In the coming weeks, most colleges with Early Decision and Early Action programs will release admissions decisions. We are all hoping for acceptances this time of year, not denials. But the more common admissions decision is neither one. Instead, a majority of students who applied early will hear they were deferred.
The deferral is a mysterious admissions decision that few students are expecting or understand completely. However, its use is on the rise and students should know what it means and what to do.
What is it?
Being deferred from the early round (Early Decision or Early Action) to Regular Decision means that the admissions committee has not made a final decision on the application. The college is "deferring" the admissions decision until later. This translates into the application getting read, reviewed, and evaluated once again in the Regular Decision round.
Why is it used?
The original intention of a deferral is to allow a college to take more time in making a decision about an application. Whether it is because the admission committee could not come to an agreement or was not able to make a final decision in the early round, deferrals are supposed to be for viable candidates who truly have a shot of getting admitted in Regular Decision. However, as with most admissions policies, colleges have stretched the ethical bounds of the true purpose of deferrals. There are so many reasons why a college will defer—some are more justifiable than others:
- See senior year grades from the student.
- Compare the student to the Regular Decision applicant pool.
- Soften the blow of admitting another student (for institutional purposes) from the same high school with lower statistics.
- The student is a legacy applicant and the college does not want to burn bridges with the alumni-parent.
- Recognize a special student who may not have the academic strength to get admitted.
- General uncertainty of what the Regular Decision applicant pool will look like.
- Gauge a student's demonstrated interest in the college if it was not clear in the application.
- Make the student believe they are still in the running.
With many colleges experiencing exponential growth and increased quality in their applicant pool, the deferral is a way for them to acknowledge students who had the initiative and interest to apply early. It also keeps the student's application under consideration. But my concern is that it can string along a huge percentage of students for an extended period of time.
How did it get so popular?
Is admission likely?Most colleges do not provide data on the acceptance rate of deferred students. Heck, many colleges are not providing any admissions data. But the reality is that the chance of admission in Regular Decision for deferred students is never as high as we want it to be. In 2020, Harvard University deferred 80% of its Restrictive Early Action pool. Yet, the overall acceptance rate for Harvard is about 3%. I know it has happened (or I have to believe it has), but I have never worked with a student who was admitted in Regular Decision after being deferred from Harvard.
When I worked at the University of Pennsylvania, we used to say that chances for deferred students were about the same as students who applied for Regular Decision. Yale University says something similar in its actual decision letter. Other colleges, like the University of Georgia, make it clear what a student can do after being deferred in the decision letter or as a link on its websites.
If a college permits letters of continued interest, I encourage students to do it. But over the last few years, I am much more realistic about the fact that a student can write the letter of their life and still not get admitted. I tend to focus more on the student's remaining colleges on their list rather than the college that deferred them.
I am all for colleges making thoughtful admissions decisions. However, the deferral has become the "default" decision. In the eyes of an admissions committee, the deferral feels less harsh than a denial right away—even though a denial is often the ultimate outcome. While it may feel like a softer blow initially, it can lead to false hope in the students who get deferred. As colleges finalize Early Decision and Early Action results, I encourage them to use the deferral decision ethically, responsibly, and reasonably. If not, the deferral will become not only the default decision, but the definition of a system that is designed to benefit colleges more than the students themselves.