By Elizabeth Heaton
By David De Lossy, Photodisc

So you got deferred from your first choice. Don’t just mope — do something about it.

You worked hard, slaved over your essays, took all of your standardized tests and submitted your application well before the early decision or early action deadline at your top school. Now it’s the end of December, and instead of getting in, you got deferred. So what does a deferral even mean? More importantly, what can you do about it?

As a former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania, I read and evaluated hundreds of early decision applications each year and helped decide whether to admit, deny or defer each one. Here’s the bad news: Your deferral may have been an early holiday “gift.” As with the April waitlist, some students will be deferred for institutional reasons — the family friend of an important VIP, a top student from a strong high school who just isn’t a standout, the child whose parent attended the school — and the deferral amounts to a nicer way of saying no.

The good news? Unlike the waitlist, which is primarily comprised of these “permanent” waitlist contenders, the deferred applicant pool represents a group of students with a serious chance of acceptance. At many institutions, including Penn, these candidates are accepted at about the same rate as regular decision applicants.

If these applicants have as good a shot as anyone of acceptance in regular decision, why were they deferred? Something important to the decision-making process may have been missing: first-quarter grades, teacher recommendations, a piece of writing. The admissions officers may want more information, such as stronger test scores or an improved grade in a specific course, and are hoping the extra time will give the student an opportunity to provide it. But the most-likely reason is that the selection committee simply needs more time and a fuller picture of the applicant pool before making a final decision.

Here is some more good news: There is something you can do about the deferral. Wait a day or two, then call the admissions office and speak to the person who read your file. (If the institution won’t take your call, ask your guidance counselor to make it.) Ask if there is anything specific that can be addressed in the application in preparation for regular decision. You also might ask if switching to a different major, program or undergraduate school at the institution would be advisable, but proceed with caution! Many colleges will expect that you have done your homework and applied to the best program for you at the start. The proposal to switch may be viewed negatively, so check with your guidance counselor before broaching this subject. Finally, consider offering to enroll for the summer or spring term if available, as these options may feature less competition.

After the initial phone call, wait another week or two. Let the decision settle and see how you feel about the college at that point. Over the years, I learned that students who called immediately and sent follow-up letters reaffirming their interest within a few days of the call often turned us down if they ultimately were admitted. The sentiments expressed in their letters frequently were knee-jerk reactions to the deferral, and over time their feelings changed.

If you still want to attend, write a letter to your admissions officer expressing that interest, addressing any concerns raised in the phone call and confirming recent decisions around a different enrollment choice. Include any new information — a new award or honor, an upward trend in grades or an additional test score. If the institution remains your first choice and you will definitely attend no matter where else you are accepted, say that as well. Finally, send the letter in the first week of January so that it arrives in plenty of time for regular decision consideration.

Speaking of which, don’t forget to submit your remaining regular decision applications while you’re dealing with the deferral. Hopefully you gave them the same time and attention you lavished on your early applications, and your April results will feature many college options to choose from.

Elizabeth Heaton is a senior director of educational consulting at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of educational advisory services. Ms. Heaton began her admissions career at the University of Pennsylvania, where she chaired university selection committees, evaluated potential athletic recruits as one of the school’s athletics liaisons, and oversaw the university’s portfolio of admissions publications. She also served as second chair in the selection committee for the school’s flagship interdisciplinary Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology. In addition to unique insight into the selection criteria for students planning majors in business, engineering, and nursing, Ms. Heaton brings exceptional skills to the craft of essay writing, with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Cornell, paired with experience reading and evaluating thousands of University of Pennsylvania admissions essays. Prior to joining the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Heaton worked as a public relations professional and served for a decade as a member of the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network.

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