Deferral Is Not The End
I had it planned. After arriving home from play practice at around 5:30, my heart fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird, I’d sit down at my desk, take a breath deep enough to rob the room of air, turn on my computer, locate that email – that impossible email – that would read, “Congratulations! You’re the newest member of Columbia’s Class of 2016,” play Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” at the highest possible volume (probably singing along, “If I can make it there, I can make it just about anywhere,” ear-splittingly off-key), and feel good.
The world was spared my Sinatra imitation. I was deferred, which I took to be a death sentence. My college counselor, in kinder words, concurred, labeling the deferral “a polite rejection.”
Columbia first entered my consciousness when I was in 7th or 8th grade. The fact that, yes, one day I would be out of the house, pursuing a degree had just slowly begun to dawn on me. At the time, I could name at best a handful of colleges – Temple, where my parents had met, Harvard and Yale, which I assumed were mystical places full of rich people, nuclear physicists, and future presidents, and Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania, which I later learned were not in fact the same school. Columbia to me was simple – an Ivy League university in New York City. Cool. (These are exactly the wrong reasons to attend the college according to its own admissions department.) I couldn’t say much more about the place, but I could, in a far off, fanciful way, imagine myself there. And I’d be cool too.
Over the next few years, that sense of coolness gradually metamorphosed into one of inevitability. As I learned more about the college – its core curriculum, its Nobel laureate-laden faculty, its student body – I didn’t feel like I was discovering autonomous reasons to be excited about it, but rather like I was acquiring more solid justification for my initial interest. When I made my visit to campus in spring of junior year (my first college tour), the romance of the school only gained layers in my mind. There are two things that I remember clearly from that visit: the Low Library and my tour guide. The Low Library was majestic in a way that I believed was the exclusive purview of the Old World – it awed in the same way the Pantheon or the Coliseum do, making the passer-by feel as if they are a part of a larger, epic, cinematic reality. It seemed so beautifully out of place there, in the middle of an East Coast city. My tour guide was an Austrian computer science and philosophy double major who spoke with a sort of cool confidence that I found fascinating. He was the kind of person who didn’t have to put much effort into appearing smart; it seemed like intelligence was his natural resting state. I wanted to be his friend. I wanted to be him, to be a suave, intellectual Columbia student who could wake up twenty-minutes before a tour, show up dressed like a slob, and still manage to impress everyone present. In short: he was cool, in a cool place, in a cool city.
That was a cool I was never going to be a part of. I spent the first few days moping, self-pityingly; I remember immediately unfriending from facebook a vague acquaintance upon seeing his “Columbia 2016” status. As time passed, I recovered. Another possibility took shape in my head.
Swarthmore College had originally been an afterthought for me. I visited late in the summer between junior and senior years, and then only because it was a mere thirty-minute train ride away from Philadelphia, After a few hours there, and a few more of research, I realized I had been remiss to pay the college so little attention. I won’t delve into the school’s academic record and programs – the object of this essay is not to be a paean to Swarthmore, or to show how much a better school it is than Columbia – but what I will say is that what I felt almost immediately upon arriving at Swarthmore was a sense of being at home, of being in an intimate, caring environment where I could grow as a person. It quickly became my second choice school, despite being wildly different from Columbia – a smaller student body, a less competitive (though still highly intellectual) atmosphere, a less rigid curriculum. In the months leading up to the early decision release dates, I’d often find myself imagining life at Swarthmore; I wished it was possible to experience two colleges, to be two travelers who would set out on opposite paths and find four years later that, somehow, those paths converged. Of course, I’d remind myself that, while Swarthmore was great, it was Columbia that I really wanted to attend. It was the place I’d dreamt of since I was thirteen; it was too late to turn back.
Deferral from Columbia proved, in a strange way, liberating. My fantasy had imploded, and, searching its remains, I could now see more clearly the foundation on which it was built. Columbia’s name, prestige, mystique, location: those were the driving factors in my decision. Without the inertial weight of that romance, I probably would have chosen Swarthmore as my first choice from the beginning. That isn’t to say that my interest in Columbia was solely naïve or superficial, nor is it meant to denigrate the school in any way. Columbia is undeniably a great instiution, and I had valid reasons to be interested in it. The problem was that the valid reasons merely served as a way to support the less valid reasons. Further, I had convinced myself that I wanted something – the highly competitive environment of a large research university – when, in reality, I needed something else – a small, nurturing, intellectual liberal arts college. The former sort of place I’d survive at; in the latter, I’d thrive.
On the recommendation of my college counselor, I applied ED2 to Swarthmore. I relaxed – my final transcript before decisions came out had been sent, and all there was to do was wait. I embraced a soft senioritis, keeping my grades up, but not killing myself studying till late hours for every calculus test. My confidence in my decision grew – I was going to Swarthmore. I had nothing to worry about.
The day of ED2 decisions came. I was deferred, again. Well, ain’t that a kick in the head.
I was too amused to be terribly upset. Deferred twice – that’s even possible? It was a story, something to be grinned at. That existential fear of many college applicants – not getting into a single school – did occur to me (and it very much occurred to my mother), but I dismissed it as unrealistic. I was going to go to a Tier 2 school. That really wasn’t the end of the world. Life would go on. I’d get my degree, if not from Swarthmore, then still from a pretty decent college.
Yet I still believed I’d fit at Swarthmore. My interest in the school wasn’t based just on some romantic notion – it was a place where I knew I could feel at home. At my mother’s suggestion, I sent a creative writing sample to the admissions office (creative writing was the topic of my CommonApp essay), as well as a letter to the dean, stating that I was still very interested in the school, and would still enroll if admitted. I didn’t expect admissions to read the story I had sent (or at least not all of it), but I figured that showing I was still committed to the school couldn’t hurt me.
A few months passed. Regular decisions came out. I received my letter from Swarthmore (yes, Swarthmore still announces via snail-mail) before any other decisions. It was a fat envelope; I was, finally, a member of at least one school’s class of 2016. My other decisions came in throughout the next week, but I was only vaguely interested in them. I knew where I was going to be spending the next four years of my life.
Still, something surprising happened. I was admitted to Columbia. If I had wanted to, I could have still lived that fantasy. Yet I chose not to. I had both what I wanted and what I needed. I sent my deposit to Swarthmore.
Deferral is not necessarily fatal. Deferral offers time to reflect, regroup, organize. Given the highly competitive nature of modern college admissions, students often find themselves pushed into committing to Early Decision, even when they’re not entirely sure where they want to end up. Upon receiving your deferral, ask yourself (not the day you receive it, when you’re still reeling from disappointment): am I sure this school is the right fit for me? Are there any other places that I’d be as happy at, or even happier? If the answer to the second question is yes, you may have just gotten perversely lucky: you’ve been given the chance to do-over one of the most important decisions you’ll make (a do-over for which I’m exceedingly grateful). If you’re still sure that your ED school is the one, find ways to show its admissions department that you’re still interested. Send a letter or other supplemental material. Don’t give up hope. Getting in after deferral is by no means a sure thing, and you should brace yourself for rejection. But deferral isn’t necessarily just a polite way of saying no.