Admissions Waitlist: Helping Your Student Cope with Limbo

Editor’s note: This post was updated in March 2017

The college application process is a stressful time for both students and their parents: making the list, college visits, narrowing down the choices, SAT or ACT exams, applications, essays, recommendations, and then – finally – your child may find that they have been put on the wait list for their first choice college. They have officially entered the limbo in which more and more students (perhaps as high as 10% of applicants) find themselves.  Your student is not in – but they haven’t exactly been rejected either.  It is rather like trying to fly standby – you don’t have a seat on the plane yet, but there is a chance that you might get one.

It is discouraging, but all may not be lost.  There are some things that your “almost” college student should – and should not – do.

What is a wait list and how does it work?

First of all, understand the nature of a wait list.  Being placed on a wait list is not a rejection.  The college has said that your student is qualified for admission, but that the college does not currently have a space for them.

The wait list is a pool of qualified students from which the college will draw if accepted applicants choose to go somewhere else. Some students may actually be overqualified, and the school is waiting to see whether they are accepted and choose to attend a more selective school.  The college doesn’t want to waste a spot in their accepted student pool on someone they assume will probably attend another college.  Other students may be slightly underqualified and are given a “courtesy” place on the waitlist as a softer form of rejection.  This may be especially true of students who are related to alumni or wealthy donors.

But most students on the waitlist are fully qualified to attend the school.  The waitlist becomes a safety net for the college if their “yield” (number of accepted students who make a deposit) is low.  As students today apply to more and more colleges, the yield may become more unpredictable.

If more accepted students than expected (based on previous experience) choose to deposit, the college will be scrambling for additional housing and seats in classes.  If fewer accepted students than expected choose to deposit, the college will move to its waitlist to fill additional places in the upcoming class.  There is a fine art to finding the balance.

In the meantime, your student is sitting on the bench waiting for an opportunity to play, but isn’t in the game yet.

There is a trend in higher education today for more and longer wait lists.  And some statistics indicate that only approximately 30% of students who are placed on a waiting list will eventually be accepted to the college.

Did your student apply to more than one college? (Many students today are applying to seven or more schools.)  Were they accepted at more than one college?  Probably.  So were many other students.  Many who were accepted to a college will choose another institution.  That may open up a space for your student.  Many students who have been placed on the wait list will choose to go somewhere else and ask to be removed from the list.  That may also increase the odds that your student will receive the call.

How do we find out my student’s place on the wait list?

The answer to this question is that your student probably cannot find out their place because the list isn’t ranked.  Most schools’ waitlists are a non-prioritized list of qualified candidates. This means that if there is an opening for a student and the admissions office goes to the waitlist, staff will re-review the entire pool to find the best applicant.

A student may find themselves on a waitlist not because they are better or worse than an accepted student, but because the college has attempted to build a well-rounded class and fulfill certain needs or gaps in the student body.  Admissions offices take great care to ensure that they do not admit an entire class of athletes but no musicians, or a class of outstanding potential science majors but no business majors.  When the opening occurs, the admission staff will review their current deposited students and evaluate remaining needs.  Perhaps your student will be the lucky French horn player that the orchestra needs, or perhaps they will be the star basketball player in a year when the team is overfull.

At this point in the process, there is a lot of luck involved.

The stress of the application process is extended if your student is placed on a wait list for their favorite college.  But what, if anything, should they do? This is, after all, a wait list.  Should they just sit and wait?  Possibly, but probably not.

Understand the reality of the situation

Although there are some things that your student can do to increase their chances of moving off a waitlist, the unfortunate reality is that it may not happen.  In 2012, approximately 25.4% of students were accepted off of waitlists.  At very selective schools, the percentage was significantly lower.

Your student can view the college’s waitlist conversion acceptance rate (students accepted from the waitlist) by visiting www.collegeboard.org. (On the home page, go to College Search and type in the school, then click on the college name, then on the left hand side click on Applying.  If the college has provided information, your student can see the number of students accepted from the waitlist.)  However, this may be only of limited help to your student.  Remember, there is a lot of luck involved.

Ask some important questions.

The questions that your student needs to ask first are not of the college, but rather of themselves.  Your student should reevaluate their interest in the school for which they have been waitlisted.  Why is that college their first choice?  Is it really better than a school to which they have been accepted?  Being waitlisted may give your student time to think carefully about why they were drawn to the school.  With more time to consider, your student may decide that they are very happy with a school to which they were accepted and will choose to withdraw their name from the wait list. It may be time for your student to love their second choice school.

Move ahead with the process at a school to which your student was accepted.

Even if your student decides to remain on the wait list for one (or more) college, they should proceed with the acceptance process at another school.  Go ahead and make the deposit.  Although it is non-refundable, it will guarantee your student a spot in the incoming class.  They should complete all required forms, begin to visualize being at the school.  Complete registration and/or orientation.  Once your student has begun to identify with the school to which they have been accepted that may also affect their decision about remaining on the wait list.  More importantly, if your student is not accepted from the waitlist, they will have a spot somewhere ready for them in the fall.

Let the school know that they are still interested.

When the school needs to move to its wait list to begin accepting students, the admissions staff will be looking for students who have demonstrated interest in attending.  Your student should send a letter of enthusiasm to let them know that they are still interested in the institution and that they will attend if accepted. They might mention again why this is their first choice of college.  Being specific about their reasons is often helpful. A phone call or letter is appropriate.  It may be the factor that moves your student’s application to the top of the stack, or helps the admissions counselor remember their name when their application does come up.

Send any new information that may be helpful.

If there is new information available now that was not available at the time of application, your student should send it.  Are senior year final grades available?  Has your child received awards or scholarships or special recognitions?  Have they participated in a special event or program?  The more information that the admissions counselors have, the more informed their decision may be.

Maintain balance and patience. 

Waiting is not an easy thing to do, but sometimes, once your student has expressed interest and provided new information, it is the only thing to do.  It will not help your student’s cause to pursue an admissions counselor, send gifts, make daily phone calls, or ask for multiple additional interviews. In fact, these tactics may actually hurt their chances of being considered. Your student needs to be willing and able to wait – perhaps well past the May 1 deposit deadline – into the summer, all the while moving ahead with another school.

Remember that the school has already told your student that they are qualified.  Your student has expressed continued interest and possibly provided additional information.  Now is the time for them to move on.

What can you do?

It is difficult to feel helpless, but there may be little that you can do as a parent at this point except help your student understand the nature of waitlists and the odds of being accepted.  Help them understand that this is not a rejection because they are not worthy, but rather the college attempting to form a well-rounded student body.  Help your student decide how to move forward to ensure that they have a place somewhere in the fall.  Support your student in their choice and help them work toward making the most of their college experience – wherever they wind up.

Your student may receive the phone call or letter to let them know that they have been removed from the wait list and been admitted, or they may not.  They need to be prepared to move ahead in either case.  Once the stressful decision time is over, chances are that they will settle in and thrive wherever they wind up.

Related Posts:

Deferred? Waitlisted? Help Your Student Take Action

Students May Be Accepted to College, But for Spring Admission

Should My Student Consider Taking a Gap Year Before Starting College?

Should My Student Consider Deferring Enrollment for College?

College Acceptance – Or Rejection – Letters: Ten Ways Parents Can Help Students Cope


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