Students hearing from colleges they’ve applied to tend to have one of three big reactions: They’re elated when they receive a “yes.” They’re dejected when it’s “no.” Or they’re utterly confused when it’s a third, much less expected answer: a spot on the wait list.
Colleges increasingly use wait lists to make sure they have enough qualified students to fill all the available freshman seats. For them, it’s great. Call it a kind of zero-risk “maybe.” But for students? Not so much.
Will your child get off the wait list? How long will it take to find out? Schools aren’t always clear to students about these and other burning questions, says college admissions consultant Leslie Cohen.
Here’s what she suggests wait-listed students can do:
1. Find out your odds of being accepted off the wait list.
Some schools tell you what to expect in the wait-list letter they send, Cohen says. But some don’t, she adds—and the odds vary greatly by college. At highly selective Stanford University, for example, 1,256 students were offered a place on the wait list for the fall of 2016, 927 accepted a place on the wait list, and none were accepted from the wait list.
What’s particularly telling is that the number of students offered a spot on the wait list was nearly as large as the total number that enrolled in the entire freshman class. Other schools offer better odds. Take a look at this chart, showing the breakdown for the class entering in the fall of 2016:
Tip: You’ll find the wait-list statistics of many schools by going to the College Board website. Enter the name of the school in the search box, go to the school’s profile page, and click on Applying in the menu in the left column.
2. Read the details of the college’s wait-list policy.
Don’t just wait, Cohen says. Make sure you read all communications from the school closely to understand the “fine print” of being wait-listed at that school. In many cases, you’ll need to let the college know if you want to remain on the wait list. You may have to click a yes or no box. You may have to send a brief statement about your intent to remain on the wait list. And you may have to make your decision to be added to the wait list by a set date.
Tip: If the information about what to do next isn’t clear, contact the admissions office to find out what’s expected. Ask also how many students have been wait-listed for fall and when you might hear whether you’ve been accepted.
3. Ask the admissions office if there’s anything you can do to improve your chances of being accepted.
Can you write a letter, have another recommendation submitted on your behalf—or update your application with recent achievements, awards, or updated grades? Since most schools have low acceptance rates off the wait list, anything you can do to express your continued commitment to the school could be a deciding factor.
Tip: Don’t go overboard, Cohen says. Don’t send 20 letters of recommendation if they ask for one. Don’t call them every week. Don’t make them crazy. Also know that this should be a student-led effort; your parents shouldn’t be the ones communicating with a school about its wait list.
4. Re-evaluate your “accepted” options and decide which of those schools is the best fit for you.
Since most wait-list decisions are made after May 1st, National Candidates Reply Day, you’ll need to put down a deposit to reserve a spot at one of your accepted schools to make certain you have at least one sure thing for the fall. (You’ll need to do this even though you’ll lose your deposit if you’re later accepted at the wait-listed school and decide to attend there.)
Tip: To help make the decision, register for one or more “admitted” student events, connect with admitted students on social media, and take a closer look at academic offerings, Cohen says. The sooner you get into the mindset that you’ll be attending one of the schools that’s already accepted you, the better you’ll feel about it. You may find that what you thought was your second- or third-choice school is actually a better fit.
5. Be prepared to decide quickly if you’re accepted off the wait list.
You’ll likely receive an email or telephone call from an admissions officer who will ask if you’re still interested in attending and willing to accept a spot in the class. If it’s still your top choice, celebrate your acceptance. If not, respectfully decline the offer and move ahead with the school you’ve chosen.
Tip: While you’re waiting to hear, do some research and have a list of questions ready in case you get the call, Cohen suggests. Start with these: What housing options will you have? What kind of financial aid, if any, has been reserved for wait-listed students? (Students chosen from the wait list generally have more limited access to financial aid.)
6. Remember that this is your journey.
Don’t let the usually long odds of the wait-list lottery distract you from your ultimate goal: finding the best-fit college for you.