Rejected? Deferred? Inconceivable!!!

November 2, 2003

by Howard and Matthew Greene

As the first college decision letters begin to arrive in students' mailboxes this fall, we are reminded of the firm disbelief expressed by one of the characters in Rob Reiner's film, The Princess Bride. Faced with plain evidence that his view of the world, its inhabitants, and its happenings, is clearly incorrect, Vizzini can only continue to cry, "Inconceivable!" Finally, he is told by Inigo, "You keep using that word — I do not think it means what you think it means." Such are the reactions of many students and parents upon opening letters of deferral or rejection. Surprise. Shock. Indignation. They didn't accept me? Inconceivable! Sometimes, the written evidence is hard to believe. Families call colleges to inquire if there might be some kind of mistake. How could this happen? "We" were clearly qualified. Students may trudge to their rooms, and spend a few morose days digesting the news. Parents may vent, or express silent disapproval, or panic. As Vizzini quickly found out, though, reality is stronger than expectations, and it behooves parents and students to come to grips with early college decisions as soon as possible in order to learn from and react to them. In fact, sometimes negative (or, for that matter, positive) news from a college does not always mean what you think it means. Here are some of the ways families should consider interpreting early college decisions. First, a rejection likely means that a student was clearly not qualified for the institution. Most colleges do not reject many students who apply Early Decision or Early Action, and even the many public universities who use Rolling Admission have been deferring more students early in the year, rather than rejecting them outright. A student rejected in November or December of senior year would likely have been rejected in the spring. To learn from this early news, and react to it, students should talk with their parents and high school counselor, and consider amending their college list to ensure that it includes some significantly less selective institutions. Second, it is possible that a well-qualified applicant submitted a poorly prepared application, which hurt him or her in the reading phase of the admission process. Students should go over their application, and consider sharing it with parents, a teacher, a counselor, or a friend for honest, constructive feedback. Perhaps they will find obvious grammatical or spelling errors, or negative tone or content, which could have influenced the admission decision. There is still time to work on those essays and applications for other, Regular Admission applications. Third, a deferral from a college could indicate several things, including a candidate's lack of impressive qualifications, but also his or her lack of expressed interest, his or her overly strong profile, or the college's own handling of its early application pool. The obvious assumption is that a deferral means a student is close to being qualified for a college's incoming class, but not strong enough yet to earn an early spot. That may be true in many cases, but sometimes students who don't show enough interest in a college (through visits, interviews, or careful application writing) will be deferred to assess their level of interest later in the process. "Over-qualified" students, whom the college suspects are using an institution as a "safety" school, may be deferred to see if they truly have an interest in the college. Finally, elements beyond a student's control, such as the college's overall application pool, its expectations of yield (the percentage of admitted students who choose to attend), its restrictions on admitting out-of-state students, or its overall approach to the early group, impact institutional decision-making. In these cases, deferred candidates should plan to contact the college, or ask their counselor to do so, to inquire as to the nature of the deferral, and what the candidate can do to improve his or her chances in the spring. Students may also write a letter updating the college on activities, academic performance, and level of interest. An additional recommendation letter from a senior year teacher can help to show continued performance and seriousness of purpose. Deferred students should neither count themselves in or out at this stage of the process. For those students who receive the most welcome news of all, a non-binding early acceptance (i.e., not Early Decision), we suggest a measure of caution on top of the celebration. This offer of admission may or may not indicate your chances for acceptance at other, perhaps more competitive institutions in the spring. It is still important to work hard in classes, complete the remainder of your applications carefully, and expect the inconceivable.