Episode 148: College Deferment and a Letter of Appeal

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Hello, again!  When we signed off in mid-December to take an end-of-year break, we thought that we would be back with you the first week of January.  But, you know what they say about the best-laid plans?.  So what happened?  The flu, the snow, and the unexpected week-long extension of a business trip I was on in Alaska on the shores of the Arctic Ocean!  I am taking full responsibility for our absence, and let me say that these few weeks are the longest we have been off the air since we started our podcast over three years ago.

So, now that we’re back, what’s going on with current high school seniors, who have submitted their college applications, for the most part, and are biting their nails?  Well, here’s one thing that’s going on, including with the kids I have been working with myself:  the deferment and the consequent letter of appeal.  Now, I am not referring to an appeal for better financial aid from colleges that students have been accepted to, though that letter of appeal certainly exists–and may be down the road a bit for some of you.  Rather, in this episode, we are going to talk about a letter of appeal for students who had applied under an Early Decision or Early Action plan last fall and who were deferred into the regular decision applicant pool, with a decision still ahead this spring.

1. What Happened with Early Decision and Early Action in 2018?

You will recall that we have spoken with you about Early Decision and Early Action admission cycles a lot of times, including in 2017.  We looked at statistics of how many students applied under these early admission plans and how many got accepted.  We said that early admission applications were on the rise and that a surprising number of colleges filled up a surprising number of their freshman seats with these early applicants, including as many as 50 percent of them!  We urged you to have your kids apply under the Early Action banner wherever possible, because it was nonbinding on the student and there was simply no downside.  We urged you to have your kids find a safety school or two to apply to Early Action so that everyone in your household could relax.  We urged you to have your kids apply under the far-more-restrictive Early Decision banner if your kids had really made up their minds and you agreed with them and could afford to worry only a little bit rather than a lot about financing the college years.

Well, here’s where we are now.  Here is a glimpse of the situation, as written up by Josh Girsky on December 20 in the best college newspaper in the U.S.–that is, of course, The Cornell Daily Sun, which used to be Ithaca’s only morning newspaper and which I covered sports for, back in the day.  The headline reads, “Cornell Early Decision Admission Rate Drops for 3rd Year in a Row.”  Josh writes (with my emphasis added):

For the third year in a row, Cornell received a record number of early decision applicants for the Class of 2022.

Out of 6,319 applicants, 1,533 were admitted, for an early admissions rate of 24.3 percent, down from an early admissions rate of 25.8 percent for the Class of 2021 and [down from] 27.4 percent for the Class of 2020, according to a press release from the University released on Wednesday.

Cornell’s early decision applicant pool has increased by 83 percent in the last decade, the release noted.

Other Ivy League schools also saw lower early decision admissions rates.

The University of Pennsylvania’s early admissions rate dropped to 18.5 percent, while Harvard and Yale had early admissions rates of 14.5 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively. Brown’s early admissions rate was 21 percent while Dartmouth’s was 24.9 percent.  (quoted from the article)

Suffice it to say that, as long as great colleges offer early admissions options, average, good, and great students are going to apply early.  And, evidently, more students are going to do it every year, as more and more families see the trends in these early applications and acceptances and the percentage of seats already filled before ever getting to the regular decision date.  And, therefore, early admission rates are going to keep falling, for obvious reasons, as colleges have more and more and better and better students to choose from in November and don’t have to wait till January.  Why should they?

There are plenty of anecdotes about all this, and more statistics will undoubtedly be published in the next month or two.  Princeton University had the largest single-choice Early Action applicant group in the last seven years (an 8 percent increase over last year).  Georgetown University‘s Early Action applicant group was the largest ever for the University, resulting in an early acceptance rate of just 12 percent.

Yes, these are all great universities, but there has also been spillover to colleges with somewhat less prestige.  Where will it all end?

Well, it will end with outstanding students who do not get into the top choices on their lists when they apply Early Action or Early Decision.

2. What About Being Deferred?

For students who applied Early Action or Early Decision and got deferred (that is, had their application moved into the regular decision round rather than being outright rejected), let us pass along some advice from Jeff Schiffman, the Director of Admission at Tulane University.  You might recall from our virtual nationwide college tour many, many, many months ago, that Tulane is a very good, highly competitive university in the great city of New Orleans.  Frankly, I am not sure whether Mr. Schiffman’s advice will make you feel better or worse.  My guess is, some of both.  Here is Mr. Schiffman’s explanation of deferment and what it all means from his insightful official admission blog:

. . . [W]hat does being deferred mean? In essence, being deferred means that we need a bit more time before making a final decision on whether or not to admit you. There are two major factors that will come into play from here on out; one is in your control and the other is not. Your application will come back to the admission committee in the spring and will go through the same review it went through in Early Action, this time however you will be up against the Regular Decision pool of applicants.

The first factor, the one outside of your control, is the way the rest of the applicant pool shapes up. We will do a full re-review of your application with the regular decision pool. Depending on the competitiveness of that regular decision pool, we will make a new decision on your application before April 1st. If the regular pool is much larger and stronger than we expect, then it will be more of a challenge for deferred students to be admitted. However, if it is closer to what we saw with Early Action, we will be able to offer admission to a number of deferred students. We won’t know more about this until after the January 15th Regular Decision deadline.

I think it is also worth mentioning that Tulane saw a pretty substantial increase in applications this year. Bottom line, we could fill up multiple freshman classes with students who are academically qualified to attend Tulane. We could fill up multiple freshman classes just with students who would be great fits here and genuinely want to be at Tulane. The problem is we can’t admit all of them, even if we wanted to.

That brings me to the second factor that comes into play now that you have been deferred, and this is the one that is within your power. This has to do with what you can do from here on out now. There are a number of things that you can do to strengthen your application to Tulane, and a few things you shouldn’t do. (quoted from the blog)

I actually think that is a pretty straight explanation of the situation, and I am sure it is similar at many other good colleges across the U.S. this month.  So, what now?  Here are some of Mr. Schiffman’s dos and don’ts, also quoted from his blog (I have added some emphasis, indicated in bold, to point out things that I found especially noteworthy):

DO: Consider switching your application to ED II. This is for deferred EA applicants only (and for first-time applicants.) . . .  The deadline is January 5th.

DO: Be in touch. Contact your admission counselor and let him or her know you are interested in Tulane. . . .  You’ll want to shoot them an email in the coming weeks (not necessarily today . . . let the dust settle and your emotions subside) letting them know that you have been deferred and that you remain strongly interested in Tulane. . . .  It will be nearly impossible to be admitted to Tulane if you do not, in some form, reach out to us. We’d like to only take those students we know want to enroll here.

DON’T: Over-contact your admission counselor. One email to your counselor over the course of the spring semester will help, especially if you have some bigger news for us (you retook the SATs, a major (major) advancement in your extracurricular activity, etc.), but do not send us a weekly email update. It will not help your cause. Major profile in your local paper’s community section? Send it in. Promoted to secretary of the National Honor Society? No need to send; we already have a nice list of your extracurricular activities you sent us when you applied. Also, be honest. If you’ll enroll at Tulane if you are admitted, tell us, but only if that is the truth.

DO: Send us an essay about why you are interested in enrolling at Tulane, if you have not already done so. See the Why Tulane? prompt on the application for admission. Tell us why you would be a great fit here, and why Tulane is a great fit for you. Do some research. Many times, we defer students who are academically qualified to be admitted, but we are unsure of their interest level. So reach out and let us know.

DON’T: Feel pressured to come down and visit. We know money is tight these days, and New Orleans is a big trip for many of our applicants. If you feel the need to come down to express your interest in Tulane in person, you are definitely welcome to do so, however if this is not possible (for financial or any other reasons) do not fret. . . . .

DON’T: Compare yourself to others. Calling the admission office or emailing your counselor to inquire why “Diane and Jack who have lower scores and lower grades and fewer extracurricular activities were admitted but I was not” will never, ever help your cause to be admitted at Tulane. . . .  You may not be aware of what is in other students’ recommendations, essays, etc., or what we are specifically looking for. . . .

DO: Send us some additional materials. You are welcome to send us a new résumé, essay, your first semester grades, an art or music portfolio, a new SAT or ACT score, etc. While some of the smaller things may not make a big difference, an increase on your SATs, or a well-written essay about your Tulane visit can go a long way. Mid-year reports are recommended for deferred students. Again, keep in mind, unless it’s a major change in extracurricular activities, it won’t change too much (same goes for additional teacher recommendations). The biggest changemaker will be new test scores. . . . (quoted from the blog)

3. What About a Letter of Appeal?

So, here is what we want to say about the notion of letting the college admissions counselor at the deferring college know that you are still really, really, really interested.  We will call this a letter of appeal.  It should be one typed page.  It can be sent by email, but should be followed up in print by mail.  What goes into the letter?

First, just as Mr. Schiffman alluded to, I think a student has to say that the college is his or her first choice and that he or she will attend, if admitted.  Mr. Schiffman would like that to be the truth; we would, too.  However, my guess is that a lot of kids are saying something like that in letters being written all across the country right now, even if it is not exactly the truth.  Your family will have to make your own moral judgment here.  I did just recently encourage a student not to send a letter to a college that she was deferred from when I thought she was not likely to go to that college anyway.  At the same time, I did encourage her to tell another college she was deferred from to say that the college was her first choice when it was, more likely, simply one of her top two or three choices.  That’s as close as I am going to get to a moral judgment.

Second, a student should show a solid understanding of the academics of the college and of how he or she will fit into the academic world there.  Naming a specific department, specific major, specific courses, and specific research opportunities are a good idea.  Make sure your kid knows exactly what the name of the department and major are inasmuch as they are different at every college, for some reason.  Talking about his or her readiness (that is, high school background, including AP courses and Early College or dual-credit courses) for study in that specific field is an intelligent move.  Emphasize the notion of “fit” between the student and the college.

Third, a student should restate (since this information is likely in the original application or application essay) how he or she might fit in with specific extracurricular activities, including volunteer or service opportunities, performing music and drama groups, and sports at the college–again, drawing on experiences in high school that make these interests seem genuine.  This part of the letter should be sharp and focused, not a general recounting of a whole bunch of random high school activities.  Again, emphasize the notion of “fit” between the student and the college.

Fourth, as Mr. Schiffman advised, a student should mention any major accomplishments since the original application was submitted, especially new SAT or AP test scores or academic honors (for example, a student of mine was selected to exhibit her artwork in a highly competitive senior art show).  (Don’t forget that SAT scores have to be submitted officially from The College Board and that mid-year senior grades should be submitted by the high school.)

Fifth, a student should mention any close family connection to the college–including parents or grandparents who went there and/or siblings who went there or are there right now.  This mention should ideally explain what the student has learned from those personal connections and why that makes the college so much more attractive to him or her.  I believe that including this information in an understated way helps the college believe that this student is really more likely to enroll, if admitted.

Finally, I think that the tone of this letter might be hard to get right.  It can’t be sad or disappointed; it can’t be cocky or overconfident; it can’t be annoyed or frustrated.  I rather liked the final paragraph of a letter I just worked on with one of my students.  It went like this:  “I hope this letter reinforces why I believe that I belong at The University of ___________. Thank you for reviewing my application not once, but twice. Your time and consideration mean the world to me.”

Here’s hoping that she gets in.

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