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High School

How to Maximize Your Student's Chance of Getting In Off the Waitlist

Shari Bender


My own son got in off the waitlist from an Ivy League school. I have advised numerous others in their undergraduate quest for admission from the waitlist. Many were unsuccessful, but the ones who did get in had certain things in common.

First and foremost, your child must answer the all-important question: To stay or not to stay on the waitlist?

Sitting around bemoaning their fate, or trying to figure out the elusive “why” they were put on the waitlist, is a normal initial reaction but can be frustrating and often depressing. Being on a waitlist can feel like a cruel fate. The waitlist offer from admissions makes your student feel like quality material — yet someone who was just “that” much better got in instead. The school wants them (so they say), but only if someone admissions has deemed more deserving declines a place.

Important note: In many if not most cases, the student is offered a spot on the waitlist and therefore must OPT IN TO (accept) the waitlist spot. Be sure to help your student follow the instructions if they do indeed want to be added to the waitlist!

After the disappointment of the waitlist has sunk in, it's time to help your child take inventory of whether or not they would like to keep their place on the waitlist. Help them with a pro/con list. Things to consider: Have they been accepted to their other top choices? Is this waitlisted school really worth waiting for, if it even comes at all?

Remember, once your child takes themselves off the waitlist, that is the end of the road. If they accept their spot on the waitlist, they can take themselves off at a later time if they change their mind.

Take Action

Once your child has decided to stay on the waitlist, they will likely need some guidance to answer the question “what now?” In order to maximize a student’s chances, they must take action. I prefer to think of the waitlist as an actionlist. Following are action items for your student to take in order to increase their chances of success.

1. Write an email

Write a short email of acceptance to the waitlist. The tone should be appreciative and positive, without an air of desperation. The email should indicate that, if the student is offered a place of admission, they will take it. If your student is wavering about that, they should revisit whether or not to stay on the list. The email should be specific to the University, without sweeping generalizations.

Bad email example is one that says “What XYZ University can do for me”:

Dear Admission Counselor,

This email is to accept my place on the waitlist. I have been wanting to attend XYZ University ever since 8th grade. I love everything about XYZ University and hope to attend in the Fall.

Better email example is one that says (a la JFK) “What I can do for XYZ University”:

Dear Admission Counselor,

This email is to accept my place on the waitlist. I am eager to use my peer training background to volunteer at XYZ University mental health initiatives. The Hotel School is the perfect fit for my passion for hospitality, and if offered a place of admission, I will take it without hesitation. Thank you for your additional consideration.

2. Send support materials

Your student should not waste anyone’s time with old news. The school is fully aware of everything on the Common App, has read their supplemental essays, is familiar with their extracurriculars and has read the recommendations. Is there an award your student won after applications were in? Did they join a new club, get a new job? Send an email (a week or two after the initial email) to highlight a new job or activity.

Examples of good support materials: Short and specific recommendations from coaches, employers and additional teachers or school personnel. Have your student talk to the individual and ask that the recommendation be tailored to the specific school. Provide a stamped, addressed envelope for the writer. A snail mail letter to admissions will make much more of an impression than an email. Snail mail takes more time, effort and energy — not something wasted on a mediocre candidate.

3. Keep up the energy

Senioritis is setting in. Your teens are tired and worn. But for those kids aiming to get off the waitlist, now is the time to step it up. Keep grades up, continue engagement in school and outside activities. Colleges will often ask for more up-to-date transcripts. If your child does not want to put in the extra effort, it may be time to revisit taking their name off the waitlist.

4. One or two follow-ups

Students should send short, targeted email follow-ups to demonstrate continued interest and to mention any additional (new) insight. These follow-ups should be done infrequently and only if relevant. A month after the initial email is a reasonable time to also ask when and how students are notified.

5. Get excited about their chosen school and let the college winds of fate blow

Encourage your student to be proud of their committed school. Buy a school shirt for your student. When and if your child gets the news (for my son it was a phone call) that they are off the waitlist, rejoice! Remember, though, it is also a time of adjustment that may need a little extra TLC along with their “Change of Plans” Instagram post to announce the new school.

Playing the waitlist game can be very stressful. Cautious optimism and a targeted, realistic approach will help support your child no matter the outcome.

Good luck!

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of nearly 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.

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