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Deferral Parties and Walls of Shame

A look at the receiving end of early application decisions.
University Business, Feb 2006

The early application wave has almost passed. In its wake remain broken hearts, frantic rushes to the post office, shrugged shoulders, and searches for meaning.

Students have turned experiencing this odd application strategy into another rite of passage.

We refer, of course, to the fallout from Early Decision and Early Action applications, which occurs annually from mid- to late-December. Long-time readers will be familiar with our stance against most of these programs as currently structured, which seem to do more harm to students than good, and which might in the long run punish even those colleges currently benefiting from the ability to enroll 30 to 60 percent of their incoming class through an early program. Rather than promote policy proposals and statistics this month, we thought we would offer a glimpse of what's happening with families as they go through the early process.

These gatherings are new to us. Yes, students are actually holding dinners and get-togethers to commiserate about their deferrals from Early Action or Decision. Most did not expect a deferral, and most still don't understand what a deferral means. We explain that they will be reread in the regular admissions round, that they could be put on a waiting list at that point, and that the odds for admission are possible, but not likely.

Some colleges, after all, defer a very large portion of the early pool (about 73 percent this year at Harvard); most defer 20 to 40 percent. A few, such as Northwestern, defer very few applicants, if any. Those who have been deferred are faced with the prospect of completing the remainder of their regular admission applications, mostly prior to the new year, and of considering where they stand with the college that deferred them. Are they still interested? Does this mean they don't like me? Do I have a chance? Should I commit Early Decision Round Two to another college? At least they now have the company of a group of similarly situated peers who have turned this odd application strategy, one utilized by a minority of colleges--mostly small, mostly private--into another rite of passage.

Decisions, Decisions

Yes, now it's time for the Round Two discussions. If you hadn't noticed, more colleges have added a second round of Early Decision to capture those students not admitted by a first-choice college ED or EA in Round One, or those not yet ready to commit in October or November.

Since witnessing the fallout from their own early application and those of their friends at school and around town (magnified by holiday gatherings and their parents' cocktail parties and trips to the local market), many students have begun to panic.

We received a call today from a parent whose child applied to several EA schools, all of which allow unrestricted early applications, all nonbinding. She was admitted to one, deferred by two, and rejected by one. All are larger, mostly urban universities. After visiting a small liberal arts college in a small town, which we encouraged her to see, she was excited. Now she remembers the urgings of her interviewer there to "consider Early Decision if we're your first choice" and looks at the e-mail and letter she has received from that college reiterating that strategy. She is seriously contemplating committing to that college, despite the fact that she is confused about which college model might be best for her. She likes the school, but is it really her first choice? Should she have to decide that now, in the midst of this pressure, rather than having the time to carefully consider it compared to one or two other options in April?

In another case, a young man was deferred from a highly selective university after an ED application. It is truly his first choice and he is a qualified candidate. Yet he, too, called to ask whether or not he should apply EDII to another university, to get it over with and make sure he wasn't risking the chance of not getting into a school he likes. "I see what's happened in my school, and it isn't pretty," he commented. "Kids who thought of schools as their safeties are getting rejected. What's going on?"

Deferral parties were preceded by high school hallways plastered with rejection letters from various colleges. Now these hallways are filling up sooner as a result of the early rounds. And, indeed, there are a lot of shockers at both public and private high schools.

Some lighthearted senior classes award a mock prize, or at least bragging rights, to the first person to tape up a rejection letter. Some schools have tried to ban walls of shame due to the message they send to visitors and rejected students. Some kids like to take a big black pen and rewrite sections or words of the letters to turn them into pretty funny satires. In contrast to the walls, many schools like to announce each student's acceptances as they come in, usually in a morning assembly. As you might imagine, this tends to work better in small schools with a cohesive community.

At least applicants know where they stand with a rejection. OK, they figure, I can move on. But, then again, what does this mean? Am I unqualified for all similarly competitive colleges to which I will apply?

That's the trouble with a single Early Decision or Early Action result. It is but one point of data without any meaningful explanation or grounds for interpretation. During regular admission, school counselors can sometimes gather feedback from admissions officers and provide students with comments and suggestions.

The revival of spirits
students experience just
based on the offer of
admission from one
college is astonishing.

After early results are sent, most admissions officers seem to melt away, and for good reason. One need not use a lot of effort to imagine the kinds of phone calls coming into colleges from irate, confused, sobbing parents and students (mostly parents). Thus, there's usually a college news blackout until sometime in January. That's past the time by which students must revise and file the rest of their regular admission applications, if they haven't already. Should they change the essays? The list? Do they have enough probable admits on the list? With a regular admission set of results--what we call an acceptance pattern--it's usually easier to help families understand the general rationale behind the results. And, acceptances make rejections less depressing.

Word of an acceptance at an institution using rolling admissions often comes as a major source of relief in December. The revival of spirits students experience just based on the offer of admission from one college is astonishing. Even the strong, silent types (the Cary Grants, you might call them) have had a lot vested in this process; they have been truly concerned that they might not get in anywhere. Really. They thought they were going to be sitting at home next year while their friends waved goodbye and headed off to college, any college. The reality of having a place, any place, where they can go in the fall has a dramatic reassuring effect. Validation. Acceptance. Confidence.

The athletes. Start there. These students often received "likely letters" earlier in the fall. The acceptance in December only served to formalize what they had heard from coaches and Admissions offices in September and October. No surprise, just satisfaction. Of course, there are the rejections for the athletes, but usually not those in possession of likely letters. The rejected athletes are usually blindsided, promised many things by coaches, but in the end rejected by admissions counselors doing their due diligence readings of the applications. These students, in our experience, never hear from the coaches again.

Recruited athletes make up a substantial proportion of the early pool. Next come legacies. Sometimes students are both legacies and athletes, much more than doubling their chances for admission. Finally, take the highest-level academic applicants, relative to an individual college's typical applicant pool. They will get in, but the average applicant will not--and end up at a deferral party.

And this is where the resentment builds against those who were admitted (kids and parents can get pretty nasty sometimes when their emotions get the best of them). Resentment also builds against the colleges, as what looks ever more like blatant marketing, strategizing, and enrollment management tactics are laid bare.

We plan on making some time available each October for students who applied Early Decision, and even Early Action--to "get it over with" for one reason or another--and then realized somewhere along the way that they made a mistake. Perhaps their preferences changed. Maybe they were pushed into the decision for the wrong reasons. Maybe they didn't know what they wanted at all. In any event, based on experience, it seems that students who call us and ask for help transferring to another college have more often than not applied early. That concerns us, as it should you. For, as we have argued, the road to retention and graduation runs through admission.

Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit

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