Most of my posts are about how to write a great college essay, but today, I want to present a few words on what to do if you got deferred from early decision.
First, one thing I can be realistic about is that a deferral is not a polite, delayed rejection. Most schools do take people who got deferred from early decision. Unfortunately, the reality is this number is very, very small. At Duke, for example, I know that less than a hundred people typically make it from deferred to accepted. Considering the thousands of applicants that Duke receives, the percentages are not in your favor. While it pays to remain optimistic, it also pays to know what you’re up against so you can prepare contingency plans if you don’t get into your dream school.
With that said, aside from the numbers, I know it’s possible to get in after being deferred from early decision because, 12 years ago, I got deferred early decision. I can still distinctly remember grabbing the mail every day from about December 10th to the day the letter came. As soon as I saw I’d received a thin envelope and not a thick package of materials, my heart sunk to the basement.
I figured it was game over. I wasn’t going to Duke. I tried to rationalize it by saying I did a Duke TIP program that let me take Duke courses, so I really was a Duke student; or that I’d gotten to be on campus for a Duke UNC game (though not in Cameron) so I knew what the atmosphere was like; or that if I didn’t go to Duke, I could still go to a good school in Notre Dame or Michigan’s honors program.
But I still felt incredibly bummed out. It was my dream school, and now, I was all but certain, I got rejected.
Flash forward to April, when getting into Duke was so far removed from my mind it didn’t even register with me that I’d find out the final decision on April 1st (true story, actually–I already knew I was in Michigan and Notre Dame and just assumed Duke was saying no, so I didn’t bother to mark the calendar). I came home late that day from hanging out with my friends to find my mother begging me to come upstairs. I was so confused, but when I saw that thick envelope on my bed, it was a dream come true.
I shouted, I laughed, I cheered. Mom cried, Dad danced, and we all celebrated with some pizza. It was a moment I’ll never forget, not only because I got into my dream school but because of how lucky I was.
So no, you’re not dead. You can still do this. The odds will be tough, extremely tough. But not zero.
So what can you do? I can only tell you what I did when I got deferred; I can’t promise that you’ll even be able to do some of the same things, but if you can, it won’t hurt.
The first thing was I wrote the admissions committee a short essay explaining how serious I was about going to Duke. I unfortunately don’t have that essay today, but it basically said how I started my first semester in high school with two C’s but had risen to top 10 in the class on a perfect transcript since, so I was used to losing on round one but coming back to win. I believe they accepted such letters and may have even encouraged it on the deferred letters, though I can’t say what any specific school does. Check to see if they will accept such an essay–if not, sending one may burden them more than it will help you.
Second, I asked a third teacher to write a letter of recommendation. I had gotten one from my history teacher and one from a math teacher, so I went for my physics teacher this time. I did this because I took AP Physics with her and got an A in a class of 12, in which 10 people got Bs or below. I knew, relatively speaking, her recommendation would make me stand out from a perspective that the school did not yet have. Again, I don’t know if your school will accept another letter, but if they do, find someone to write you one who has either a highly favorable view of you or a unique perspective compared to your other endorsers.
Finally, see if you can procure an in-person visit with someone from admissions. I can’t promise it’ll work, and even if it does, there’s no guarantees you’ll get more than a polite five-minute Q&A. But it shows your seriousness about your school and will help make you memorable in that regard.
Unfortunately, admissions is something of a black box. There can be a ton of variables that go into play, some of which will arise only during committee discussions. Perhaps the year I applied to Duke, maybe they had an unusually low number of Duke-qualified students, or they needed more students from NC, or they needed students interested in writing. The only thing I know for sure is that my writing distinguished me the most from other candidates.
The last thing I want to leave you with is this. I’m not going to pretend not getting into your dream school won’t suck. If April comes and it’s a rejection, I would’ve sulked and groaned and sworn, and it’s OK if you do that too.
But, if you’re even in consideration for a dream school like Duke, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, or something similar, you have a very bright future ahead of you, regardless of where you wind up. The biggest advantage I had going to Duke was the friends and connections I made, not the knowledge I learned. A biology degree at Duke doesn’t have some secret knowledge that a biology degree at South Carolina can’t provide. Yes, the school name will help your future, but a student with a 3.8 from USC is going to look far better than a student with a 3.1 from Duke.
So no matter where you wind up, keep at it. There’s always the option to transfer or go to grad school at your dream school. One of my friends did this–he didn’t get into Duke for undergrad, so he went to Ohio State, excelled at academics, and went to Duke for law school.
Getting into a dream school is tough. They don’t call it “a dream school” for nothing. And it’s even harder upon deferral from early decision.
But it’s not impossible. And even if you fall short, don’t let it make you fall short in the rest of your life.