“Early Action, Deferral and Next Steps”

by Peter Van Buskirk

I was recently approached by a young woman and her parents about her prospects as an applicant for admission. “Jean” had submitted six applications including one for Early Action consideration (the option some colleges offer for students to receive an “early” review of their applications without having to enroll if accepted). She had settled somewhat comfortably into a “wait and see” mode until a deferral letter from the EA school shook her confidence.

While she wasn’t hysterical, it was clear that Jean was questioning herself. “What does the deferral mean? Why wasn’t I admitted? What do I need to do to get in?” she wondered. “And what does this mean for my chances of getting into the other, equally selective universities to which I’ve applied?”

These were all good questions. I couldn’t find fault with the schools she had chosen nor the process she had followed in choosing them. On the surface, they all made sense for her—they were good fits. Digging deeper, however, I was able to uncover potential landmines or factors that might have influenced the outcome of her EA application. If not addressed, they would certainly have an impact on the outcomes of her other applications.

First, although Jean and her parents had been evaluating college options since her 9th grade year, she hadn’t visited any of the campuses in the last eighteen months. More specifically, she had never formally visited the school to which she applied EA. Despite her excitement for the place, its admission officers had no way of knowing about her interest.

Second, she had not sufficiently established her “hook”—the credential that might set her apart from her peers in a tight competition. A student leader and two-sport athlete with aspirations for playing in college, Jean had not made contact with college athletic recruiters in her sports.

Finally, Jean had indicated on her application for admission that she would be a candidate for financial aid—a factor that could eventually complicate things even at an institution that is reputedly “need blind” in the admission process. (By the way, checking “Yes” to the question, “Do you intend to apply for financial aid?” on the application for admission should not hurt students in the admission process as that response alone is not an accurate indicator of the student’s financial need. If and when colleges discriminate on matters of family contribution and/or financial need, they do it at the back end of the process when they can compare the academic and financial credentials for all potentially admitted students. Hence, the reticence of an institution to offer admission to someone who might be a borderline admit in the EA process.)

As I talked with Jean, I wanted her to understand how the EA university might have reacted to her application. While she is a great candidate academically, admission officers at this place (and the others to which she had applied) can afford to look for more. This is especially true with Early Action as institutions that offer the EA option are typically reluctant to commit to any EA candidate who is not clearly among the very best of its candidates. In making its decisions, the admission committee is rarely asking, “Is she good enough?” Rather it makes a series of value judgments: “Who among these great candidates do we value most? What does this candidate bring us as we attempt to build a new community?”

In Jean’s case, when the admission officers asked, “If we admit her, what do we get?” nothing jumped out at them. They saw an excellent student with solid involvement outside of the classroom who had not presented a compelling reason to be admitted into the class. In all likelihood, her seemingly passive approach to the institution was now coming back to haunt her candidacy as she had failed to project herself as a potential contributor to the athletic program or make a convincing statement about the relevance of her leadership.

Moreover, the absence of a visit to the EA university could well have raised questions in the minds of its admission officers about the level of her interest in the school. Uncertain of her investment in the place and, in the absence of a clearly defined “hook,” it is reasonable to assume that the next question of Jean would be, “Is this someone to whom we want to commit a place in the class through EA—and, potentially, award financial aid, if it turns out that she demonstrates need?

It wasn’t long before Jean and her parents began to see the logic of the decision-making process at the selective schools to which she was applying. They could now rationalize the EA deferral decision. More importantly, the despair that had hovered over the start of the conversation gave way to an excited sense of possibility as she began to develop a new “To Do” list. Even at this time of the year, Jean realized that it is not too late to get on the radar screens of the schools to which she had applied. Specifically, she saw the need to eliminate the perception that her interest in a given school is random or whimsical while   being more intentional about conveying the talent, energy and leadership that could set her apart from the rest of the competition.

Jean has made immediate plans to visit the campuses of the “high priority” schools on her list and to attempt to introduce herself to the person(s) responsible for recruiting in her region. Moreover, she is making sure they have her most recent grades as well as documentation of a couple of honors that have come her way since she submitted her applications. She also took heart in the possibility that she could still contact the coaches at some of the smaller colleges on her list and make sure they are in possession of film clips featuring her athletic performance.

I admire Jean for her response to the situation. Rather than sulking and feeling that all is lost with regard to her college future, she is taking steps to affect the outcomes. She is asserting herself and, in doing so, will eliminate the randomness that might otherwise be associated with her application.

Will this new-found self-advocacy assure Jean admission to her favorite schools? Not necessarily. It will, however, put her in a more competitive position. At the very least, the schools on her list now have reason to pause in considering her possible contributions to the communities they are building. They will have a better idea of what they get should they admit Jean—and they’ll have more confidence that hers is a serious interest that could result in her enrollment if accepted. And, if they value her for what she has to offer, they will be more likely to invest in her with financial aid and/or scholarships.

Like Jean, you need to be honest with yourself about the nature of the competition. Moreover, you need to take charge of the process. Make this college admission process work for you. Don’t let it happen to you! Give admission officers every reason to want to include you in the communities they are building as they admit their entering classes!

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