What is the wait list?
After months of waiting for a “yes” or “no” from a college, some students get a “maybe” in the form of being offered a place on a wait list. Being placed on a wait list is a college’s way of saying that you effectively were good enough to be admitted, but there just wasn’t enough room for everyone who was qualified. If too few of the admitted students decide to enroll, the college will go to the wait list and offer a limited number of those students a spot in the class.
It’s not an easy circumstance as you’re left wondering whether or not you’ll eventually be accepted, and you’re generally not notified of your status until after the May 1st notification deadline has forced you to place a deposit at another school.
Improving your odds
If you are sincerely interested in attending a college that has waitlisted you, the best way to improve your odds is to make contact with an admission officer and express your desire to attend. Let them know how much you’d like to be on their campus. But there is a fine line between enthusiastically pursuing a place off the wait list and being a pest to the admission officer.
Below, we’ve provided you with ten Collegewise tips on how to walk that wait list tightrope.
1. Read the letter carefully to determine what you have to do to accept a place on the wait list.
Schools will give you specific instructions about what to do if you wish to be placed on the wait list. Follow those instructions exactly. No exceptions.
2. Call the admission office. This phone call should always be made by the student, and never by the parent.
Waitlisted students need to show that they, not their parents or anybody else, are sincerely interested in attending this college. That’s why this call absolutely must be placed by the student, not the parent. When you call the admission office, you will probably get a receptionist. Tell this person your name, where you are from (for example, Southern California) and ask if you could speak with someone who would be familiar with your application. The receptionist will likely offer to have someone call you back. This usually happens because an admission officer will want to have a chance to review your file before speaking with you.
When you receive your return phone call, it’s important to be respectful. Thank the officer for returning your call and tell her that you received your notice that you had been placed on the wait list. Explain that you intend on accepting the offer to be placed on the wait list, and that you were just calling to find out if there might be anything specific you could address that would improve your chances of admission.
Since admission officers will rarely tell you something specific that kept you from being admitted, the purpose of this phone call is primarily to show the admission officer your level of maturity and your sincere interest in attending the school.
If you already know the name of the person who covers your high school or the area you’re from, you should obviously look to contact them directly. Your high school counselor might also be able to offer you this person’s name.
***One VERY IMPORTANT note: you can skip this step with larger public schools like the University of California or the University of Michigan. It’s not that they don’t want to speak with students, they simply don’t have time. Also, if you don’t get a call back after leaving a message, don’t take it personally. Even at some smaller schools, the admissions officers are simply too busy to return calls from waitlisted students in the month of April.***
3. At the end of the call, ask the person if it would be OK to send him/her an update on your academics and activities.
Verify the spelling of the person’s name before you get off the phone. If you’re comfortable, ask for their email address as well. Depending on the instructions given to you regarding the wait list, the school may have already asked for this.
4. Ask your guidance counselor to call the admission office
Explain to your counselor that you are sincerely interested in attending a college that waitlisted you, and you would like to know if he or she would mind calling the admission office to see if there’s anything you can do to improve your chances of being taken off the wait list. Admission officers will sometimes be more forthcoming with guidance counselors about the reasons a student was not outright admitted, and whether there’s any chance of you being taken off the list.
5. Meet with your guidance counselor to compare your findings.
After both you and your guidance counselor have spoken with the admission office, you should meet to compare your findings. Again, it’s not likely that you have uncovered anything specific, but it’s certainly worth trying if you sincerely want to attend this college.
6. Write a letter to the person with whom you spoke. The letter should be broken into three basic parts.
We’ve provided a sample letter at the end of this document that details what to mention in each of the three basic parts of the letter. It is absolutely essential that you do this if you want to have any chance of being taking off the wait list. Many admission officers we’ve spoken to have told us that they are instructed to only pull kids off the wait list who have made the effort to express their interest in the school. They don’t want to pull kids off the wait list who aren’t really interested.
7. Be thoughtful about submitting additional material.
Some students want to send copies of awards, poems, videotapes, graded papers, etc. But this is usually a mistake. Admission officers don’t want to sift through lots of extra material. The fact that you were waitlisted and not outright denied means the college is convinced about you already. If you have a senior year teacher who has wonderful things to say about you that any recommendations you submitted previously didn’t (and it should be big news, like the fact that you won a department physics award), then that might merit some consideration. (This should be sent in the same envelope as your letter we mentioned in #6) Otherwise, don’t send in any additional materials.
8. Do not allow the May 1st deadline to pass without placing a deposit and accepting a space at another college.
To make sure you have a college to attend in the fall, you must accept an offer of admission from one of the colleges that accepted you by May 1st. The fact that you are awaiting notice of your status on a wait list in no way requires other colleges to extend their own deadlines. If you accept a place at another school and later withdraw because you come off the wait list, you will forfeit your deposit (usually a couple hundred dollars). But if you don’t accept a place at another school, you run a considerable risk of not having any college to attend.
9. After May 1st passes, make contact one more time with your admission officer.
On May 8th or 9th, make contact one last time by phone or email with your admission officer at the school that waitlisted you. Just reiterate your interest in the school and encourage them to contact you if they need any additional information beyond what you submitted earlier. If you communicate with the same person with whom you spoke before, be sure to thank them for taking so much time to help you.
10. If you are eventually admitted, call your admission contact to express your thanks.
Very few people ever take the time to do this.
When can you expect to hear from the college about your wait list status?
Colleges continue to count enrollment deposits through the first week of May. If they sense they’re going to fall short of the target for freshman enrollment, that’s when they turn to the wait list. If they reach their target or exceed it, they simply don’t turn to the wait list. This is why in any given year, you’ll hear of a school accepting anywhere from 0 to 200 students off the wait list. There’s simply no way to know your chances until early May. NONE.
The earliest students typically will be informed that they’ve been taken off the wait list will be around May 8th. However, some schools will even wait until early June so they can review final senior grades as part of their decision-making process. We’ve even heard of students being removed from a wait list as late as early August. This means your senior year continues to count!
A few final wait list thoughts from Collegewise
It’s not easy for a high school student to face the uncertainty of a wait list. We know that any student who follows these tips is inevitably holding out hope that the college will eventually give them a “Yes.”
But while you’re following these tips, the very best thing a waitlisted student can do is to start falling in love with one of your other colleges that said yes. Decide now where you’ll go if it comes to that. Visit the school again. Buy a sweatshirt. Put down a deposit and start imagining yourself there. You’ll feel much more positive and encouraged focusing on a great school that admitted you rather than lamenting the indecision of one who told you “maybe.”
And if you’re not ultimately removed from the wait list, remember that lots of other smart, interesting kids had the same outcome, and some of them will likely be arriving next fall at whatever college is lucky enough to get you. Fewer kids get off waiting lists than stay on, yet the vast majority of college freshmen report that they are happy with their college experience. Whether you come off the list or not, you’re going to go to college with a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds and all you have to do is learn and have fun for four years. It might not feel like it now, but you’re going to be OK.
Director of College Counseling
Collegewise of Millburn