It's not a denial, yet it isn't an acceptance, either. For high school seniors who applied to college using a binding early decision program, a deferral is the equivalent of purgatory. Students apply early when they are certain that the college they have chosen meets all their criteria. Students can benefit from applying early because it can signal to the college that they have done their homework, they have researched and visited the college, and are willing to forsake all others. Sound like marriage vows? I tell my students that applying early decision is like getting married: It's a big commitment.

Approximately 400 colleges offer some sort of early admissions plan. Some colleges offer two versions of early decision, called ED I and ED II. ED II has a later deadline, usually in early January, which allows students a few more months to decide if they want to make a commitment. ED II is better for students who want their first semester grades or new test scores to be used as part of their evaluation. Students who apply ED I or ED II can be denied, accepted or deferred to the regular applicant pool.

Statistically, early decision applicants have a slightly higher rate of acceptance, but that number is probably skewed by the fact that many recruited athletes are encouraged to apply early, and they would have been admitted anyway. In general, those who are deferred to the regular pool have similar or slightly lower odds of admission as those who applied regular decision.

Colleges defer students for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I think they want to evaluate the applicant in the context of the pool of regular decision candidates. They want to see who else is applying. Elite colleges, as well as small colleges, are trying to craft a class. They need athletes, musicians, science majors and philosophy majors. They need students who are strong leaders, writers and artists. And until they see all the applications, it's hard for them to balance the class. Colleges might also defer academically inconsistent applicants in order to see their first semester grades.

If you've applied early decision and been deferred, the best thing you can do is to ensure that your first semester grades are as strong as possible. Even if you have been academically consistent throughout high school, the last thing you want to do is give the college a reason to deny you later on. Keep the admissions office updated on any changes in your schedule, which includes adding or dropping a class. Let the college know about any new accomplishments, too — some colleges even have a form to use for this purpose — including any new awards, honors or activities that were not part of your original application.

I think it's fine to write colleges a letter or e-mail expressing continued interest, but it's unnecessary to do so more than once. I've had families ask whether it's a good idea to send another letter of recommendation, but it's useful to do that only if it is from someone who can write something unique. More of the same is not helpful. If you have already sent two letters from academic teachers who think you are talented, brilliant and articulate, another letter like that will not make any difference.

If, however, after submitting your early application, you had a new accomplishment, such as completing an internship or contributing to a project that would enhance your application, it would be appropriate to tell the college about the project and to include a letter from the person who taught, assisted or supervised you.

Finally, the healthiest thing you can do after receiving a deferral from an early decision college is to focus on high school, muster excitement about the other colleges to which you've applied, and move on.

Joanne Levy-Prewitt is an independent college admissions adviser who works with students in the San Francisco area. E-mail her at [email protected].

© Joanne Levy-Prewitt