Every Mid-December, the wire-mesh glass windows of my high school cafeteria were plastered with pages of printer paper. If you looked closely at any one of the myriad sheets you’d see the same words neatly typed at the start: “We regret to inform you.” This was our wall of rejection: a celebration of having tried; a place for reflection and catharsis; but, above all, a reminder that you were not alone. I remember awaiting my Cornell early decision, taking pride in knowing that if rejected, I’d be one of the first to put my letter on the wall.
It’s a familiar process. You spend months deciding on your top-choice school, you work hard getting your application in early, you get your hopes up, and then… you get bad news. A deferral, maybe even a rejection. This is a reality that the overwhelming majority of students applying early to top US colleges have to deal with.
First thing you need to do is breathe. Take a moment.
Okay. Did you take a moment? Good. (If not, take one now! It’s important to breathe, and you should be proud to have made it this far in the process in the first place. Seriously. Applying early is no easy feat.)
Now, before we talk about what this means for your application, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean.
If you were deferred or rejected, it does not make you a failure or a reject. It’s a bitter reality of American higher education that most applicants to top-ranked colleges will get rejected. They wish they didn’t have to, but it’s the admissions officers’ jobs to make these hard decisions. So keep that in mind as you read the advice outlined below.
Your situation will differ depending on whether you were deferred or rejected, so we’re going to break our discussion down into two sections below.
First things first: deferred does not mean rejected. It also doesn’t mean waitlisted. It means that your application is being moved to the regular decision applicant pool. In other words, the college wants to wait to see who else will apply before they decide whether or not to accept you. It can be hard for them to determine how many people will apply in advance, so deferment is a valuable tool to make sure they’re not rejecting anyone who could be a potential student.
If you were deferred, you should know it’s because the college didn’t want to reject you. Deferring means admissions officers have to do more work (they’ll need to read your application twice now), so if you get deferred it’s because you’re qualified for the school, it’s just a question of how many other qualified students apply.
Understanding the Numbers:
An important thing to know when processing how you feel about being deferred is how common it is for the school to defer students. Many universities such as Princeton and Harvard have been known to defer the majority of early applicants, while others such as Stanford and Cornell are known for rejecting most early applicants and only deferring a select few. It can be hard to find current data, but there are two good ways to do so. The first is through Google, by searching “early application defer rates” (or a variation) + the name of the college you’re researching. Usually previous years’ metrics (often found in old editions of the campus newspaper) are a good benchmark. Alternatively, you could reach out to the admissions office of the school, either by phone or email, and asking. Check out the Full List in our Resource Library for contact info of every school’s admissions office. Looking at those numbers, if you’re deferred from a school historically known for deferring many students, you should know that your chances will be slim in the regular round of admission. However, if they reject most students and only defer a few, take it as a good sign, but don’t count on acceptance by any means.
Once you understand the numbers, you’ll want to come to terms with how you feel about the school. Are you still just as excited about it? If they accepted you in April alongside other colleges on your list, would you still choose them over others? Sometimes the sting of that initial rejection can sour a student’s opinion of a school.
Showing your Interest:
Are you still interested? If so, let the school know. Write them a letter to indicate that you’re still committed to attending and look forward to the regular admission decision. Be sure to be authentic but positive, maybe taking a brief moment to reiterate why you still believe you’re a good fit for the college (and that they’re good for you). This would also be a perfect time to ask if you can update them on any progress you’ve made since you submitted your application. Some schools will say no (in which case do not send them anything), but others will be open, and might even suggest a preferred format (Amherst, for instance, asks that all updates be sent in PDF form). Your update could include new test scores, better grades, progress on your Spike, or any other recent achievements. Our post about the Common App’s additional information section could provide some useful guidelines, since your update should strike a similar factual tone similar to this section.
The most important thing to do beyond affirming your commitment is to keep your grades up. If anything, you should take deferment as a sign that you need to work even harder. Grades often lapse during fall of senior year when applications are at their peak, so if you have finals coming up make sure not to neglect your studies. As for your applications, being deferred doesn’t signal all that much. Don’t feel the need to totally rewrite your essays or bail on your college list just because you were deferred.
Do you know how many students get rejected? It may seem obvious, but look at the acceptance rate of your college, subtract it from 100, and then realize that you are one of that many students to receive a rejection. I had a close friend in high school who got rejected from Yale only to get into MIT and Harvard. Another friend was rejected from MIT but got into Yale. College admissions is a complex process that often comes down to a combination of luck and the personal taste of admissions officers. Don’t take it too personally. Getting rejected in your early application is not an indication that you won’t get into college. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still be upset about it. Breathe. You’ll get through this.
Understanding The Numbers:
As with deferrals, the first thing to look at is how many students are rejected vs. deferred from a school in its early application round. If the majority are rejected, don’t read into the decision too much. You are one of many. You may consider trying to improve your application overall, but don’t feel like you need to seriously rethink anything. This is particularly true if the college is a reach (you can read more about what makes a match, reach, or safety in our post here).
If, however, you get rejected from a school that typically defers most applicants, you should take a moment to pause (particularly if the school is a match). What was it in your application that caused you to be in the minority of students who were rejected? If your grades and test scores are both above average, the essay is likely the most problematic area of the application. Read it over. Then read it over again. Read it out loud. If you’re an international student, one of the greatest concerns of colleges will be whether you have the English proficiency to succeed there. The essay is your opportunity to prove that, and if you’ve made grammatical errors or haven’t written a solid essay, it can raise major red flags. Check out our post on great college essays here and make sure your essay follows the guidelines outlined there.
In addition to revisiting your essay, you may consider adjusting your college list if you find yourself in the situation of getting rejected at a school that you would have expected to be deferred from (or accepted to). Consider adding another safety school or replacing a reach with a match. You likely don’t need to do a complete overhaul, but you will want to manage your expectations and make every effort to prevent future disappointment.
Above all, don’t panic. It’s not the end of the world. Applications are a game of chance. By applying early, you’ve received valuable feedback which you can now implement in your regular decision applications, boosting your overall chances. You’ve got this.