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The Senior Deferral Do and Don’t List

When I started working in college admissions 25 years ago, it was unusual for a student to be certain enough of themselves and to have researched enough colleges to be able to file an “early” application. Colleges gave us the impression that the Regular Decision period was when most applicants “regularly” applied, and many of the students I worked with – even at the nation’s top boarding school – were still applying to college in February of their senior year. Back then, there were only two admissions cycles: Early Decision, for those rare students who knew exactly what they wanted and were ready to stand on only three years worth of high school to prove it, and Regular Decision, for everyone else. 

Since then, lots of other “early” application options have emerged: non-binding Early Action, a second round of binding Early Decision and Priority Deadlines, among others. But it still sometimes feels like there are just two admissions cycles: Early and Late. And when a student hasn’t been fortunate enough to be admitted “early,” the news can be disappointing and the wait interminable. When a student files an “early” application, the college can offer or deny admission, or defer the decision until the regular admissions cycle. If your Early Decision or Early Action application has been deferred to the Regular Decision pool, don’t despair! You still have an opportunity to make a difference in the outcome of that final decision. Here’s what to do if your application has been deferred in an early admissions process: 

The Senior Deferral Do and Don’t List

1.) DO call the school’s admissions office and ask to speak with a member of the admissions staff (ideally your regional representative). Take a positive approach and let them know you were disappointed, remain very interested in the school, and ask what you can do to strengthen your application in the Regular Decision process. It’s unlikely you’ll hear any advice that differs from the list that follows, but establishing – and maintaining – that personal relationship with the admissions staff is important. A follow up email is a great idea, but the phone call is far more personal and valuable

2.) DO your best work academically. Your grades from the fall and even the spring semester will be critical to making your case for a Regular Decision admit; don’t let them slip.

3.) DON’T drop a class second semester and thereby weaken your curriculum. Doing so puts you at risk of looking like someone who is beginning to “check out” of school – not exactly the kind of student who is as excited to go to this highly selective college as he or she might be claiming. If there has been a change in your schedule, or if a scheduling conflict has prohibited you from taking an advanced class you wanted to take, you should take note and reflect about that circumstance. That way, if you’re asked about it later, you’ll be able to explain your decision.  

4.) DON’T miss an opportunity to continue to “demonstrate interest” to the college. If they make an on-campus or local alumni interview available to deferred candidates, take advantage of that opportunity.

5.) DO prepare an update letter to send to the college around the end of January or beginning of February. The letter should be directed to that nice person you spoke with on the phone (see #1!). It should include:

  • an introduction reminding the reader of who you are and why you are writing (‘my application was deferred, but your college is still my top choice…’)
  • a paragraph that highlights your academic accomplishments from the fall semester (not just the final grades but a favorite project or paper that helped you get those great grades)
  • a paragraph that mentions any additional awards, honors or leadership roles you have earned since you applied back in the fall 
  • and a final paragraph that explains why you and the school are a great match (not just why you want to go there, but what you will do to make the school a better place once you get there). 

6.) DO make sure that your Mid-Year Report goes out from your counselor’s office as soon as grades are posted. Most schools are very good about doing this in a timely manner (and it is nearly automatic with some services like SCOIR and Naviance), but it’s your responsibility to tell your guidance counselor or registrar which schools need to receive your report and to make sure that it safely finds its way to your file at those schools. 

7.) DO reach out to the regional admissions officer again in February (see how important #1 was?) to make sure that the update letter (#5) and Mid Year Report (#6) arrived. This is a good opportunity to see if there is anything else you can do to advocate for yourself at this point.

8.) DON’T neglect the other colleges on your list. While the early bird that got away may still be your top choice, make sure that you have done a good job of applying to a range of schools for Regular Decision and that each of them have seen you at your best so you will have lots of great choices – hopefully including that “early” one – when the time comes.

If your early application was deferred, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the decision is not a measure of your worth as a person nor your potential to succeed at that college; it is more about the college managing their enrollment process than anything. In fact, a deferral is generally an encouraging message – the college wants a second chance to review your application and they are giving you a second chance to make your case. As difficult as disappointing news can be, know that everything you will have learned about yourself during this process is going to make you a terrific addition to the college community you join next year. They are going to be lucky to have you whether you arrive “early” or not!


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