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What (and What Not) to Do If You’re on the Wait List

We are thrilled to welcome Patrick Meade as an Advisor and addition to the College Scoops team! Patrick will share his insights, guidance, and expertise in the college admissions area with the College Scoops community. Every Friday Patrick will post an article discussing topics related to admissions, college visits, prepping for college, essay tips, and more. If you have any questions, shoot him an email at Patrick@collegesoops.com.


What (and What Not) to Do If You’re on the Wait List

By Patrick Meade

After months—and sometimes years—of hard work and anticipation, the nation’s high school seniors are finally starting to hear back from colleges. The majority of schools aim for a decision release date “on or around April 1,” with many rushing to release earlier to give admitted students as much time to mull their options as possible. Millions of students are waiting by the mailbox (or refreshing their inboxes) to collect the news, but sometimes all they receive is an invitation to wait some more.  

It’s easy to accept when you’ve been accepted! Even a rejection letter—though disappointing—provides closure and allows students to move on. In my experience, the most difficult decision to receive is no-decision at all: The Waitlist.  

Hitting an enrollment target is tricky business. Colleges are limited by the number of beds on campus and seats in classrooms—admitting too many students can cause massive headaches for the housing and registrar offices. At the same time, even a single-year enrollment shortfall creates budgetary problems that can plague a school for years. The waitlist is an insurance policy against either of these scenarios, allowing schools to make a conservative guess in the first round of decisions and then fill in any gaps after the May 1 deposit deadline.

There has been increased attention paid to the waitlist in recent years, with the national media using dating metaphors to explain the dynamic. Back in 2013, the New York Times wrote: “hopeful students are trying to express their interest without coming off like a stalker, while colleges are trying to figure out if students are courting other institutions on the side” and the phenomenon has only grown as applications balloon and enrollment behavior becomes harder to predict.  

I can assure you that college admissions officers don’t relish the opportunity to keep you waiting. It is simply a reality of the increasingly complicated college search process. Although it can sometimes feel worse than an outright rejection, being placed on the waitlist is an indication that you are exactly the kind of student the school would be proud to have on their campus…if space allows. Below are some tips for how to approach life on the waitlist:

  • Take a Breath: Even though being waitlisted can hurt, take a minute to be proud of the schools that did accept you on the first round. It can be tempting to dwell, but there are so many factors at play in the admissions process and these decisions are a reflection on the landscape and the specific needs of the college—not you personally.
  • Assess Your Options: Look at all the decisions you received—admissions, rejections, and waitlists. Are there any schools you’ve been admitted to that you’d be thrilled to attend? There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting your admissions journey end on April 1, making a deposit depositing at a different school and getting ready for the next chapter in your life!

If, however, you’d love the chance for further consideration there are certain next steps to do and mistakes to avoid:

  • Follow Instructions: Colleges will be very clear in their communication, but it’s easy to get distracted or miss a deadline in the flurry of mailbox activity. If you are interested in remaining on the waitlist, be sure to follow the proper procedures. Schools will usually ask that you accept or decline the opportunity. If they don’t hear from you at all they’ll assume you’ve moved on to greener quadrangles so confirm your spot if you want further consideration.
  • Stay in Touch: This is the most important part of the process. Colleges and universities use the waitlist to fill in the gaps in their admitted class, but they try to do so while keeping their acceptance rates as low as possible. The easiest way to do that is to admit the students that are most likely to deposit, so schools keep track of who’s stayed on their radar and offer any available spots to enthusiastic correspondents first. Again, be sure to follow instructions—schools have developed clear procedures for the best way to stay on their radar:
    • A Letter of Continued Interest: In addition to formally agreeing to remain on the waitlist, the best way to make it clear that you are serious is to draft a well-written letter explaining why you’re sticking around. Specifics are your friend—use this letter as an opportunity to explain exactly what drew you to the institution in the first place and what exactly you’d take advantage of on-campus if you were admitted. This is not the time for vague platitudes or cheap flattery—references to a school’s “prestige,” “reputation,” or ranking on the US News and World Report will not help tilt the scales. Be honest and make it clear that you understand what the school is all about and why you prioritize it over all other institutions.
    • Talk to Your High School: High school counselors and admissions officers often keep surprisingly open channels of communication. Be sure your high school advisors and guidance counselors know about your intention to stay on the waitlist. That way they can arrange to have updated grades and other academic records sent as they become available.
    • Relevant Updates: You’re on the waitlist in part because you impressed the admissions committee with your academic performance and extracurricular resume. If there are any updates—your debate team qualifies for nationals, your article on bacteriophages was accepted for publication, you were named MVP of the lacrosse season—send them along. Admissions committees can attach your correspondence to your file and the mere fact of being in touch suggests your continued interest is genuine.

Advice for college students

  • Keep Calm: It is crucial not to go overboard when expressing your continued interest and enthusiasm—admissions officers are focused on crafting the most dynamic class possible for their institutions and any concerns about your character can jeopardize your chances. Things to avoid include:
    • Aggressive Tone: Be sure to keep all emails and phone calls upbeat and professional. Don’t demand to know why you weren’t admitted or express incredulity that someone else was admitted over you.
    • Overdoing It: It may be tempting to email the admissions committee with every tiny update, but more does not equate with better. Keep your updates thoughtful and limited to major topics that truly indicate why you’d be a great addition to campus.
    • Surprise Visits: If you happen to be returning to campus for a second look, you are welcome to let the admissions office know but don’t demand to speak with a committee member or surprise them at a recruitment event.
    • Parental Interference: A major red flag is when a parent is the one expressing enthusiasm and continued interest—make sure all correspondence comes directly from the applicant.
    • Gate Crashing: Never show up at an admitted student event masquerading as an accepted student without being invited. Universities take that very seriously and will not be impressed by your ability to “blend in.”
  • Carry On: An even more surefire way to jeopardize your chances? A slip in grades. It is crucial that you continue to maintain the academic standards that were clear in your application. If your grades slip in your senior spring, you not only won’t be admitted off the waitlist—the institutions that did admit you may even rescind their academic decision. Don’t fall apart at the finish line!
  • Move Along: While going through all the waitlist steps, the most important step of all is to find an alternative school that you can be excited about and emotionally commit to. There is absolutely no guarantee that a school will even use their waitlist—there are many years where, no matter how conservative they thought they were being, a school manages to over-enroll. If you happen to get the call that a spot has opened-up you can reevaluate, but until then it’s your job to get excited about the school you chose and approach the next chapter with a sense of possibility!

Given the cyclical nature of the academic calendar, every spring brings a mixture of excitement and disappointment to a college campus. Some of the best phone calls of my career involved calling students to let them know they’ve been accepted off the waitlist. Many of those calls ended with cheers and a deposit check, but I also loved when a student politely but firmly declined our offer, let us know that they had moved along and that we should too. Admissions officers and applicants alike should always remember the point behind the process—the application is just the beginning. Regardless of where you end up, that institution is poised to welcome you in the fall and see what amazing things you can accomplish.  


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