How to Handle a Deferral

It goes without saying that nothing in 2020 has been normal, and the same is true when it comes to college admissions. This fall highly selective colleges saw a significant increase in applications, which was not at all expected. The thinking is that it’s largely due to the fact that students no longer were required to submit test scores, and therefore applied to colleges they might otherwise not have, fearing they wouldn’t be competitive. The result of all these applications is that we have seen an increase in deferrals.

What is a deferral? A deferral means your application will be held and reconsidered along with the regular decision applicants. Each college handles deferrals differently. Georgetown only accepts or defers students who apply in the early round; therefore, a large percentage of students are deferred. Other schools defer only a small percentage of applicants. The good news is that a deferral does not mean you were denied, you are still a candidate for admission.

Here are the next steps to take if you are still interested in the college:

Read the Directions Carefully

Be very clear on what the college is asking for. Many colleges will want to see your mid-year grades or updated test scores. Others will allow for updates on extracurricular activities (of which they aren’t a lot this year due to COVID), additional letters of recommendation, or a letter of continued interest. Some however will be very clear that they do not want you to send any additional information.  Follow the instructions for each college very carefully and send only what they request.

Mid-year Grades

Check with your high school regarding the process for sending mid-year grades. The procedures are different at every high school.

Letters of Recommendation

If a college will allow for additional recommendations, consider asking a teacher from your senior year, or a coach, mentor, pastor, etc. Find someone who can add something new to your application.

Letter of Continued Interest

Send a letter in late January, early February expressing your continued interest in the school. If you are certain you will go to that college if admitted, tell them that. If it is one of your top choices, tell them. Be honest and genuine.

Include a list of any recent accomplishments. Be careful not to repeat anything that’s already in your application. Only include new information such as academic awards, extracurriculars, or work experience. If you have a resume that would provide information in addition to what was on your activities list, include it. If you do not have much additional to add, that’s OK. It’s been one of those years.

Let them know why you feel the college is a fit for you and you for them. Explain how you will contribute to the college and the surrounding community. Be careful not to repeat what you have already said in your previous “Why Us” essays.

Send the letter via email to your regional admissions rep, and then follow that with a hard copy through the mail. Or if the college asks you to send information via their portal, follow their directions.

Show Them You Are Interested

Now is the time to show your interest through your actions. Attend another information meeting or a student panel online. If it is at all possible, go visit the college. I know that’s hard to do this time of year, but many schools are doing tours. It’s a great way for you to show them that you’re serious, and for you to determine if in fact that is your top choice college.

Deferrals can be frustrating but don’t get discouraged. Show your interest and do what you can do, and then move on. You have plenty of other great colleges on your list.

Finding Your Fit

Heading to College

This time of year you hear the horror stories of students getting rejection letter after rejection letter from colleges, adding fuel to the notion that it is more difficult than ever to get into college. While that may be true for the “name brand” schools, (Stanford’s boasting a 4.7% acceptance rate), there are plenty of good colleges out there for every student. It’s a matter of finding those schools, and unfortunately that’s where many students miss the mark.

Most often students choose colleges by what I call the 3 F’s: Family, Friends and Football. After all, that’s how they hear about schools. However, rarely do they give thoughtful consideration to whether a particular college is a good fit for them.

What makes a college a good fit? A school that meets the student’s needs academically, socially and financially.

Academic Fit

When it comes to academics most students go right to thinking about what they want to major in. The challenge is that many students have no idea what they want to study, and over 60% of students will change their major in college (often several times). So while area of study is important, it certainly should not be the only factor to consider.

Don’t overlook the importance of the learning environment. How do you learn best? Reflect on what you’re like in the classroom. Do you participate in discussions? Do you raise your hand if you have a question? Do you enjoy learning from your peers? If so, look for schools with smaller discussion-based classes. Perhaps you’re the type that sits quietly and processes information. Do you learn better by reading and taking notes? A lecture-style learning environment would likely suit you well.

Also consider the level of academic challenge that is right for you. Do you want to work hard and study hard? Are you disciplined? If yes, look for a more rigorous academic environment. Do you prefer to be at the top of your class? Does it stress you out if you don’t get an A? You may do better with less academic pressure.

Social Fit

My hope for students is that they find a place where they can be themselves, and discover themselves. When I went to college I felt like a fish out of water – and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone when they are taking their first leap into adulthood.

So how do you find a place you will eventually call home, and people who will eventually become like family?

It starts by knowing yourself and thinking about the characteristics you would like to see in your fellow students. Do you want a diverse student body? Would you prefer a liberal or more conservative environment?  Are you the outdoorsy type? Artsy? Free-spirited or traditional?

You are much more likely to be successful in college if you are around people you can connect with, in an environment that feels comfortable.

Financial Fit

Families often overlook the cost of college when choosing where to apply – which you can’t afford to do. (Sorry for the pun). Be realistic about what you can afford to pay for college. Students do not want to be burdened with excessive debt upon graduation, and parents do not want to greatly diminish their retirement nest egg. At the same time, don’t automatically take schools off your list because of the sticker price. Many colleges and universities have generous financial aid packages (that include grants and scholarships – free money!). Finding those schools will take some research but it is well worth it in the end.

The key to searching for schools is to identify your unique priorities for selecting a college using academics, social environment, and financial implications as a starting point. The good news is that there are many colleges that will fit the criteria. With careful research, students can have several options that feel like a solid match.

The Year Ahead: Six Steps to Maximize Online Learning

As schools continue to grapple with COVID-19, much remains uncertain. Undoubtedly, the 2020–2021 school year will be unlike any other. Though many schools still have their sights set on reopening, at least some degree of online learning to start the year seems inevitable. Many schools are working towards a “hybrid” of online and in-person instruction. And although online instruction can be challenging, there are several things students can do to maximize the experience:

1. Dedicate a space. Working from home can create a difficult overlap between work and play. Getting into “work mode” can be difficult when our brains are used to home being a place to relax. The best way to combat this relaxation spillover is to dedicate a particular space in your house that will be for online learning. Whether this is an office, the desk in your room, or a table in the basement, commit to doing all of your schoolwork in that location. Don’t give in to the temptation of “class on the couch.” Teach your brain that when you’re in that space it’s time to focus.

2. Set a daily routine. Similarly, working from home can blur the formal schedule of in-person instruction. While this may be great for cutting your commute to school, too lax a schedule will mean losing valuable study time and missing class instruction. Be disciplined in the time you set out for school: set a daily time to get up and plan to “go to school” for around the same amount of time as your in-person hours. Do homework between classes and commit to staying on top of your studies.

3. Minimize distractions. Our phone’s chime or vibration is already hard to ignore. But with online learning, instructors can’t ensure students are paying attention. Without accountability, checking your phone can become a routine habit during lulls in the lecture. The best remedy is to remove the temptation altogether; turn off your phone and set it out of reach. Several websites and apps also exist to block distracting content in class. Check these out if you’re easily distracted or if turning off your phone sends shivers down your spine.

4. Take breaks. As part of setting and maintaining a schedule, you should also be sure to set out time for breaks. Unlike school, with regular passing periods and lunch with friends, working from home can be isolating and tiring. Make time to take the dog for a walk, call a friend, or read a book outside. Taking purposeful breaks will make you more productive when it’s time to focus.

5. Actively participate. Online instruction can seem like you’re a step removed from the process. Fight against the tendency to passively “receive” instruction. Instead, actively take notes during your classes and participate on the mic or in breakout rooms when possible. This will make your learning experience more valuable and engaging.

6. Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Remember, online classes are temporary. These are challenging times, but we will get through them. Ultimately, maintaining your studies and focusing on the road ahead can help to motivate you on the days when you’re ready to throw in the towel. Your hard work will pay off.

How to Colorfully Describe Your Activities

The Common App’s Activities Section is incredibly important because it’s the only opportunity you have to expand upon your various extracurricular activities. But the Activities Section can also be daunting. Despite the short length of entries (only 150 characters), the pressure is on to communicate effectively.

This blog focuses on actually writing the Activities Section and assumes that you, the student, have already spent some time preparing. Both selecting the activities to include and further brainstorming what those activities entail are crucial first steps. Your college counselor can help draw out these ideas in further detail. After some preparation, it is time to write. Here are four tips to help craft a compelling Activities Section:

  1. Don’t be passive. Don’t be wordy.

Just like with a resume, using “action verbs” is crucial for making your Activities Section stand out. A quick Google search of “action verbs for resumes” will turn up countless lists to reference. But before diving headlong into the depths of Google, keep some things in mind:

While action verbs are a good jumping-off point, using “action verbs” is really about avoiding boring verbs and verbs that make you seem like a passive bystander. Consider the following example:

“Was on the Varsity soccer team.”

The above example uses a boring verb, “was.” The above example also fails to paint any sort of picture for the reader. Your presence on the soccer team is passive and doesn’t help the reader learn anything specific about you. A helpful rule of thumb is to ask yourself: If my friends were reading my Activities Section, would they know it was me? Now let’s spruce the section up a bit using more interesting verbs and avoiding the “passive bystander” problem:

Traveled and competed on the Varsity soccer team, led pregame ritual and warmups.”

You have interesting verbs here that paint a picture for the reader and communicate a lot of information in only a few characters. “Traveled” shows a commitment to the team and ability to manage your time, “competed” shows your competitive edge, and “led” demonstrates leadership.

Finally, while action verbs are great, don’t be overly wordy or unnecessarily fancy. Some of the verbs listed online sound more like an IRS auditor than a high school student. Did you really audit, crosscheck, salvage, or appraise? Or would verbs like monitor, oversee, and assist do the trick?

  1. Be Concise. Avoid Redundancy.

Each activity section entry has a 150-character limit, which means you have to be quick and to the point. To put this in perspective, 150 characters is just over half that currently allotted for Tweets (280 characters).

Being concise requires strong verbs (see above) and pointed writing. Avoid “throat-clearing” phrases that don’t move the writing forward. For example, “Had the opportunity to assist” versus simply “assisted.” The first formulation communicates nothing to the reader and takes up almost 20% of your allotted space. The second moves the ball in less than 10 characters.

Another common mistake is to use multiple verbs to communicate the same thing.  If you are doubling up on verbs, see if you can pack a punch using only one. For example, “assisted and oversaw” doesn’t accomplish much more than simply “oversaw.” Use the extra space to expand upon other responsibilities you had.

Redundancy can arise not only in the description but also from the short “position or role description” that precedes it. For example, if your role was “Member of the Debate Team” and your description reads, “Debated at several tournaments,” you have basically repeated the obvious. Instead, add insights into what your membership meant: “Argued various climate change theories” or “networked with climate change professionals at tournaments.”

  1. Be Impact Oriented. Quantify.

 Similar to Tip #1’s point on avoiding passivity, you want to make sure you are demonstrating the impact that your activity had on you, the school, the community, your employer, etc. To use the preceding example, if you attended debate tournaments, you could discuss any impact the activity had on (1) your skills (e.g., “developed oral advocacy skills”); (2) your knowledge (e.g., “explored theories on climate change”); or (3) the school (e.g., “helped students understand competing climate change theories”). Hone in on the “why” of your activity.

Another easy way to add impact is to quantify your descriptions with impact-oriented figures. If you raised money for a charitable cause, tell the reader how much money you raised. If you worked as a restaurant server, how many tables did you have to juggle at one time?

  1. Show Your Accomplishments. Be Honest. 

The Activities Section is your chance to expand upon your extracurriculars and tell the admissions representative about yourself. While you should not hold back about your accomplishments, you should not play at the margins with what is truthful. If something seems like a stretch, find a way to rework it using the above tips. Being impact-oriented and using strong verbs will carry enough weight that you don’t need to “stretch” the truth. For colleges, academic integrity is far more important than how many times you lettered in football.

Adjusting to Changes from COVID-19

With COVID-19 have come many changes in the world of college admissions. SAT and ACT tests have been cancelled, AP tests are very different this year, college campuses are closed, and students are taking classes online. Nothing is “normal,” and with that comes a lot of fear and anxiety.

The best remedy I have found is ACTION. Keep moving forward. Here are some ways you can keep moving toward your goal of heading to college:


The next SAT/ACT tests are scheduled for June. This may change but for now register for these tests if you haven’t already.  Spaces are expected to fill quickly.

ACT Registration

SAT Registration

Keep your skills sharp by doing some test prep. Mock SAT tests and practice questions are available for free through Kahn Academy. There are also ACT and SAT prep books available on Amazon if you’re tired of looking at a computer screen. I know I am!

If the SAT and ACT June tests are cancelled, you will still have the opportunity to test in the fall, well before college applications are due.

Also keep in mind that the list of test optional schools is growing daily: University of Oregon, Boston University, Case Western, etc.  This was a trend that started some time ago, but that trend has accelerated with the recent SAT/ACT cancellations. It is worth noting that even for the schools that are test optional, historically about 80 – 85% of the students who are accepted did submit test scores. That indicates to me that tests are not going to go away. However, this year, who knows! If the June tests are cancelled, we can expect to see even more schools going test optional.


Even though you aren’t able to visit college campuses at this time,  you can still be learning about the colleges you are interested in. There are amazing resources available for you to learn about colleges, right from your home.

College Websites: Do a deep dive into the websites. Look at curriculum requirements for your prospective major. If you’re undecided, investigate advising resources for students with undeclared majors. Head to the section on student life and learn about student organizations and club sports. There is a wealth of information behind the landing page of every college website.

Virtual Tours and Information Sessions: Most colleges offer virtual tours  that enable you to see the campus, and with the recent developments colleges have responded by developing a variety of additional ways to connect virtually. Check the website for virtual information meetings, meetings with admissions reps, etc.

Social Media: Join the college’s Facebook group to connect with students. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are resources as well. Search for YouTube videos on your colleges of interest and you’ll find plenty of students sharing information and experiences about their colleges.

There is a wealth of information available through virtual experiences so grab your laptop and cellphone and immerse yourself in research and discovery. You will feel better knowing you are still making progress toward finding your college fit!