Dealing with the College Wait List

If you were wait-listed at your first-choice college, you’re not alone. Every year tens of thousands of hopeful high school seniors hear they’ve been  wait-listed. It can be a rough experience. But it doesn’t have to feel that bad, if you have a strategy for dealing with it.

Wait-listing has become common, but many students and their families still don’t know how to handle the situation. That’s why I revisit the topic each year.

Most colleges use wait lists to manage what they call their yield. That’s the number of students who actually end up enrolling. The yield is always lower than the number of students offered admission. That’s because some students get accepted at more than one school and end up turning down several offers. Each year, as more students apply to longer lists of schools, the number of students who accept offers drops at even the most prestigious colleges. This phenomenon can wreak havoc with a school’s yield. To protect their yields, more colleges are turning to longer waiting lists.

Some schools also use wait lists for political purposes. They may be reluctant to insult an affluent or well-connected alumni by rejecting his or her child. To take some of the sting out of it, they’ll wait-list the applicant. If your local congressman’s trouble-making kid with a B- average gets wait listed, that may say more about the parent’s relationship with the school than about his kid’s chances of getting in.

Does getting wait-listed mean I’m second best?

Although many wait-listed students feel they were judged to be “second best,” often that’s not the case. Janet Rapelye, Dean of Admissions at Princeton University, spoke for her own school and other top colleges when she said, “Every year we receive applications for thousands more qualified candidates than we accept.”

What happens to these qualified candidates who don’t get accepted? Many are placed on wait lists, while others are simply rejected.

As my regular readers know, many factors influence admission officers’ decisions about whom to accept. Academic and personal excellence are only two of them. Other factors may be as random as what musical instrument an applicant plays, what sport he or she excels at or what the student lists as his or her intended major.

If the college orchestra anticipates a bassoon shortage next year and you happen to be a good bassoonist, or if their Classics department needs more students and you’ve listed Latin as your intended major, this could be your lucky break. (That’s assuming you measure up to the school’s academic standards.) The distinctions between accepted, wait-listed and rejected students often reflect nothing more than the particular needs of that college in a given season.

What are my chances of getting off the wait list?

Statistically speaking, your chances of getting off the wait list aren’t good. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, a student’s chance of being accepted from a wait list is about one-in-five. But the national average includes many different kinds of colleges. If you’re on the list of a highly selective school, your chances might be slimmer.

Most colleges won’t release information about their wait lists, but a few do. Last year, Princeton University offered places on its wait list to 1,237 students and ended up accepting just 18 of them to the class of 2020. Johns Hopkins offered the wait-list option to 2,387 and accepted 112. The hyper-competitive Stanford University wait listed 1,739 students and only accepted 55.

Even some smaller schools, where chances might seem better, have daunting numbers. Williams, which enrolled just 553 freshmen last year, offered space on its list to a whopping 2343 students but only accepted 24 of them. Amherst enrolled a freshman class of 471, offered the wait list to 1269 hopefuls, and ended up accepting a meager three.

With numbers this daunting, it’s no surprise many students skip the wait list and commit to a school where they’ve already been admitted. If you like that school reasonably well, this may be your best strategy. It will save you the stress of more waiting, and allow you to bond with your future school and move on with your life.

What if I really, really love the school where I’m wait-listed?

If you’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with a school where you’ve been wait-listed—and especially if you feel lukewarm about the ones where you’ve been accepted—you may be temped to push ahead with your wait list dreams.

But you should assess your chances. Wait list numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t distinguish between those legacy applicants who’ve been wait-listed by a college to avoid alienating their parents and very desirable applicants whom admissions officers would love to admit—if only they can find the right slot.

Take an honest look at your profile and see where you fit on this spectrum. If your GPA and test scores are in the low range for the school and the rest of your application doesn’t reveal outstanding talents, your chances of making it off the list may be slim. But if your profile places you in the upper half of the school’s range and you’ve demonstrated unique abilities, you may have a good chance.

I’ve worked with students who’ve gotten themselves off the wait list, even at top schools like Harvard. So it’s possible. And there are ways to improve your chances.

What can I do to get off the wait list?

Here’s what you should do if you decide to stay on the list:

  1. When a college offers you a place on their wait list, you need to tell them “yes” or your name will be removed. Follow their instructions exactly, as soon as possible and well before May 1.
  2. Simply asking the college to keep you on their list is not enough. If you’re serious about the school, you should write a letter. Make sure that it’s a very good letter that explains why you and the college are the perfect fit. Try to make a great case.
  3. Sometimes there are other actions you can take to enhance your candidacy. But it’s important to proceed with caution. Talk with a college counselor first, to get their advice and assessment.

How does the timing work?

Here’s the college admission calendar for the spring:

Month of April: In April, if you’ve been wait-listed at one school but accepted elsewhere, you’ll have to juggle two situations. First, if you’ve decided you want to stay on a wait list, now is the time to inform that college and write your letter.

Second, the college where you’ve been accepted will invite you to campus for an “accepted students’ visit.” Even if you’ve already seen the campus, it’s smart to revisit. Take advantage of this chance to sit in on classes and schedule meetings with professors in your field of interest. You can also meet with folks in the financial aid office, if there are issues you want to discuss.

May 1: Most colleges require that you commit to enroll by the first of May. Usually, that’s also the date when you must pay a deposit to save your place. It’s important to save a place in the school where you’ve been admitted, or you may end up with no college at all. If you choose another college later, you’ll have to forfeit your deposit to the first school.

Month of May: Once colleges have received commitments from admitted students, they begin to figure out how many free spaces they have left (if they have any at all). This process usually starts on May 2 and can go on for weeks or even months, as the schools offer spaces—one-by-one—to students on the wait list.

When will they tell me if I’m in?

There’s no way to know when or if you’ll be notified. You might get good news on May 2 or it could be in late June, July or even August—if you get good news at all. Most schools do not have deadlines for admitting students from the wait list. You will just have to be patient.

If a school does offer you a spot, they’ll want you to make a commitment quickly. Don’t be surprised if they give you just 48 hours to decide and make a deposit. Many other people on the list want that space, if you aren’t ready to say yes.

What if I need financial aid?

Unfortunately, if you need financial aid, your chances of making it off the wait list at many colleges will be slimmer. That’s because most schools give out much of their financial aid during the first round of offers. Often admission from the wait list is reserved for students who can pay the full price.

The most notable exceptions to this are a handful of colleges like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which have gigantic endowments. These schools are committed to doing what it takes to bring star students to their schools, no matter what income bracket they come from. Other exceptions include up-and-coming schools trying hard to attract top students. They sometimes use merit aid to lure high-achieving students who are wavering about in decisions.

There’s no way to tell for sure whether your need for aid will affect your chances. If you love a school, you should go for it. Just don’t hold your breath.

The bottom line

To get a rough idea of your odds, try calling the admissions office of the college in question. They might tell you how many applicants have been invited to join the list, but it’s unlikely they’ll tell you much more.

Mostly you’ll need to rely on your own assessment of the numbers, as well as on your academic and economic profile, to gauge how likely it is you’ll get off the wait list. Then you’ll need to weigh those factors against the stress of the wait.

Now that you understand how the lists work, you’re in a better position to decide whether you want to sign on–and if so, how you plan to approach the process. Whatever you decide, remember that your commitment to getting a good education is more important than the school you attend.

For college admissions help, contact The College Strategist.

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About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.