What To Do If You’re Wait-listed for College

What do do if you're wait-listed for collegeWere you wait-listed at one of your top-choice colleges? Depending on your perspective, you can interpret that as either good or bad news. On the one hand, it’s more encouraging than getting rejected. On the other, being wait-listed prolongs the stress. It also makes it hard to take your other options seriously. Here’s what to do if you’re wait-listed for college.

How you handle the situation should be based on several factors: how appealing you find your alternatives, how badly you really want to attend that top-choice school, and what role financial aid will play in your decision. It’s also important to know yourself and to gauge how much uncertainty you can stand this late in the game.

A student’s chance of getting accepted off a wait list is about one in five, according to research by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. But that’s a national average that includes many different kinds of colleges. If you’re on the wait list at one of the most selective schools, your chances may be slimmer.

Checking out the data

Although most colleges won’t release information about their wait lists, a few provide numbers.  Last year, according to the College Board, Princeton University offered places on its waiting list to 1,138 students. They ended up accepting just 41 of them. Stanford offered its wait list to 958 students and ultimately accepted seven. Despite filling a smaller freshman class than Stanford, Johns Hopkins offered the wait list to 1,876 and just accepted one.  Most dispiriting of all was Dartmouth. It offered to put 1,855 students on its wait list but in the end wasn’t able to admit any of them.

Given these statistics, it’s no wonder many argue it’s best to cut your losses in April and make the best of the offers you’ve received by then. There’s an old saying, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This approach has a lot to recommend it. If you already have an offer from a school you like, it may make more sense to embrace what you have than to chase after dreams that might never materialize. The sooner you make an emotional commitment to one college, the sooner you’ll be able to move on with your life and enjoy the rest of senior year.

 What if your heart’s set on a school?

That said, I’ve worked with students who have made it off the wait list and gained admission to their dream schools. It’s not easy but, in many cases, it’s possible. Students who manage it experience a great sense of satisfaction. If you’re really in love with the school where you’ve been wait-listed, and you can tolerate living with a question mark for weeks, or possibly months, you should go for it.

If you decide to do this, you’ll need to take immediate action. Sitting around and crossing your fingers will not get you off a wait list. Now is the time to write a letter asserting your deep commitment to this particular college.  And it shouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill letter; it should be a wonderful one!

Sometimes you can take other actions, too, to enhance your candidacy. But it’s important to proceed with caution. Talk with a college counselor first, to get their advice and assessment of the situation.

 Don’t forget your Plan B

At the same time you’re angling for your top-choice school, don’t neglect the colleges that have already accepted you. Be sure to re-visit them during April, to find out if your first impressions stand up to scrutiny. If you don’t hear back from your top-choice school during April, you’re going to have to choose one of the colleges where you were offered admission.

Most colleges require a deposit by May first to hold a place in the freshman class. So you’ll need to be prepared to put down that deposit at your second-choice school. If you get off the wait list of your favorite college during May—or over the summer—you can certainly shift your commitment. You will, however, lose your deposit if you decide not to matriculate at your second-choice school after all.

 It can be a tough decision

For students who are ambivalent about being wait-listed, it’s time to do some soul searching. Ask yourself whether you might be just as happy at the school or schools you’ve already been accepted to. If you’ve been offered admission to another excellent college that’s within your family’s price range, this may truly be your best option.

When evaluating whether to stay on a wait list or not, you’ll want to consider your odds. Try calling the school in question to ask how many students have been invited to join the list. Although you can also ask about your place on the list, chances are they won’t be able to answer that one. Most colleges don’t create one list with numbered rankings. Instead, they pluck students from the list to fill various categories as openings occur.

 Financial considerations

Unfortunately, financial considerations sometimes determine which students make it off the wait list and which ones don’t. That’s because many schools give out most of their financial aid during the first round of offers. Admission from the wait list is often given to students who can pay full price or close to it.

The notable exceptions to this rule include a handful of elite colleges with huge endowments, colleges that are committed to doing what it takes to bring star students to their schools, no matter what income bracket those students come from. But spots at those schools are few and far between. Applicants who will need generous financial aid to attend college should be more skeptical than most about their chances after April first.

With some exceptions, it is less likely that you’ll be offered a good financial aid package at a school where you’ve been admitted off the wait list than at a school that has accepted you earlier in the process.

If a college offers you admission from the wait list, be prepared to make a fast decision. You might receive a phone call from an admissions officer any time in May, June or even July, asking for your decision within twenty-four hours. Make sure you’re ready for that decision. Do your homework well ahead of time. If possible, visit the school once again during April to test your perceptions. Then think long and hard. Making it off the wait list to win a place at your favorite college can be a wonderful victory. Just be sure you’re ready to accept the triumph, should it come your way.

For more information 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.