The college application game is steeped in numbers. Let’s start with these:
- Number of college applications submitted using the Common App through November 1, 2023 was over 3.3 million.
- Number of distinct first-year student applicants was 836,679 (averaging about 4 applications per student).
- Number of colleges receiving those Common App applications was 834.
Bottom line? As the number of applications goes up, so does the number of deferrals, waitlists, and rejections.
The college admissions process is odd, emotional, and partly out of your control. Let’s all take a moment and put on our realist hats. A student can check all the right boxes during high school and still find themselves on the wrong side of the admissions decision fence of their “dream” school when it’s all over.
And some years are especially brutal. The most highly selective (or shall we call them rejective?) schools have acceptance rates in the single digits. Thousands of valedictorians are being turned away from these schools. At some colleges, they only accept a very limited number of applicants in certain majors. And the trend to issue deferrals is not limited to only highly selective colleges.
So, what’s happening? The students did nothing wrong. They might fit the GPA and test score profile of who gets in. But because the process is a numbers game from the college’s perspective, the student still might not get an offer. A student has no way of knowing in any given year what the applicant pool – the thousands of other students applying that same year – looks like. Are there thousands just like you?
Let’s discuss what we can control!
First, a few definitions…
For colleges that accept applications early, they may choose to defer some strong candidates to include in the “regular” round of applications. They didn’t offer acceptance in the early stages, but there still is a chance that an offer will be coming. The college wants to compare these deferred applications with the other applications still coming in to get a better perspective of the entire applicant pool.
With a deferral, the college is saying that they are going to wait to review your application until they can compare it with others they will receive in the regular round of applications. Waitlisted applications have been reviewed, and the college has decided to not offer acceptance at this time. They may (or may not) offer admission to waitlisted students. Applicants simply must wait and see. According to National Association of College Admissions Counseling, the average percentage of students admitted off a waitlist is 20%.
Rejections or denials
This one is self-explanatory. The college is simply saying “Thank you for your application and fee, but we are not offering you a spot in our next freshman class.” In today’s admissions landscape, the number of applications received by highly rejective colleges continues to climb, and their acceptance rate gets smaller and smaller. Stanford’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2026 was only 3.68%. 96.32% of all applicants receive a rejection. Think about that.
What is the strategy to combat deferrals, waitlists, and rejections before they happen?
Create a strong list of colleges
This is a big one! If your list is solely made up of colleges with very low acceptance rates, there’s a strong possibility that you’d get rejected from every college. That’s certainly not your goal, yet we would never suggest you not apply to those universities simply because their acceptance rate is low.
We have also heard that it is not just the “elite” colleges. Highly qualified students are rejected by colleges that aren’t highly selective as well (perhaps because the student wasn’t really interested in these and didn’t engage in any way with them).
Each year can be different for colleges in terms of the number of applicants just like you in any given program. You can’t control that, but you can control having an open mind about the colleges you choose to have on your list. With around 2,000 4-year colleges and universities in the United States, we need to expand our lists to include more than the same 20 schools that everyone is applying to.
The key is to apply to a variety of colleges that can be a great fit for you – academically, financially, and socially. Your college selections must be wide ranging and deliberate. You must communicate with the college to let them know you are interested. Don’t make them guess about whether or not you want to attend.
If you’re not sure how to craft a list of colleges, you’d really enjoy watching our College Research webinar.
Tell your unique story
At some colleges, each admissions counselor is responsible for reading thousands of applications. It is possible your application will only be read for 10 minutes. How do you want to tell the story of who you are? How will you differentiate yourself? Many students will look very similar just based on GPA, courses taken, and ACT/SAT scores.
Telling your story includes being able to show that your experiences are unique and have helped shape your sense of direction as you head toward college. Consider these questions and how you can answer them during the application process:
- What did you do with your time outside of class?
- What electives did you enjoy in school?
- How did you use your time to explore who you are?
- What challenges did you have to meet and overcome (or continue to address)?
- What have you learned?
- Who do you want to be?
Some of the ability to tell your story comes from understanding yourself. What are your strengths, interests, and values? Just as important is sizing up the experiences you’ve had and how they’ve impacted you. If this important thinking is a struggle, Guided Self Assessment can help with that.
For students needing help crafting their story in their application, check out our College Application Workshop offered every June to rising seniors. For younger students, recognize that what you really do with the time you have during your freshman, sophomore, and junior years matters a lot!
If a student is waitlisted, deferred, or rejected, how do you respond?
First, rejection in any form is always a learning moment. It is possible a student was never rejected before, and this first time is especially painful because it is the “first time.” In their young, short lives, they likely have not collected enough experiences of when what seemed horrible turned out for the better.
“College admission decisions are not character judgments or predictions of future potential. Getting in, or not getting in, to a particular school does not change who you are, the feasibility of your goals, or define you in a substantive way.”
Strength and resilience will be found in handling that rejection in a mature way and successfully pivoting to something else. If a college rejects your application, it simply was not meant to be. You will go on to succeed somewhere else. “Rejection is redirection” can be a powerful mantra for your student.
Second, if you receive a deferral or waitlist, ask yourself if this school still stays on your list. That thinking can help clarify whether this college is still a top contender. You can eliminate a school at any time from your list.
Third, we’d recommend that students go into the process understanding that they will be rejected from some colleges. Period. We’ve seen students who are simply stunned when this happens, and we think it’s healthier to understand rejection is a very real possibility (especially when applying to schools with very low acceptance rates). As adults, we know that life will include rejections, and helping our students rebound from a college rejection is an important lesson to teach and support while they are still at home with us.
Colleges may ask you to provide additional information like updated semester grades. Follow their instructions and answer any questions clearly and quickly. Students can use this opportunity to demonstrate improvement or additional, new experiences like extracurricular activities. Not all colleges will accept additional information, but you can check and see. You can also consider writing a letter to demonstrate your interest more clearly and show why you believe you are a good fit for that college.
However, do not bombard the college with additional information. Doing so will work against you. Some colleges may specifically state that they do not want any more materials. Follow their lead.
Waitlisted students have fewer options than deferrals. The college is not asking for additional information from you. You can check to see how often that college offers admission to waitlisted students. Some do and some do not. You simply need to wait, but while you’re waiting, place more emphasis on the other colleges on your list.
Take a moment to process the disappointment, and then move on. As we said above, if they didn’t want you, then you can find someplace else that will. Actress Tina Fey and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were rejected by Princeton. Google co-founder Sergey Brin wanted to attend M.I.T. for graduate school but was denied. Study after study shows that success is more about who you are and what you do during college than it is about the name of the college you attend. “A college admission decision does not define you—it is not a judgement of your character, abilities, or a predictor of future success.”
One last point to keep in mind, colleges will continue to accept applications until their freshman class is full for the next year. Check out the voluntary list of institutions still accepting applications provided by NACAC. (This list is created/updated every spring.)
Remember that you can’t control the quality of the applicant pool at any college in any year. Given the competitive process at many colleges, deferrals, waitlists, and rejections are going to be a part of your process. You can take control by creating a strong list of colleges to apply to, knowing yourself well and being true to yourself and your goals, and making the most of your years in college, wherever you end up!
In the end, keep this quote in mind:
“…admission to a given college is far less about the student than the student and families want it to be and far more about the college’s institutional needs—including legacies, athletes, development cases, etc….Until the culture changes to understand and accept that successful people come from everywhere, the emphasis will likely remain on getting in rather than maximizing opportunities in and out of the classroom to forge a successful path forward and actually earning a degree. In the meantime, I tell my rock star students, ‘The colleges that earn you are the lucky ones.’”
Original post 2/2022
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