shines through — your rep will understand what you mean. S/he'll most likely be delighted that you took the initiative to call and introduce yourself. After your discussion has concluded, your rep will no doubt make some kind of notation in your admissions folder summarizing the nature of the call. S/he'll note the date too. They make these notations because there's not much hope of them remembering all the discussions they will have during the period between deferral letters (mid-December) and RD decisions (late March or early April).

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.

If you choose not to make your initial contact by phone but by email, your presentation should be much the same. One crucial difference, however, will be your forum. You'll have a bit of an advantage because your written message will give you total control. You won't have to think on your feet, answering unexpected questions, the way you might have to in a phone conversation. The downside of written contact is that you won't have the opportunity to “read" your rep's manner, voice inflections, and general demeanor. That's okay, though. Any rep worth his or her salt will respond characteristically in answering your email inquiry.

3. 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-to-six contacts with your rep, 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. On the average, a brief email or phone contact every two or three weeks ought to do it. Now that you understand the schedule, it's time to get to work.

4. 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.

5. Scout for an additional recommendation. As you begin to find ways to bump your academics upward, if possible, don't forget your extracurricular and volunteer activities. These weigh significantly in your college's eyes. Is there an activity or work area where you might be able to make an additional contribution? I don't mean go out and start a new club. That will appear as an obvious ploy to the admissions office. I'm talking about existing areas in which you're involved. If you can do this, you might want to look for a sponsor, a supervisor, or some other lead person who can write you an additional recommendation.

The only caveat here is that this person must know you at lest as well as those who wrote your initial recs. If you can find someone like this, ask him or her to mention specifics about your work or performance. As with your other recommendations, anecdotal information is critical. Once again, the goal is to reveal to the admissions committee more about who you are. A well-done extra recommendation like this can sometimes prove to be crucial.

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. Anything that you can do to facilitate this proof will aid your cause. For example, has anything about your academics or EC involvement appeared in your local or school newspaper? If so, get out the scissors. Have you been involved in any academic competitions such as Mathcounts or Odyssey of the Mind? Maybe you've been voted MVP on one of your school's teams.

How about your hobbies? If you're into photography, maybe you've got a page or two of especially stunning shots of your locale that would make a nice mail-in (or better yet, an email-in). Perhaps one of the school organizations you've belonged to for years has just completed a highly visible and successful community project. You might be able to get a letter of recommendation from the club's sponsor or even the mayor or someone on city council (if any of these people know you well). Are you getting the picture here about what it takes to be a marketer? Good.

7. Be persistent in your passion. I talk 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 wait list 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 wait list. 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 wait list, 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 wait list, 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 wait list 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 center court. They tell us to treat victory and defeat the same, as the impostors they are. What does that mean? Well, in the context of college admissions, it all goes back to what I said before — 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 wait list 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 and go around flaunting your good fortune. 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.


I hope you've gained some insights about the possible outcomes of your upcoming college applications. Sometimes things don't go exactly as planned, so you have to be prepared for alternative actions, a.k.a. a Plan B.

I wish you all the best for those applications. May all your outcomes be positive!


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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