On December 8, at precisely three o’clock in the afternoon, I sat in front my computer in eager anticipation and clicked on the “View Your Decision” tab. Instead of seeing a line starting with “Congratulations” or “We regret to inform you that your admission to Cornell is denied,” I read a frustrating full-page letter that explained that my early application has been “deferred” to the regular decision round.

You may wonder what it means to be “deferred,” but, unfortunately, nobody has a clear and exact answer. According to Cornell’s website, the official definition of being “deferred” is that the admissions decision is not available for me until late March. My application will be re-evaluated in the spring in the context of the regular decision pool.

Why would a university defer an early applicant instead of accepting or rejecting him/her right away? Despite the lack of a good explanation from universities, people have different theories.

Some people think that some universities want to base their decisions on as much information of the applicant as possible.

For example, in my circumstances, Cornell may want to make a final decision after my first semester senior grades come out. Cornell may also be interested in whether I keep pursuing my extracurricular interests in my senior year. Cornell will also keep track of any additional awards or accomplishments.

Some schools may employ the “deferral strategy” to meet their institutional priorities. For a school that offers binding early admissions, like Cornell, its priorities are “locking down” recruited athletes, legacies, and other “developmental” applicants. According to Cornell’s official statistics, close to forty percent of all early admitted students are either athletes or legacies. Because the slots in the early round are limited, many qualified applicants who don’t fall under those categories are deferred and later admitted in the regular decision round.

Another seemingly implausible but realistic explanation is that some schools may want to spread the workload of reading applications to the second half of the senior year. They defer a huge percentage of early applicants so that they can evaluate them carefully later.

What makes “being deferred” more confusing is that different schools use “deferrals” in different ways.

For instance, Stanford almost never defers any early applicant: it does its best to give applicants a clear signal. Cornell and Duke defer approximately 20% of their pool of early applicants, whereas Brown and Yale defer almost 60% of their early applicants.

While some schools make it clear that deferred applicants have the same chance as a regular decision applicant, others don’t. Dartmouth’s official website states that the acceptance rate of a deferred early applicant is between 5% and 10%, which is close to its overall acceptance rate of 10%.

In Brown’s decision letters to deferred applicants, the admissions committee tells applicants explicitly that their chance is as slim as that of regular applicants.

In contrast, Cornell, among other schools, never publishes any data concerning the acceptance rate of deferred applicants. Its claim that “all deferred applicants are in serious contention of a spot in the class of 2021” does nothing to clarify the confusion, but only further obfuscates the admissions process for deferred applicants.

On March 30, at precisely three o’clock in the afternoon, I will be sitting in front my computer again with eager anticipation, just like I did the first time. What should I expect? I have no idea. The only fact I am sure of is that the anxiety of waiting is already killing me (literally).