College Application Strategies for Dealing With Deferral

Tips for Applicants
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There’s a reason the National Hockey League forever did away with the tie back in 2005 — it’s an outcome that is antithetical to the natural human desire to sort out winners and losers, to see results in black and white terms, to know definitively where one stands. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), the early action/decision process in college admissions frequently results in the ultimate act of indecision — the deferral. While better than an outright rejection, being deferred can leave students feeling helpless and lacking further agency in the quest to win acceptance. This is simply not the case.

Below are five things that you can and should do upon being handed the admissions equivalent of a 1-1 tie.

1. Write a letter to the school. If you haven’t already done so, draft a letter addressed to the dean of admissions and to the admissions counselor assigned to your area, that (1) reiterates your intentions to enroll if admitted and (2) restates why you believe the college is most suited to your interests and goals. Be sure to reference specific courses, extracurricular activities and/or research opportunities that you plan to pursue. Also, make sure your letter strikes an upbeat and appreciative tone; doing so shows resilience and leaves a positive impression.

2. Request a recommendation letter. Solicit a letter of recommendation from someone who is able to offer a different and fresh perspective on your candidacy. For example, if you’ve only submitted teacher recommendations thus far, consider sending a letter of recommendation from an extracurricular sponsor or work supervisor who can attest to your abilities and work ethic outside of the classroom.

3. Retake tests. If your SAT, ACT and/or SAT subject tests constitute a relative weakness of your application, consider registering for an additional test or two. Standardized test scores still matter and better results can improve your admission prospects. If you decide to take an additional exam, do so in January or February, before your prospective colleges finalize their admission decisions. A number of competitive colleges are willing to review January SAT and/or February ACT scores in their regular admissions processes.

4. Seek opportunities to earn additional recognition. If you’re a writer, send an article to your local newspaper. If you’re an artist, explore opportunities to exhibit your work. If you excel in math, enter a competition. Securing a competitive scholarship, distinguished award or similar honor can often aid borderline applicants.

5. Study hard. First-semester grades are extremely important for deferred applicants and provide you with one last opportunity to exhibit scholastic promise and a trend of academic improvement.

Final Thoughts

Even if you dutifully adhere to all of this advice, it’s important to remember that your first-choice school may still reject you in the regular admissions cycle. In 2015, MIT deferred 4,535 early admission students and later accepted only 248 of that cohort. Historically, Dartmouth ultimately accepts only 5 percent of its deferred early decision applicants.

Receiving a deferral is by no means a defeat, but it is critical that you line up a solid backup plan as you wait for a final decision. Remember, there are countless institutions that can offer you a top-notch education. If your deferral turns into a “yes” later on, that’s fantastic. If not, keep in mind that you still have plenty of excellent choices before you.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. Learn more at


Categories: College Planning, College Transitions, Teens