The Problem with Deferrals

To defer or not to defer? Many of your students face this dilemma, and some colleges make it particularly frustrating. Read on for some insights from a counselor who understands.

Harvard, Princeton, and Georgetown . . . they’re great institutions, but their early admission policies can be maddening. They tend to defer, defer, defer. Perhaps they are trying to avoid being the bearers of bad news, hesitant to hurt anyone’s feelings right before the winter holidays. But it would actually be a welcome change if they would begin rejecting the less-qualified early round applicants who have virtually no chance of being admitted in the regular round. 

Let’s backtrack a bit with a quick lesson in college admission terminology:

Many colleges offer an “early admission” option to applicants. Students can apply to a college in the fall of their senior year and receive a decision well before other candidates (between December and January, depending on the college, as opposed to as late as April 1). There are two specific types of Early Admission plans: Early Action, which is not binding—you don’t need to make a final decision on attending before May 1; and Early Decision, which is binding—you sign a contract stating you will attend if admitted and that you will withdraw all other pending applications.

Some colleges have added a twist to their Early Action policies. For example, Harvard offers a Restrictive Early Action plan where students, who typically have chosen Harvard as their first choice, may apply to other U.S. public/state colleges through Early Action but can’t apply to any other U.S. private college under an Early Action or Early Decision plan. Princeton offers Single Choice Early Action, and although the name is different from Harvard’s REA, the rules are the same. Georgetown introduces a variation on these plans; their Restrictive Early Action option allows students to apply anywhere under an Early Action plan (private or public), but they aren’t allowed to apply Early Decision anywhere.

Thus, you can see, these programs are restricting. Students choose them in the hopes of receiving an early admission decision, thus alleviating a lot of the stress from their senior year. Additionally, Early Action/Early Decision often increases a student’s odds of being accepted, so these students are making their early selection as a way of increasing their chances of receiving an acceptance from their top-choice college.

Let’s look at this year’s data from a handful of top-tier colleges:

 Class of 2020—Early Results






(Too many deferrals!)















(Getting better!)

















* Eliminated incomplete/withdrawn apps to recalculate percentages


** Estimated based on previous year since 2020 deferral/rejection numbers haven’t yet been released


So, what does Georgetown do? They typically admit a small number of their applicants in the early round, and then defer everyone to the Regular Decision pile. Everyone—even the C or D student who never took an honors class due to lack of interest and who truthfully has no shot of being admitted. What do you think this student thinks? Perhaps, “Wow. I was deferred. I still have a chance. Maybe if I show interest over the next three months, or start receiving A’s during my senior year, I can still be accepted.” In reality, poor high school performers are not going to be accepted regardless of what they do in the next three months.

How about Harvard and Princeton? Both admission offices defer so many students, even the ones they know won’t be getting accepted in the spring. Yes, it’s nice that so many feelings are spared. Maybe these students feel better walking around stating that they were deferred, rather than rejected, at a top university. But the fact is, they applied early to receive an advanced notification, and the deferral leaves them back where they started: neither accepted nor rejected. Every year at this time, counselors spend hours meeting with students to try to help them decipher the meaning of their deferral and to discuss ways to possibly turn the deferral into an acceptance.

These mass deferrals are providing a lot of unqualified students with false hope. A rejection would hurt—absolutely—but why not rip the Band-Aid off, let the student grieve for a few days, and then allow them to get inspired when applying to other colleges? It’s certainly better than having them falsely believe they actually might get accepted to a school that’s out of reach. In addition, a rejection at this stage could motivate students to apply to slightly less selective schools, which may be helpful, and more realistic, in the long run.

Lastly, what about the students who truly were very close to receiving an admittance letter during the early round? They have no indication of this because, since almost all applicants are deferred, they can’t distinguish a true deferral from what I call a “defer-reject”: a deferral on paper, but an almost certain rejection in the spring. Therefore, most deferred students are typically left feeling confused and frustrated, not full of gratitude that they weren’t rejected.

Stanford gets it right: their deferral really means something. It indicates to the student that they were close, but not quite there. However, there is a chance in the regular round they will be admitted. For the 81% who were outright denied from Stanford during this year’s early round, it is a harsh blow. These teens put everything into applying to their top-choice school, only to be rejected. But they will get past it and perhaps take comfort in the fact that they are in good company (81% of the applicants were rejected). They will actively pursue other options and will put their energy toward other schools instead of dreaming of Stanford. In the long run, that’s the best option.

It’s a new year. Let’s see a change. Hopefully next December some of the top colleges will choose to use their “defer” option more sparingly, making the decision truly meaningful and pointing to a possible acceptance in the spring.

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About Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten is a Certified Educational Planner as well as Co-founder and President of One-Stop College Counseling. She meets with students in her New Jersey office and virtually throughout the United States and Asia. She graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and received an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Working with eighth to 12th graders, Laurie guides students through each stage of the college admission process. She’s passionate about helping students reach their full academic and extracurricular potential; there’s nothing more rewarding than their excitement upon acceptance to their top-choice schools!

Laurie is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) as well as a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling (NJACAC), and the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling (PACAC). She’s also a proud member of the Character Collaborative.

Follow One-Stop's Facebook page for daily articles on the college admission process.


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