I’m beginning to think that high school students should be required to take a Statistics course just to be able to navigate the numeric thicket surrounding the college admissions process. As I’ve written about recently, the percentages that colleges throw around throughout the admissions process can’t necessarily be taken at face value.

Much like the overall acceptance rates that colleges release each spring, statistics involving Early Action and Early Decision deferrals require some interpreting as well. Depending on the college, a deferral can tell a lot about an applicant’s chances in the spring — or it can tell almost nothing at all. In some cases, a deferral can also act as a warning sign about the likely fate of someone’s applications at other schools of comparable selectivity; in others, it might do just the opposite. In either of those cases, an early deferral could spur you to make some last-minute alterations to your list.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but after years of involvement in the college admissions process in some form or another, I somehow remained unaware until recently of just how dramatically deferral rates can vary from school to school. Sure, I knew that huge numbers of strong EA/ED applicants to highly selective colleges are routinely deferred, and I was aware that only a small percentage of deferred applicants are normally admitted in the spring, but beyond that I had never really thought to investigate the matter further.

Then, a few days ago, I was browsing the Internet and stumbled across the intriguing fact that Stanford, which accepts about 10% of its early applicants, defers only an additional 9% while flat-out rejecting 81%.* Basically, a deferral from Stanford is a sign that you’re a very strong applicant and still genuinely in the pool. Although not ideal, it’s at least encouraging. It also means that you’re likely to get very serious consideration at schools of comparable selectivity.

At the same end of the spectrum, Penn and Duke rejected nearly 60% of Early applicants for the class of 2020 but deferred just under 20%. A deferral from one of those schools means “We liked your application a lot, and we think you’d probably do well here… But we just need to see what the rest of the pool looks like before we make a final decision.” If you’re inclined to send updates about your achievements/awards/activities, that info is most likely to make a difference at these sorts of schools.

On the flip side, there are schools like Harvard and Princeton, which have Early acceptance rates in the 15-20% range but which both defer 75+% of non-accepted applicants and reject only 8% and 4% respectively. As a result, a student who gets an early rejection from one of these schools may need to seriously reconsider the level of selectivity they’re aiming for. A reach-heavy list will likely need to be pared down, with some of the most selective schools being replaced by more realistic ones.

Then there’s Georgetown, which has an early acceptance rate (13%) only marginally higher than Stanford’s and *lower* than Harvard’s and Stanford’s but defers — get this — the remaining 87% of non-accepted applicants. Consequently, there’s absolutely no way for deferred applicants to tell where they stand. They could have just missed the cut, or they might not even be close.

The takeaway from all this is that if you’ve been deferred, don’t just worry about what percentage of deferred applicants are ultimately accepted but also do your best to find out what percentage of EA/ED applicants are deferred. Taken together, those two numbers should help give you a reasonable sense of where things stand — whether it’s time to start moving on from your dream school, or whether you’re justified in holding onto a few rays of hope.


*Statistics found at https://www.collegexpress.com/counselors-and-parents/college-counselors/blog/problem-deferrals/