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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

What to do if you get deferred or rejected

How to overcome obstacles and improve your chances of success when it matters most

In my last article, I discussed everything you need to know about acceptance letters, scholarships, and what follows in the months ahead. In this article, I’m going to discuss what to do if your college’s decision wasn’t as favorable as you had hoped.

Besides being accepted, there are two other possible outcomes - getting rejected and getting deferred. Let’s start with the bad news first.

If you build your college list correctly, it’s likely that you’ll be rejected from a few of your colleges. Certain colleges are challenging for everyone to get into and we usually refer to those colleges in the college list building process as “reach colleges.” Getting rejected from one of them says that you reached high enough when building your list. That’s okay. Don’t let those rejections get you down. They may not have even had anything to do with you. Let me show you what I mean.

Supply and demand See colleges have become very competitive and there’s far more demand than there is supply, especially at those reach colleges. In fact, when you consider that there are over 26,000 public high schools in America and close to another 10,000 private high schools, it’s easy to see just how many students are applying to college each year. Now, granted, not every one of those students is planning to go to college, but it’s highly likely that the valedictorians of each of these classes will. so, that leaves roughly 36,000 high-achieving students who may have at least one Ivy League school in their sites.

Would you think it’s fair to say?

Okay, well if that’s possible, let’s look at how many freshmen seats are available at those Ivy League schools. Certainly the valedictorian from each high school should be able to get in to at least one Ivy, don’t you think? Let’s do the math.

According to the Department of Education, in 2018 all eight Ivy League colleges and universities combined issued a grand total of just under 22,600 acceptance letters to their applicants. Naturally, some of those may have been accepted at one may have also been accepted by more than one school, since it’s not uncommon for top-performing students to apply to multiple Ivy League schools at the same time. When you take that into consideration, it means the actual number of students involved in those acceptance letters was probably less than what was actually reported. Plus, there are also situations where families can’t afford to attend or they simply decide that going elsewhere is a better fit. So, even though there were roughly 22,600 acceptances offered, only about 14,000 students actually enrolled – and that filled ALL of the seats available at those Ivy League school.

So now here’s the problem. If you take your public high schools and your private high schools and add all those valedictorians together, you have roughly 36,000 students vying for only about 14,000 seats. Did you realize the number was so small?

Plus, if we expand the search and include some of the other top-tier colleges, like Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, and others like them, we still don’t have enough seats for all 36,000 of those valedictorians with each of those colleges combined!

And, if the valedictorians can't get in, what about everybody else?

But wait…there’s more If that doesn’t make you feel bad enough, let me make things worse by telling you the rest of the story. In the numbers I’ve given you so far, I’m only counting the students that are in the United States. Many of these top-tier colleges and universities attract students from all around the world, right? So, even if you’re student is really accomplished and truly worthy of a spot at every college on his list, the likelihood is that there’s simply not enough space to accommodate him. Sometimes it's for no other reason than a basic math problem.

If you do get that rejection letter and you find yourself scratching your head saying, “If my daughter couldn’t get in based on all that she has accomplished, who does get in?”, I totally understand your thinking. But now you at least understand a little bit more about how and why that’s often the case.

What about me? Maybe you don’t have a valedictorian or a star athlete who’ll get special consideration in the college admission process. That’s where most of us live, right? Well, it’s even easier to understand why, based on the trickle-down effect that comes from the top colleges, so many more middle of the road colleges also reject some very qualified students in favor of others. Like I said earlier, getting rejected a couple of times is perfectly normal, so don’t let it bother you. Hopefully you have at least 6 to 8 applications out there, which should still leave plenty of good offers on the table for you over time.

Hurry up and wait So, now that I’ve covered getting accepted and getting rejected, let’s talk about the other option – getting deferred. Students often get deferred for two primary reasons.

The first one is because their qualifications are somewhere in the middle of what that college usually accepts and the university needs more time to see where they’re going to draw the line for this year’s class. Like I mentioned about the Ivy leagues accepting more than they actually enroll, all colleges realize that there’s going to be a discrepancy between the number of acceptance letters they send out and the number of students who will actually enroll.

Most colleges have a reasonably good idea of how many seats they want to open up to a particular freshman class but that number can change a little bit each year. The percentage of enrollments compared to acceptances can also fluctuate a little from time to time, so the colleges put a certain number of people in a deferred category until they see how those numbers are going to shake out.

The second reason that people sometimes get deferred actually has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with the college and how busy they are processing applications ahead of announcement deadlines.

Many colleges are getting 10 to 15 times as many applications for every seat they have available. It takes a lot of time to wade through all that information and it’s typical for colleges to fall behind during the peak of application season. You may be very qualified, but if the college hasn’t had time to get your application yet, they will still defer you. It’s not a negative sign. It’s just an indication that they’re trying to manage their busy workload on a timeline.

I always recommend applying early to try to avoid this situation. Having your application in early will help catch these admission officers while they still have their whole freshman class open and before they feel the pressure of deadlines as they review hundreds or thousands of applications.

What’s your next move? If you’ve been rejected, there’s really nothing else to do other than move on. But, if you’ve been deferred, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of success. In many cases, the college will give you some instructions or some insight into why you are deferred. They may offer you the chance to submit additional letters of recommendation or provide updates on any awards or new recognition you may have received. They can sometimes ask you to self-report your fall semester grades so they can get the information before your counselor has a chance to get it to them. And, if you’ve updated your resume since you first applied to that particular college, now is a great time to send those updates to them.

Whenever you have any of these opportunities, take full advantage of them. The more goodies you can get into your file before they make their final decision, the better.

Another reason some colleges make deferred decisions with marginal students is to try and determine their level of interest in that particular school. If they ask you to do something to follow up and you don’t respond, then they infer that you’re not as interested in them anymore or that you may have already committed elsewhere. It’s a way for them to thin the herd and it can save them a ton of time.

If you’re not seriously interested in a college that’s deferred you, do them a favor and yourself a favor and just let things go. If, however, it’s one of the colleges that are near the top of your list, do anything and everything you can to deepen the relationship with them and to keep them updated. It’s one of the best things you can do to separate yourself from your competition.

Now you’re in the know I’ve always encouraged you to apply to between 6 to 8 colleges mixing in reach colleges, match colleges, and at least one safety college. If you’re applying to Ivy Leagues or other very competitive colleges, you’re likely going to need more like 10 to 14 applications out there. Those ultra-selective colleges only accept a very small percentage of applicants and you need enough applications in play so that those statistics work in your favor. But, no matter how accomplished you are or how many colleges are on your list, you’re likely to get accepted at some, rejected from others, and deferred by a few more along the way.

Now you have better insight into why and how these decisions are made. And you also have a huge advantage knowing what you should do in the months ahead and why it matters so much to your ultimate success.

If you’re waiting on college decisions, congratulations! You've come such a long way. Hang in there and keep playing your cards well. As a College Planning Specialist, I want to make sure that you’re able to cross the finish line with confidence. Use the strategies and tactics I’ve given you here and in other articles to improve your chances of success. And, as always, let me know if I can help in any way.



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