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  • amyalysaglynn

So, your dream-date college deferred you. Now what?

You did your research. You identified the perfect school for you, and you wisely applied Early Decision or Early Action to let them know you meant it. The next thing you know, you're sitting in AP Chemistry listening to your lab partner squeal about their early acceptance to your heartthrob college and festering in anxious, resentful silence because you got punted to regular decision and are now in total limbo.

What happened?

In my own cohort this year, I have at least one and in some cases several students who have gotten this outcome from (partial list): Harvard. Brown. Penn. Howard. U Chicago. University of Michigan. USC. For those students, getting deferred has been anywhere from anxiety-provoking to demoralizing to infuriating—and understandably.

You know you're qualified. THEY know you're qualified. Hell, you have a higher GPA than your chem lab partner and you're a student government diehard and a sportsball superstar, so what the actual?

Trust me, it's not personal.

And I'll be honest: sometimes that's the whole issue. Because from your perspective it is entirely personal. Believe me, I get it. But before you become convinced that you are at the mercy of a shadowy conspiracy, or that your college advisor led you up the garden path to downtown BS City, or that you'll never, ever, ever get over this rejection? Take a breath.

First, it's not a rejection. It's an annoyance. You are very much still in play, so stiff upper lip o'clock.

Second: no, there was nothing wrong with your application and you were not wrong to aspire to that school. The proof is that you were not rejected outright. (PS, qualified people get rejected outright by schools all over the planet. Consider that a great rehearsal for not getting the job you wanted, the salary you wanted, or the person you wanted to date not feeling the same way.) They are still considering you, so until the proverbial fat lady sings, it ain't over.

But whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

Yup, interesting question. Flip the script and look at this from the college's point of view. They are tasked with something much more complex than assessing you. They have the hideous mission of compiling a balanced mosaic of incoming students, and the far more icky issue of "optics," by which I mean "What does it say about US that we accepted X percentage of people in Y demographic?" Sometimes this process is honestly pretty cynical (ask any person born in California who'd like to take advantage of what was supposed to be a free education for California residents, and is now the morass of chaotic randomness we call "Berkeley"). Other times, it's not particularly cynical at all—just a college trying to contend with the reality that they cannot accept every qualified applicant and making tough choices.

This stuff is definitely an art, not a science. Please know that college admissions aren't purely a matter of merit, and meeting their specifications isn't the whole game. The reason your chem lab partner got into Columbia early action and you didn't could be any number of things, including dumb luck.

Maybe they are first-generation college applicants and your great-grandparents all had PhDs! Colleges are often under a great deal of pressure to lean in favor of those applicants, and not for no reason. There's nothing you can do about how high-achieving or personally supported your folks were, so you pretty much have to give that piece up to the Universe.

In non-binding early action, it can be that you are SO qualified they assume you will ghost them for another school so they are waiting out the clock. Seriously, that is a thing.

In some cases, legacy status can work against you. Colleges are backpedaling like crazy to distance themselves from perceived (or all too real) privileging of alumni children at the expense of their equally or more qualified peers. So if you come from a long line of Princeton graduates, you might be surprised at how much credit that doesn't buy you in New Jersey right now.

It can be even more obscure than that, especially with smaller liberal arts colleges and conservatories: maybe you had your heart set on on a music performance program at Oberlin, and they are about to graduate their only bassoonists—but you play cello and your lab partner happens to be a woodwinds genius. Or maybe you applied to a major that's really oversaturated (think computer science at Stanford, or microbiology at Johns Hopkins, or film at USC, or business programs basically anywhere), and your buddy who applied as an Emily Dickinson superfan found a love match because that school is motivated to keep its English professors on the farm.

In other words... it's not you, it's them.

Is there anything you can do, other than wait it out?

As a matter of fact, yes. No one can guarantee that these things will change the final outcome, but it might, and it's very unlikely to hurt.

1) Send them a Valentine! No, it will not make you seem needy (unless that's what you're leading with in your letter, so skip the dramatics—even if Drama is your major). A simple email to the admissions alias saying "this school is still my top choice and I would definitely commit if accepted" is a very good idea (if that's true). Pro tip: if you had an editor eyeball your application essays for grammar and word choice and such, hit them up for a peek at your letter—you don't want it to sound like it came from a totally different person who doesn't know what a comma is. Your app materials are being reviewed by people who are old enough to remember what punctuation is, so step up!

2) If there is ANY conditional language along the lines of "we like you, but your GPA is borderline for us, so we're going to see how many of our accepted people commit and then revisit your application?" It's a wise plan to update them on any achievements, academic or otherwise, that might swing the balance in your favor. Don't stretch the truth if you have no particular updates, and definitely don't take credit for something you cannot back up.

3) If you are permitted to send an additional letter of recommendation, now is the time. Additional recommenders can be current or former academic teachers at your high school, or in plenty of cases, people like your Scouting troop leader, your pastor, your tennis coach, or the lovable hippie who taught your summer food-foraging workshop. For some colleges, there's an X-factor to this person being an alum, especially a "distinguished" one, so if you're targeting Wesleyan and you have Lin-Manuel Miranda on speed dial, super. But what's really important isn't where your recommender went to school or whether they're famous (in fact, "famous" can backfire in some situations). It's about how well they know you and how likely they are to write you a rave review.

This will be over soon, I promise.

The waiting game is agony sometimes. We all know this. And a deferral from your dream college can be a big ol' hit to your self-esteem. But here's the deal. It's probably not because you did anything wrong. It's probably happening for reasons that have little to nothing to do with your merit and lots to do with that college's personal struggles to construct a coherent incoming class, which is like mixing the world's most complicated cocktail in a flair-bartending competition in downtown Hell (if you'll pardon the over-21 analogy). Does that make it "fair?" Nope—not from your point of view, certainly.

Say it with me, folx: No. One. Promised. You. This. Would. Be. Fair. Sad, but eternally true. Take it from a Gen X'er—and prepare to develop some highly useful rejection-calluses.

You will find your place, I promise. Maybe it will even be the school that just broke your will to live with a deferral letter. But if it isn't, that just might be a blessing in disguise. (I now get the shivers thinking about who I'd be now if Yale hadn't made the door whack me in the butt on the way out.) And one way or another, your next available moves on the college chessboard will reveal themselves in a few short weeks.

So stay positive, and even more importantly, stay flexible. Sometimes not getting what you thought you wanted turns out to be the best thing that could've happened to you. And plenty of times, deferrals turn into acceptances, not rejections. Hang in there. I promise whatever happens, you will not be obsessing over it in five years, or even five months.

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