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December 15 College News: Deferral or Denial

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill.

This post offers suggestions for next steps after receiving a deferral or denial from an Early Action or Early Decision college, with advice from Admissions Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College by Sally S. Springer, Jon Reider & Marion R. Franck.

motherconsoleinwhiteWhat to do if you’re deferred? What does deferral mean, anyway? It depends on the school. “Some, like Georgetown University, defer all or most [applicants they do not accept early], denying only those who clearly don’t meet the qualifications for admission…Other colleges prefer to make hard decisions sooner rather than later, denying many qualified candidates they know they would deny in the regular cycle anyway, and deferring just a small percentage who look competitive for the final round…If there is a trend, it is in the direction of denying more students in the early round rather than fewer.” (Springer, p. 215).

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Michele Hernández talks about the varying meanings of deferral in A is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges: “…You will not know if you were a polite defer (that is, a valedictorian with low test scores who will probably not be admitted anyway but was deferred to show that he was strong enough not to be rejected outright) or a realistic defer (that is, somebody who looked pretty strong but the college wanted to wait for more scores and/or midyear grades to see how the person performed while carrying a challenging senior year course load.” (Hernández, p. 38).

Both Springer et al and Hernández suggest that the student contact admissions to get a sense of how to improve his or her chances in the regular cycle, write a letter to reaffirm the school as his or her top choice, add at most one powerful letter of recommendation, and update the college about any new awards or significant accomplishments. And finish out the fall term with strong grades! Both authors stress the importance of indicating continued interest, despite the fact that the odds of a deferred applicant gaining regular admission are not high (Springer, p. 216, Hernández, pp. 39-41). Dr. Allen Grove offers examples of strong “continuing interest” emails in his article,  “Deferred? What Next?”

northeasternThere are some popular Early Action schools that draw so many students for EA that they get overwhelmed and they have to defer many good students. In my own practice, I have recently encountered this phenomenon University of Michigan, Northeastern, UVA, and Villanova, and at schools that offer both ED and EA, such as ElonCase Western, and Babson. Admissions people have to be careful when they get deluged with EA applications. Yes, they can accept some of the “automatic” students who have straight As and perfect test scores, and they can deny applicants who are clearly not qualified. But the large majority of applicants are somewhere in between, and their applications require more discussion “in-committee.”


Admissions people have such a short time window Nov. 1-Dec. 15 that they can’t give these applications the full review they deserve (and if an institution offers both ED an EA, I would assume ED applicants would get priority attention). Admissions officers need to prevent “over-enrolling.” Hence, they often choose to defer middle-of-the-road applicants, choosing to look at them again in January in comparison with the Regular Decision applicant pool (when they may also have another marking period of improved grades), and then decide (for a March-April notification).

rotundaflagSome public universities that offer EA face the complicating situation that their higher-end applicants may be also applying to an EA Restricted Ivy, which is their preferred school. Restrictive early action typically does not allow the applicant to apply to another college ED, and other EA schools can only be public universities. University of Michigan, University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin, and University of Maryland are among the elite publics that offer EA. No matter what an applicant says in one’s supplementary essays, it is difficult for admissions officers to discern how likely the student is to attend if accepted Early Action (since there is no binding commitment). If deferred by one of these schools, I recommend that the applicant immediately write a letter of continued interest to clarity one’s genuine interest in the school.

bowarrowEvery situation is individual, but generally, one can expect that an EA deferral may turn into an acceptance if the applicant was within striking distance of the required credentials for the school and whose grades are trending up, and that an ED deferral probably will most likely not turn into an acceptance. Moreover, one simply cannot count on the unknown, so the deferred applicant must apply to Regular Decision schools (and an Early Decision II school if appropriate) that are both realistic and desirable.  The schools on this “Plan B” list should be genuine, attractive choices, not halfhearted backups. If the deferral decision was a wake-up call that your student shot a little too high, reassess. Meet with your guidance counselor and utilize quantitative tools (e.g., Naviance Family Connection) to re-evaluate the realism of the college list. Add a few slightly less competitive schools, but institutions that your teen would be happy attending. Do not make the mistake of applying only to schools that are equally as selective (or even more selective) than the institution that has just issued a deferral.

seriousgirlWhat to do if you’re denied? Denial has a more painful sting than deferral, especially if the applicant has only applied to one early school. Springer et al point out: “The problem with an early application denial is that it usually occurs in isolation, and also at holiday time…students usually apply early to only one college, and those who receive denials have no simultaneous acceptances to ease the blow.” (Springer, p. 215) One trend that I have seen in my practice is that many applicants apply to several early schools (usually one ED and a few EA schools), an approach sometimes coined “Christmas Insurance,” to buffer disappointment, but so many popular EA schools defer (see above) that this insurance is becoming less reliable than it once was.

While it is easier to “save face” with peers when a student is deferred, the finality of denial makes it easier for the student to move on. A deferral will most likely not end in eventual acceptance, but because it keeps hope alive it may result in a halfhearted, less effective application effort for the regular cycle. Denial is a blow, but (after blowing off steam) the student is ready to resume the college process. Hopefully, you have kept your son or daughter working on Regular Decision essays all along, so he or she will not be totally back at Square One, which can feel overwhelming.

dadhugsonThis may be a difficult experience in your family. Some accepted students will not be gracious or supportive. Others who were deferred or denied may ignite a nasty, sour grapes attitude within the senior class. Keep your son or daughter on the high ground. Eventually good news will come, but it is now a long four months away. Try to boost your teen’s self-esteem, with the reminder that this simply means that the admissions committee of this particular college decided not to admit him or her. This may mean your student’s academic credentials were not quite strong enough for this institution, or that the admissions people surmised the match was not there, or even random circumstances over which he or she had no control.

nopositionsFast forward to the experience of college graduates trying to land jobs in a still-recovering economy. In my consulting practice, I have worked with young adults who job hunt for months, weathering disappointment, learning to be patient in between opportunities, keeping their spirits up until they land the job they want, or even accepting a job below their initial expectations to pay off loans or build transferable experience. Learning to postpone gratification with patience, maturity, and grace is a valuable life skill. Early admission deferral or denial in Grade 12 may be the first time your son or daughter has faced this kind of challenge, but it certainly will not be the last. He or she might as well learn how to survive it resiliently, with self-esteem intact.