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Articles / Applying to College / A Smart Plan B - Part 2 of 3

A Smart Plan B - Part 2 of 3

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 19, 2015

Last time, I began my advice about how to create a sensible Plan B, for those of you high school seniors who will be getting less-than-exciting news in December from your ED and EA applications. I want to continue with that information here in this post.

Let’s talk about those who have (or are) writing recommendations for you.

A key part of your Plan B strategy is to brief your recommenders about your application plans. Since you won’t be finding out about your early application(s) until mid-December, that leaves only a couple of weeks until most of your other applications’ Regular Decision (RD) deadlines occur (usually on the first of January).

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 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 supplemental 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, worst case, get denied, 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 a cloud of negativism. Your heads-up Plan-B planning will have taken care of all that.

Now, on to deferrals and wait lists. Being deferred is like holding your breath for more than three months. Ending up on a wait list is like purgatory. Nevertheless, you do have some active marketing options available to you, which I’ll explain in a moment. These 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? Since, in most cases, 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 —  for you and your parents.

Okay, so what’s 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 admission 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 contact, briefly explain who you are and what your situation is: “Hello, this is Julie Smith. 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 no doubt 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. 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 the 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 listed. 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 still work for you.

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 inquiry.


The first two steps of my eight-part self-marketing plan, discussed above, are the most detailed, so I’ll allow you to absorb their finer points before my final post on a Plan B approach. Next time I’ll discuss timing, intensity, additional recommendations, the marketing mindset, and a consistent focus. That will be plenty more for you to process. See you then.


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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