12/19/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Deferred? 5 Powerful Tips to Getting Accepted at Your Top Choice School

At 3:16 pm on December 13,2014, thousands of students hovered in front of their screens, waiting anxiously to see if they had been chosen as one of the small number admitted to MIT's early action pool.

4,456 groans erupted. These were the groans of the deferred.

The MIT applicants weren't alone. All around the world, another 4,292 Harvard applicants were letting out groans of frustration, too -- a whopping 73% of the applicants had also been deferred.

In fact, these numbers are quite common among the elite schools' early acceptances: very few were admitted, and thousands have been deferred. And the chance of actually getting accepted hovers around 10%.

If you're one of these students who's stuck in limbo, having to wait for the regular decision results, don't despair. There are 3 powerful things you can do right now, both to increase your chances of acceptance at your top choice school, and to strengthen your regular decision applications.

1. Rethink your personal essay.

You're groaning again, aren't you?

Listen, your college application essay is the tipping point for your whole application.

If your test scores and GPA are solid and you've demonstrated an active, engaged life in your extracurriculars, then your essay is the critical piece on which your acceptance rests.

Does your essay tell the admissions officers something that they wouldn't be able to guess about you by looking at your extracurricular activities and course load? Do your best personal qualities (plural!) shine through?

I'll give you an example: I'm working with a student now who was deferred at his top choice school and was eager to see what he could do to shine on his regular decision essays.

The first thing we looked at was his essay. It was very well-written, with an easy flow and a commanding story teller's voice. The essay told the story of how he'd used his creativity to create an app that would make his volunteering job run more smoothly.

But his essay didn't tell me anything new. Just by glancing at his extracurriculars and his course load, I would have been able to tell that he was interested in engineering and programming.

As soon as we started talking, however, a beautiful story came bubbling to the surface: how his earlier struggle to connect with his peers had allowed him to become a natural connector.

I knew right away that this kind of personable, compassionate quality is something the admissions officers would find appealing in an engineering applicant. After all, engineering is not a field known for the most sociable people.

This student is rewriting his essay now to reflect this more intimate view of who he is. He plans to send this new essay to his Early Decision school in the form of a letter, explaining that he didn't fully express himself in his original essay, and will submit this new one for his regular decision schools.

So, you need to ask yourself -- and maybe your guidance counselor or someone else familiar with the process -- whether your essay reveals something remarkable about you that your transcript and activity sheet can't. If you think you have a better story, then I'd highly recommend rewriting. (But be aware that you can only change your essay 3 times on the Common Application.)

2. Call the admissions office

The next thing you can do is to call the admission office to see if you can discover any clues about why you were deferred.

Do not have your parents make this call. It shows a lot more maturity and initiative when you're the one to pick up the phone.

If you feel too nervous or you're not sure what to say, you can also ask your school's guidance counselor to make the call.

Now, don't expect a whole lot from this conversation. The admissions officers can't tell you specifics about your file, but there are few things you can infer.

For example, they might talk about how competitive this year's applicants were and how high their scores and grades were. If the conversation goes in this direction, then the admissions officer is hinting that your grades and test scores weren't as strong as the other applicants'.

At this point, though there may not be a whole lot you can do, it's still worth highlighting your personal achievements and letting them know how enthusiastic you are.

If the admissions officer says that you're right in the middle of applicant pool, then that's a good hint that you don't stand out among your peers, either personally, academically, or both. *Hint -- this is where your personal essay plays such an important role.

If, however, the admissions officer tells you that you're a strong candidate but that they want to see how the rest of your senior year goes, then that's a strong hint to keep your grades strong and to work at standing out, academically and personally. Did I mention the importance of the personal essay?

3. Ask your guidance counselor to send in updates in late February

This is a simple but important step: make sure to ask your guidance counselor to send in updated transcripts and grades, as well as any awards you've received in school.

4. Submit a letter of interest

Whether or not you rewrite your essay, you need to write a letter to your deferral school expressing your interest and letting them know that they are still your top choice school.

This is a fairly straightforward letter: express genuine excitement about becoming part of their student body and remind them of any awards or accomplishments you've achieved since you submitted your application.

5. Do something interesting

Most students assume that there's nothing they can do after they've submitted their applications. Why do you think seniors have the reputation for falling into a slump?

If you got deferred, this is the last thing you should do. You want to get inspired and excited and all lit up about a personal project.

Now, please, don't misunderstand me. I don't want you to go get yourself all stressed out and think you've got to create some world-changing undertaking in 3 months.

What I DO want you to do is empower yourself by looking at your skills and your interests and asking yourself how you can fuse these together to create something of genuine value for yourself and for others. Then start taking small, actionable steps to make your vision a reality.

Taking on this new project doesn't guarantee that you'll tip the balance in your favor grant you acceptance. But at the very least it will help you move out of anxiety about whether you'll be accepted and give you something creative and inspiring to do while you wait.

Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection and uninspired volunteerism in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others.