It's very clear that the college admissions process is always changing. It's full of surprises and there are many theories and expectations about what needs to be accomplished before students submit their applications, especially for the early round. What's murkier, however, is what to do after your early acceptance decision comes in, and it's not what you were hoping for.
Applying Early Decision/Early Action has one of three results: acceptance, denial, or a deferral, where your application will be read in the regular decision pool. While students who were accepted or denied at least know where they stand, those who were deferred to the regular decision pool are stranded in an application limbo.
Why a deferral?
Because colleges don't know what their regular decision applicant pool will look like, and they need to strategically build their class and manage their yield, many schools will defer early applicants to the regular decision round, essentially waiting to make a decision. However, this varies by school. In 2011, over half of Princeton's class was filled by single choice early action applicants, even though there were considerably more applicants in the regular round.
Often, applicants are deferred because the school wants the opportunity to see what else they are doing with their last year of high school, and if they're maintaining (or improving) their grades and accomplishing other things through their extracurricular involvement. They may think that you're a strong applicant, but they just want to see a little more. This isn't a bad thing; it's something that can be used to your advantage.
Also, the number of students applying early decision and early action has been steadily increasing each year. Many schools reported record numbers of early applications this fall, making for a larger early pool with fewer seats for admittance. This rise in early applications could be because more students are applying to more schools. In fact, the number of students applying to three or more schools has grown from 67 percent to 79 percent over the last year.
It's important to keep in mind that the rate of deferrals is not the same at every school. Northwestern University only started deferring applicants a few years ago, and only does so for 1-2 percentof the applicants, and Vanderbilt only defers applicants under very special circumstances. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Georgetown University defers everyone who isn't accepted early, so there are no denials in the early round.
So what happens now?
Keep in mind that a deferral is not a rejection; you're still in play! There are several strategic steps you can take to boost your chances of admission in the regular round. The admissions officers have not yet made up their minds about you, so help them.
First, make sure the college knows they're still your top-choice.
Students should write what IvyWise calls a deferral letter, where you express your sustained interest in the institution and reassure the admissions office that you still plan to attend if admitted in the regular round. This might help put you ahead of some of the regular applicants they feel might not enroll if admitted.
Keep in mind, very selective schools have higher yield rates, so this factor may hold less weight with them. Still, letting admissions officers know their school is still your top choice, despite the deferral, can't hurt unless, of course, they specifically ask deferred students not to submit a deferral letter. Remember: don't be disingenuous. If you're not sure that you'd actually enroll if admitted, write that the college remains "a top choice" for you.
Next, don't be afraid to ask for guidance!
Unless the school explicitly tells you not to, have your college counselor give the admissions office a call to find out how close you came to admission. This will provide more context for admissions officers when reassessing your application in the spring. Often admissions officers are very open about what may have placed you in the regular round. This is where you can find out what they want from you. Many times they want to see more of your senior year grades (higher grades).
Listen to your school counselor's feedback and take it to heart: if they say they want to see a consistent rise in your first and second semester grades, make sure you're focusing on your studies. Their feedback is meant to help you!
Another way your counselor can help is by lobbying for you with a letter or phone call, focusing on new, more personalized information about you that was not conveyed the first time around.
This can be a reaffirming note with mid-year grades or updates on what you have been working on since submitting your application. If you can, find someone else who did not write you a letter of recommendation when you initially submitted your application (a teacher, employer, or otherwise). Any extra voices of support can help strengthen your application in the regular round.
There is a healthy balance of contact to maintain when dealing with a deferral.
Keep in touch, but do not pester the admissions office. Send them new materials that you think will help your application; you can update them in a letter on what you've been doing both in and outside of the classroom since you originally submitted your application, but don't overload them. You want to make it easier for them to admit you, not create more work for them.
The most important thing you can do is maintain a positive attitude.
Throughout your correspondence, never come across as bitter or disappointed. Guilt is not the powerful motivator you might think it is.
Even after giving your all, there is no fail-safe method for changing a deferral to an admission, or avoiding deferral in the first place. In the end, all you can do is take your counselor's advice, do your best to follow up, and wait.
After getting deferred, re-assess how badly you want to go to your original pick, and give the other colleges on your list more consideration. If you've done your research right, you should have at least 10 other top choice colleges on your list -- a list of reaches, targets, and likely schools. If you've applied to a balanced list of good-fit schools, you will end up at a college that is right for you!