There are a bazillion resources out there for tips and tricks for what to do when you have been deferred. All of them are a bit different and it's easy to go down a rabbit hole of reading conflicting information, especially when some tips are prescribed as guaranteed success from deferred to acceptance when in reality, that's not true. The biggest piece of advice to take away from this blog post is that what to do when you're deferred varies per school.
First and foremost, research the school's position on what you should do as a deferred applicant. Some schools will welcome emails and/or phone calls, while others will strictly forbid them. Some welcome essays or new recommendation letters, while others only want short updates. Read the rules and make sure your efforts at helping your application don't inadvertently hurt it. Schools will generally state their position on what you should do as a deferred applicant in the deferral letter they sent you, in their portal, or on their website. If you feel that none of those locations stated guidelines of what you should do as a deferred applicant, I would say it's appropriate to email the admissions office and politely express that you're still interested in the school and want to know what you should do to put your best efforts towards supplementing your deferred application. If that response is vague, then I would say sending anything/everything (without harassing the admissions office) is fair game.
I was actually deferred from Stanford when I applied for Restricted Early Action. Spoiler Alert, I did not get in and I have a lot of regrets about how I approached my deferral decision. So, the rest of this article is for you to learn hopefully learn from my mistakes.
Anxiety + Low Confidence
Getting a deferral sucks, it really does. You may experience feelings of confusion, doubt, anxiety, frustration, fear of failure, stress etc.. These mixed emotions are natural for when your application is in limbo. However, you can't let these negative emotions dictate how you feel about the school or how you update your application. I had a lot of self-doubt for numerous reasons, I didn't know what to update the school with, I didn't know if I had anything convincingly interesting, I was upset to have maybe been close to being accepted but not, many of my friends from MOSTEC at the time were accepted, so, I procrastinated. I literally sent my deferral information the last day and the last second it was possibly due. Catastrophizing in this way can and will hurt your application.
As you're already aware, being deferred is a unique opportunity to still be able to attend the school that you applied to. It is an opportunity to bolster your application, to share more information with the school, and to demonstrate your interest to that school. It's important to acknowledge that you're lucky that you have this opportunity because students who were rejected did not. So, while it's valid to have mixed emotions as a deferred student, it's important to have hope be the driving factor for how you approach your deferral.
Procrastinating on Interval Updates
Part of the reason why I procrastinated on my deferral update form for Stanford was because I had a competition on the day that the update form was "due". Because of that, I waited until the last minute to do all of my updates after I finished the competition (which was at like 10pm). For numerous reasons, that did not make sense whatsoever and was poor decision-making on my part. The main reason is because the way that Stanford's update form was designed at the time, I could actually send unlimited (brief) udpate statements up until the deadline. So, waiting until the last minute to do all of my updates just so I could do it after I finished that one competition didn't make sense and likely led to disorganized, not well-thought-out update messages.
Maximizing Future Updates and Updates in general
Including future updates is something that people don't talk much about, but is something that I wanted to take advantage of when I applied. Essentially, my update form was due in January-ish, but I had plans to participate in pretty big initiatives during the springtime, so I mentioned "hey, I'm going to be going on this medical experience in Honduras for venous treatment again, I'll also be volunteering at my local art museum on MLK Jr. day to update Wikipedia websites on notable black painters based on the museum archives." That was important to me to share with the school so that they knew about international and national civic engagement that I was planning to be involved in that they did not know about at the time of my application. So I'm happy that I did that. If you have big fundraisers, events, competitions, or anything noteworthy that would happen in the future, you can share those projected opportunities with the admissions office. You could even consider updating the admissions office after those things have transpired if that aligns with the school's policy on providing updates.
To me, the future experiences I chose to inform Stanford of sounded really cool both on and off paper, so I left it at those super brief statements. I think that those updates could have been improved by me drawing connections to better synthesize my application and make it easier for the admissions officer to see those connections in my application.
Example 1: One of my Stanford essays was about how I was really passionate about learning Spanish, wanting to learn more about Hispanic culture, and how it's impacted my values of a global community. Synthesizing my desire to go to Honduras with the idea of practicing my Spanish and helping the global Latine community would have better connected my uptade to the rest of my application.
Example 2: One of my points in my Stanford essays was the Black community at Stanford that I wanted to be a part of and how Black leaders have historically inspired me in the field of engineering. Drawing that connection to the importance of preserving Black history on top of my positive experiences in my AP Art History coursework that year would have also helped that "art museum black history month volunteering" puzzle piece fit into my application a little more clearly. That also would have helped me re-emphasize my passion for interdisciplinary studies (if you don't believe me about my 'interdisciplinary passion', I literally got a degree in BME, Neuroscience and minors in African & African American Studies and Chemistry). So I would have benefited from articulating my intentions even just a little bit more when I shared those updates.
But like, what if I don't have updates?
Little updates with key analysis can go a long way. For example, if you peer tutored for a class or club during fall semester, mentioning that you did that and how it's meaningful to you is still noteworthy even though it's not a "first place in an international competition" kind of update. This is something I didn't do that I totally should have, I took my time to teach younger students in Science Olympiad different topics for different events every week, and I taught some of them Spanish which was important for the Codebusters competition since one cypher would always be in Spanish. See how that connects back to my values mentioned before about Spanish culture? Totally worth mentioning even though that activity was "normal" for me. Peer tutoring for Science Olympiad also introduces leadership/mentorship skills and intellectual vitality that I could share with the school, especially because that level of detail didn't fit in my activities description. To connect it back to the school, I could have mentioned I wished to join or start a Science Olympiad chapter there (which I did participate in at Duke and I mentioned I wanted to do in my RD apps). Another update that I could have included was how my physics class (a new class I was taking fall semester) re-affirmed my interest in engineering and made me specifically excited to participate in xyz specific offerings in Stanford's engineering department. Obviously, you shouldn't send them 20,000 updates, but don't forget your commitments and achievements that you otherwise take for granted.
Articulate your passions for your future and the school
In whatever type of update the school does permit, make sure that you demonstrate continued interest in wanting to attend that university. Usually, students do this with a Letter of Continued Interest, which there are many resources on how to write one online.
Sometimes, it's easy to think "I have all of these RD options I'd rather focus on, idk if I want to attend anymore" because it's scary to put in more work for a school that you already know didn't accept you. However, you have to always put your best foot forward. I recommend taking advantage of any resources that you have to be able to get to know the school better and articulate what about it continues to draw you in. You should contact students from your HS that may go there, reach out to your interviewer and ask for a follow-up chat, and learn more about the school from alumni and current students if you have access to them. Really put 100% effort into doing those things and share those efforts with the school and what you learned about the school that you think will make you a good fit for each other. I wish I had someone mentor me and encourage me to build connections that can help me articulate my interests in Stanford, especially because I had resources to be able to do that as a Stanford legacy. However, reaching out to people to learn more about the school to position myself better did not come top of mind because I had a narrow perspective of what to do in order to have a "good update". In reality, it's extremely noteworthy to articulate what your goals are in life and how a school's goals align with yours and how a school is uniquely situated to help you achieve your goals. Even if you don't have any connections to a school, didn't have an interviewer, don't know any students/alumni, I would try and find someone to reach out to that's okay because the most important way to express your passion for a school can and should come from researching its website, school newspapers, your department of interest's magazine, and any virtual or in-person events that the school's admissions office might be hosting.
I would also do research on what the school's mission statement is and make sure that you emphasize the aspects of you that align with the school's mission statement if you send an update letter to the school.
All in all, I hope this helps you optimize your deferral updates, squash your self-doubt, and as Nike so eloquently says, send in your updates! (or maybe they don't say that, but just do it!).