03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #8: Bah, Humbug, Tax Forms And Early Deferrals

Ah, the holiday season. The familiar aromas of traditional festive meals, free shipping, sales that seem to start earlier every year, reunions with loved ones, mysterious new air travel fees, hot chocolate and egg nog.

And early-decision deferrals.

And the official start of the financial-aid stampede.

Holiday time can be tough for both generations of a college application family-- the deferred senior, who hoped for a sprint instead of a marathon, only to learn on December 15 that the college of his dreams has moved the finish line eight miles down the road, and parents of any kind of senior, accepted, deferred, regular, who have to start their 2009 income taxes before the ink on their December purchase receipts is dry.

Some of the saddest posts on the internet, at this ho-ho-ho time of year -- and frequently some of the most poorly-written, which may be a clue -- are the ones from deferred students looking for a way to improve their odds come April. To summarize the advice: Should they call or write? Maybe. Should they send in more essays, more information on that extracurricular activity, more letters of recommendation? Maybe. Was it their GPA, their SAT, their ACT? Maybe. And are their chances better or worse than the regular applicants who always intended to swim in the regular pool?

Hard to say. And why are they asking strangers, all of whom seem to be either other deferred students or the parents of other deferred students, what to do?

For every professional advisor who suggests finding a way to bond with an admissions officer and fast, there is a more cautious one who worries about overkill. For all the talk of moderation and modulation, it's almost impossible to figure out where that golden mean is; don't do too much and don't do too little aren't much help when there's no consensus.

The two points where everyone seems to intersect are cold comfort: Make sure your first-semester grades are topper than top-notch, which means regaining your focus to ace those finals the same week you get the bad news, as though that kind of rebound were easy for an adult, let alone an 18-year-old. And oh yeah, the schools know you're a deferred candidate, which you can only hope doesn't make you seem like last week's lettuce compared to a just-picked regular app.

Don't expect a whole lot of sympathy from your folks right now, though, because they are up to their mortgaged eyeballs in tax prep, in advance of the January first arrival of the 2010-2011 revised FAFSA financial aid forms. And that goes for regular-app parents as well as parents of earlies.

Now, nobody says they have to have their taxes ready early -- in fact, they can file that FAFSA with estimates and then file a correction down the road. And nobody says that we're going to run out of loan money. On the other hand, nobody seems to have seen the recession coming, which is kind of like standing at the beach and not seeing the tsunami rolling in, and a mistake is going to cost as much as $50,000 a year. Most fearful and responsible people are going to get a head-start on their paperwork, which means itemizing
deductions when everyone else is enjoying those January white sales.

Because I can't wait for the fun to begin, and because the government has been promising a kinder, gentler form this year, I decided to see if I could find out what the revamp involves. I doubt anyone has had such fun reading a government document since oh, the Pentagon Papers, or perhaps the transcripts of Rosemary Wood's tape recordings. Yes, they have eliminated forms A, B and C -- and just as yes, they have folded some of those questions into the basic form. And yes, they have raised the threshold of "protected income" -- the amount you can make and still have an expected family contribution of zero. It used to be $20,000. Now you can make $30,000 without having to cough up a dime for your child's college education; you'll just spend the rest of your lives repaying loans.

Granted, a 50 percent increase is a hefty one, and I appreciate the government trying to lend a helping hand. But state schools are raising their fees, private schools circle around $50,000 a year, and we don't have to worry about finding the funds unless we make the princely sum of $30,001? Perhaps I should have taken an advanced math class, but I don't get it.

Karen Stabiner's novel, Getting In, will be published in March 2010. Visit or write to her at