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When Early Decision Disappoints: How to Move On with Confidence

Around the world, high school seniors –and their parents–are receiving decisions about applications for early admission to college. Some of these emails will elicit joy, but many more will cause students anxiety. Students who don’t get into their ED school will now face making a big decision on a tight deadline: where do you apply now, and to how many schools?

This is my third time waiting with a child for this December decision while also planning for the possible “race against the clock.”

So here are a few tips to help you make your big decision better:

Behind the name of the school that you submitted an early decision application to, what are the components of the school that attracted you? Was it: big or small, rural or urban, liberal arts or pre-professional, warm or cold climate and so on? Using these as a guideline, what other schools fit your parameters?

To think this through, picture yourself achieving what you wanted to achieve at the particular school you applied to. Write out a sentence or two of what that Vision of Success looks like.

For example: Steven applied early to University of Virginia because he visits family there, roots for Virginia teams, has friends enrolled who are happy and was impressed by the University’s business school program. But this past week, he got deferred.

This felt devastating for Steven, as it does for all students who don’t hear the good news they’ve been hoping for. Steven, like so many others, put himself out there, and now needs to deal with both the disappointment and the need to fire up his energy and attention to fill out a few more applications before month-end, the final due date for college applications.

Steven took a step back and put together the Critical Concepts, the components of his Vision of Success and wrote the following statement: I want to go to a business program at a big school, where there are good sports teams I can root for, a set of friends already in place and, if possible, some family nearby.

The good news for Steven is that there are many colleges that share most of the qualities that are important to him, with the exception of having family nearby. This made the selection process much more manageable and meant he was able to use much of the essay that he wrote for U Virginia.

A few schools quickly surfaced with similar qualities: University of Maryland, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (both of which also have similar weather) and University of Wisconsin, among others.

Next Steven had to figure out what essay requirements each school had. Could he work from the essay he’d already written? And how could he quickly made substantive changes that would be responsive to these other school’s essay requirements? Again, using his Critical Concepts from his Vision of Success, he could still speak to a strong undergraduate business program and a spirited school culture. This limited the amount of new work that Steven had to do-and also took the edge off of some of his anxiety.

For the new essay material, Steven spent time studying each prospective school’s website. What kinds of students did they target? Where did the student body come from geographically? What kinds of concentrations and classes are offered in the business major? What does the student handbook say about class size, any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and how requirements would play out across the four years? Might students take required courses at any time, or would these classes fill up much of his Freshman and Sophomore year schedule? This kind of information not only helped Steven better understand what the schools deemed important but also whether it made each more or less attractive to him. It also gave Steven fodder for tailoring his essays to each school’s priorities.

There’s no way around the pain and disappointment of being deferred or even rejected from the college you’ve set your heart on. But the good news is that there are always other options out there. By focusing on what truly matters to you, you can identify other schools with many of the same parameters as your Early Decision choice. In that way, you will quickly see that you are not starting over, and you can channel your disappointment into a new victory.

Would you like help making your next big decision better? Contact Cheryl directly at

Ready to make big decisions better?

Would you or your team like help making your next big decision better? Contact Cheryl directly about working with her and using her digital decision-making modules at

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