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College Corner: Deferred? Denied? It’s Not Your Student, I Promise

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This year is unlike any I’ve seen in my more than twenty years as an advisor. More students than ever are seeing their college applications deferred or denied by the schools of their choice. These are kids who are tremendously capable and fully admissible, and in any other year would have had a high probabilty of acceptance.

Naturally, this is causing many students and families to second guess their college profiles and all the work they’ve done along the way to get to this point.

I want these families to know it is not because of them. It is a sheer numbers problem schools are facing.

Before we go further, let’s talk about the four types of application decision plans. More than 900 schools use the Common Application, which makes it relatively easy for students to apply to more than one school using the same application. When applying for a school, students have four choices: Early Decision 1, Early Decision 2, Early Action, and Regular Decision.

Early Decision 1: This is a decision plan where a student applies to a college, and if accepted, the commitment is binding. Through the Common Application, the applicant can apply to many schools, but can only check the Early Decision box for one. Essentially, it indicates to the school that it is the student’s top choice, and that if accepted, the student will forgo all other school offers. In fact, the expectation is that if a student receives admission through an ED plan, they will withdraw applications from all other schools. As I mentioned, it is binding, and typically the only way to get out of the commitment is for financial reasons. The application dates are usually October 15, November 1, and November 15, with many students hearing back before January 1.

Early Decision 2: Some schools offer Early Decision 2, which also comes with a commitment, but at a later application deadline which usually is the same deadline as all regular decision deadlines.

Early Action: This is a non-binding application, and students can choose this application type as many times as they like, so long as the EA plan is not restrictive. The application deadlines are moved up, typically November 1, November 15, and December 1, and many students will be notified before Christmas or in the first month and a half into the New Year. Many public colleges and universities have an Early Action application process.

Regular Decision: This is a non-binding application, typically due in January, some in February.

The advantage to a student applying Early Decision or Early Action is that it increases their chance of acceptance, which makes sense. Colleges want students that want them. It’s also nice for students to have the process done earlier, leaving them time to enjoy the remainder of their senior year.

But two things have happened that shifted the landscape of the admissions process. First, more than 96% of four-year colleges are now test-optional, meaning students can apply without submitting an ACT or SAT score. This change was driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, when many testing sites were shuttered. Reducing this barrier created a much larger volume of applicants than schools have seen in the past. This admissions cycle, the University of Southern California received more than 40,600 applications in their first year of Early Action, bringing USC’s total EA acceptance rate to 6%. To put things in perspective, Brown’s regular decision acceptance rate last year was just above 4%.

Second, the Common Application allows students to apply to many schools in one shot. In the past, students have applied to 7-10 schools on average, but now it’s as many as 20, just on the common application. While it’s true that each application has a cost – usually between $75 and $125 – the Common Application makes it so easy to apply that the overall volume has increased exponentially.

I have some students whose admission decisions have been deferred, but who on paper look very similar to students who have received acceptance to the same schools (both in the past, and currently). Recently I’ve seen this at Clemson, Michigan, Northeastern, Wisconsin, Tulane and so many others.

From the school’s perspective, we have to understand that undergraduate admissions offices at universities are trying to build a class, and that their goal is to make that class as geographically, ethnically, racially, academically, athletically and socioeconomically as diverse as possible. This explains why in some cases a school will accept only a handful of students from Hopkinton, despite many qualified candidates.

Given the high number of applications this year, many schools are opting to take a “wait and see” approach with students. In addition to their academic achievements, college resume and essays, they look for students who demonstrate additional interest, like website and in-person visits, emails opened, and, when deferred, letters of continued interest. By waiting, they get a better sense of who the student is and how they feel about the school. They don’t want to save a spot for a student that ultimately won’t choose them.

It’s worth noting that, because of the application fee, there are economic factors at play here too. Consider the reality that over 105,000 applications were received at New York University; at an average of $80/application, application fees account for an estimated $8.4 million in 2022 from application fees alone.

So what do you do if your student applied and was deferred or waitlisted? My advice is to be patient (as difficult as that is)! Your student is likely very well qualified and there is a perfect match school out there for them. By April 1, 2023 (the notification deadline) they will have a list of the colleges that have accepted them, and they’ll have until May 1 to decide which school is their best fit. I know it’s hard, but I have every confidence that they are strong applicants who will “find their perfect college fit” and will make a valuable contribution wherever they end up.

Christine Chapman is the founder of Chapman Education, based in Hopkinton. Since 1995, she has guided more than 3,000 students and families through the private school and college admissions processes. She works closely with students and their families to help them secure the best educational fit.

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