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100-Headed Monster Digests Your College Apps! And Much Ado About Deferrals!

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This is the time of year you wait and wait and wait to hear from the institutions of higher education where you applied. Some of you have just gotten those awful deferral notices and have to wait as well. What does this all mean, and what can you do in the meantime?

The deferral: This is actually good news. The people who get in for early admissions have been admitted for a variety of reasons that have little to do with your own particular merit. Your application still stands on its own and now is the time to follow up.

Consider the deferral letter like any other job application where the employer has said the vetting process is incomplete and asks you to wait. Now you have two options: You are no longer bound to that school and may have indeed changed your mind about it being your "one and only" after all. In this case, celebrate and prepare for your other options.

But if that university or college still remains #1 for you, now's your chance to respond with a polite thank you letter and to restate your interest. One letter will do, you don't need to bombard anyone with e-mails and second and third letters. Just write that charming, determined letter of continued interest. You can offer to submit additional materials, but for most programs of study these are not needed nor will they be requested.

Meanwhile backstage... there is this 100-headed monster called the "Freshman Readers." Sometimes small colleges and universities have just a mainstay of regular admissions officers who read the files, usually a group of 12 to 30 people. Big universities have many more.

Who are these readers? The regular admissions staff at any university is a diverse group of people ranging in age from about 24 to 75, who have at least a bachelor's degree, have attended various universities -- not always the one you've applied to -- and are fulltime employees of the office of admissions. Some of these workers have been on the job nearly 40 years and have seen several generations of students come through their doors. Their backgrounds are generally in the humanities and social sciences with a few science degree holders as well.

At large universities additional temporary readers, usually 100 or so, are hired on for the reading season from December to February. They are the first line of people reading your applications. These "external" temporary readers undergo several weeks of training before the reading process and continue to receive support from the fulltime admissions personnel after the reading starts. External readers are a hugely mixed group of people from high school academic counselors to alumni to retired or part-time faculty from many different universities.

How does a university guarantee that your application gets a fair read? Norming. This means several readers read your application and discuss how it fits in with the institutional requirements and the rest of the pool. Does the group think you can succeed at this university? They need to discuss this together.

Neither the first round of reading, nor the norming decides whether you are "in." A second level of reading takes place again with the fulltime employees to double check all the previous reading.

No wonder the process is very slow.

Some things that help your application: The best applications have fully filled out information. All the information about your high school, its statistics, your grades, coursework and test scores. If you thought extra-curricular activities mattered, they do, big time, and your readers double check to see how deeply you were involved in these. Was it just one week, one year, or over many years and weeks that you devoted time to this activity?

As a reader for several different universities over the years, I can say a few things about the overall package:

Wow what good-looking, largely error-free essays! Even if there is an occasional typo or error, we still cut you slack and try to decipher your self-portrait, no matter how the content appears. We often have to stop and ask if you might have neglected to add up all your course work properly or forgot to mention some excellent course you took. Or try to figure out why there is one anomalous grade on your transcript. Or why you changed high schools and many other questions that arise. It's often helpful if you explain these in your additional statement section.

The best and most enjoyable statements showcase your own voice and provide a snapshot of you working hard in your world. Most helpful is content that shows your character, individuality and preparation for college.

Done all this? Then its time to relax, enjoy winter break and even read a good book or two. Look at your college's freshman reading lists. Now that the stress of applications and the entrance exams has finally lifted, you should have an intellectually productive year keeping up your grades, seeking out ideas that interest you and imagining where you want to be.