Grinning with his characteristically sly smile, Chuck Sanborn, the former director of college counseling at The Derryfield School, corrected my inquiry about his retirement, saying, “I didn’t retire, I just changed my priorities.” He went on to explain that he adapted this phrase while driving in England and encountering road construction. Instead of a neon detour sign, he was confronted with a sign saying “Changed Priorities Ahead” and instantly he knew that this would be his motto. To Sanborn, the idea of retiring or withdrawing felt passive or even defeatist. He was not stepping away from life, but rather stepping towards new priorities.
Call it a rite of passage, a journey, a process, an experience, or what you will, but regardless, applying to college is inexplicably layered with expectation, emotion, hope, and fear. For many young people it is the biggest decision they have had to make, and it often—abetted by parents—seems like a referendum on self-worth and final exam for their first decade and a half of life. When a student is denied admission they can feel exposed, like a public shaming of sorts. “What more could I have done?” “What more could I have been?” “Am I not good enough?”
The reality is, while imperfect in many ways, college admission truly is about matching a student’s strengths and interests to an institution’s mission and opportunities. In selective college admission, especially, there are simply not enough spaces for the abundance of qualified applicants, which means some must be shut out. A deferral or denial are not calamities, but rather an invitation to change priorities. Does it hurt? Yes. Is it a letdown? Absolutely. Have you earned the right to sulk a little? Probably. However, after you process your emotions, then it is time to embrace Sanborn’s philosophy and consider what the next iteration of your life’s path might be.
Dealing With Deferrals
If you were deferred admission, your priorities should be two-fold: take steps to increase your chances of being admitted in the spring and start to get excited about your other college options. Peter Hagan, director of admission at Syracuse University tells students,
While being let go or deferred in December can be a sting, it's an opportunity to have a growth mindset. There are lots of great colleges and universities to explore. Take the time to grieve the disappointment, but then refocus your energy and talent to broaden your list, being as thoughtful or more so than you were with the school where you chose to apply early. When you get to college, you'll start to meet people, make friends, create connections, and hopefully forge relationships that will last many years. At that point, it won't matter that you were deferred or denied. Take the chance to start broadening your horizon now, and you'll be better for it down the road.
A deferral can mean many things, but at the very least it suggests that you are admissible, otherwise you would have likely been denied. Perhaps the college limits the percentage of their class that they will accept early and so qualified students had to be pushed to the regular decision pool of candidates. Or maybe your earlier high school performance was not as strong, and though your grades have been on an upward trend, the admission office wants to wait for one more term of grades to be posted. There are a host of reasons applicants are deferred and it is in your best interest to understand why. Ask your regional admission counselor for that college, or your high school counselor, if there are tangible reasons for the deferral that you can address in the coming months. Jim Rawlins, director of admissions and assistant vice president for enrollment management at The University of Oregon has reassuring words for deferred applicants. He says,
In some ways, students who apply to early programs worry about being deferred more than being denied – it’s a difference between closure and non-closure that keeps you in suspense. Unfortunately, the perception that has developed for many over time is that being deferred from early to regular is somehow the beginning of the end, and they’re simply going to tell you no later. At some schools, it’s the case (or perhaps an inaccurate myth) that students have a better chance of admission in early than regular, especially if the school utilizes ‘demonstrated interest.’ Here at Oregon, though, we zealously ensure that doesn’t happen. Applying Early is simply a timing thing, not a ‘what are my chances’ thing, and we’ll be doing all we can these next few weeks to remind students of that. When we tell them to ‘send us your updated midyear grades’ or ‘provide your latest test scores,’ it’s because we’re still looking for additional reasons to say yes! Why would we ask for more things to look at if we weren’t going to look at them, right?"
Were your test scores a little below the college’s admitted student profile? If so—and this college is “worth it” in your mind—then perhaps you want to review and retake standardized tests. Maybe you were deferred because you had not visited campus and the admission office was not clear on how interested you are in their school. In that case, get there or find another way to demonstrate your excitement for the college. Pay attention to the instructions that the college gave when notifying you of their decision. Some schools welcome additional recommendations or other supporting materials, others encourage a follow-up interview, and some colleges ask applicants to limit what they provide to a brief paragraph updating them on any new information since your original application.
If you were denied admission, take time to recall why you prioritized this college initially and then determine how those priorities have changed in light of this decision, or how they can be redirected. Maybe you can consider graduate school at the university where you were denied as an undergraduate applicant or if your heart remains set on this school, maybe transferring will be an option. It is probably healthiest, at least in the short term, to work to take this college out of the equation and to only use your attachment to it to inform your ongoing search. What characteristics of the school were most attractive, and can you find similar strengths in the other schools on your list? Was location a principal factor, or size, or program, perhaps student culture? Despite your disappointment, embrace the opportunities that exist on other campuses. Maybe your excitement about this college had clouded your ability to see the benefits of other schools. With the veil lifted, hopefully, you can see more clearly. Gary Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at UCLA, advises students,
It’s important to remember that there are two names on every diploma. One, the institution’s, the other, the student’s. While you may picture yourself at one university, remember that there are many that could offer you a wonderful experience. If it doesn’t work out at your top choice, and you’ve developed a strong list of prospective universities, then you rally around one of those other options and get excited about the experience you’ll have there.
The truth is, identifying why
you want to go to college is more important than determining where
you will go. Often, students who are not admitted to their dream school are the most appreciative of, and intentional about, their college experience. Consider a denial of admission an invitation to focus less on which school you will attend, and instead, prioritize what you do while you are there. A 2018 report from the organization Challenge Success
highlighted the notion that engagement in college
rather than selectivity is a better predictor of learning, fulfillment, and well-being. In his admission blog
, Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech discusses more truths about being denied from college and offers advice for students on “how to handle that moment.”
When an application for admission to college is deferred or denied, it can feel like a huge blow to one’s ego, confidence, hard work, and future plans. It is not always easy to move on or to change priorities. In fact, change, in general, is difficult and complicated. In their book, “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard,”
authors and brothers Chip and Dan Heath advocate for shifting from a “problem-focused” approach to one of looking for “bright spots”. Instead of fixating on the reasons you were denied and the opportunities you will not have at that school, consider the advantages of other schools and the freedom of exploration for which this discouraging decision has allowed. Just because you were denied admission to a college does not necessitate a complete overhaul of your search. However, maybe some tweaks to what you expect are in order. If you ask Chuck Sanborn, it certainly does not mean it is time to withdraw or retire, just that changed priorities are ahead—and that is not a bad thing.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling