I'm on a college wait list, what should I do?

You're correct in thinking that colleges placed a lot of applicants on wait lists this year. Here are actionable points to consider. Keep in mind that most colleges do not "rank" their wait lists. If space becomes available, colleges will consider admitting students who are interested in them.

Be thoughtful about pursuing admission to a college that placed you on the wait list. Think about if it's worth the effort. Many students who talk to me about wait list options weren't seriously interested in College X until the college teased them a wait list offer. The college is suddenly appealing because it's playing hard to get. In most cases, the student has been admitted to five or more colleges, but the other college lose their glow in light of the one that seems almost within grasp.

The fact is, this process has gone on for a long time and has dominated your entire senior year. It may be that the healthiest thing to do is to declare the process over. One course of action is to select a college you've been admitted to, tell all your friends that you've committed, join the newly formed Facebook group and meet other kids who are going to that college.

If you've decided that what I just said is crazy talk and you do decide to stay on wait list, I recommend being above board and ethical in the entire admissions process, particularly when communicating with colleges about your interest in the wait list.

Once you have heard from all of the colleges on your list, choose one college you’ll attend from among those that have accepted you. You should weigh this decision carefully. When you have chosen a college from among your acceptances, you need to reserve your place at the college by the May 1 reply date. Remember that you can only reserve a spot at ONE college. After May 1 colleges that do not hear from you in the affirmative will give your spot to someone on the wait list, so understand that you must reserve a spot by May 1. You should not expect to hear back about wait list offers until after May 1. If you're admitted to a college from the wait list, you will lose the deposit you put in at the college you selected on May 1.

Independent of deciding where to deposit on May 1, you need to decide whether you would rather attend the college that waitlisted you IF you were offered an acceptance. If you believe that you would, you should remain on the waitlist, following the steps outlined below.

NOTE: As a courtesy, you should notify colleges that fall lower on your list that you will not be attending. That will allow those colleges to get a handle on enrollment earlier rather than later and possibly offer that spot to someone on the wait list.
As soon as possible, respond to the college’s wait list offer. Follow up with a letter to the college in which you:
    1. Affirm your interest in attending the college.
    2. Respectfully express your disappointment at not being accepted;
    3. Make clear your appreciation that the admissions committee extended you a place on the wait list;
    4. State why you think the college is the right place for you;
    5. Say what you think you can contribute to the college community, i.e., it’s life, activities, etc.;
    6. If you can say so honestly, point out that you are continuing to work hard in the second semester, if your third quarter grades were better than your first semester grades, tell them so; be specific;
    7. Share details of anything new in your life— think about spring activities, whether you are working on something in the arts, whatever you may already have lined up for this summer, etc. If you have won any special recognition since applying;
    8. Declare that if accepted, you will come (remember, however, that you cannot ethically make such a promise to more than one college);
    9. Thank the college in advance for giving you serious consideration in the event that they are able to use their wait list.
  1. Determine with your counselor whether you should ask another teacher to write a recommendation for you, i.e., someone who has not previously written. If another teacher does write for you, the letter should be mailed aound April 15.
  2. Determine with your counselor whether a teacher who has already written for you might write again, reaffirming his or her support for you. Again, the letter should be mailed close to April 15.
  3. Discuss with your counselor the possibility of having someone who knows you and has a relationship with the college, e.g., an alumnus of the institution, write on your behalf. Once again—to be mailed by April 15.
  4. Note that all of the steps up to this point are meant to support your candidacy. There is nothing wrong with presenting several pieces of support. In a way, this is a new admission season—a new chance to convince them that you are THE ONE. Remember that your application was mailed in November or January and there might be additional information that you would like the college to know about you as they finalize their first year class.
  5. You may want to explore whether the college has alternative kinds of admission plans—one popular one is called January admit (meaning that you would sit out the first semester). Let the college know if you're willing to enter mid year.
  6. Keep in mind that the most important thing you can do at this point is present the college with attractive academic credentials. SO...
  8. While you may pursue wait list options at multiple colleges, do not tell more than one college at a time that it is your “first” choice. (“First choice” preference may change. Please discuss this with your college counselor.
  9. Do not be obnoxious. Be thoughtful about every contact you have with the college. Pestering the college with unnecessary contact ("I'm just checking in") is a bad idea.

  1. Ascertain as soon as possible (early May) whether the college will be using its waitlist and when you can expect to hear what your status is
  2. Promote your cause in writing and/or by telephone, calling the college's attention especially to improvements (if any) in your academic performance.
  3. You must keep your counselor informed of your entire admissions picture so that he or she can best support you.
Offers of admission to waitlisted students are sometimes made by phone, sometimes by mail, sometime by e-mail. The college will expect a quick decision if you’re moved from the waitlist; they want to move quickly to fill the space.

As you digest all the information that you will receive in the next few weeks, be sure to stay in close contact with your college counselor. This process can extend beyond your high school graduation until one of these three things happen:

  1. You get in
  2. You decide that you're no longer interested
  3. The college notifies you that the wait list is closed.


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