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What to Do If Your Student Is Waitlisted

Kimberly Yavorski

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You and your student have survived the application process and the results are trickling in. Maybe there is an acceptance or two, but they are still waiting to hear from “The One.”

Then the unimaginable happens. The answer arrives, but is neither yes nor no. Your child has been offered a place on the waitlist.

When I began the process as a parent, I expected it all to be easy. An “A” student with a challenging course load and an active extracurricular life should be accepted just about everywhere, right? While this was true back in the 1980s, it’s no longer the case.

While a majority of U.S. colleges admit most students who apply, for a number of reasons the admissions process at many other schools is getting more competitive. This includes elite schools whose application numbers are expanded by their spot in the rankings, and state universities admitting more out-of-state students in order to boost revenue (leaving fewer spots for in-state students).

It doesn't help that in order to beat the odds, many students have increased the number of schools they apply to (15–20 isn’t uncommon). When acceptances come in, some students are offered admission at several schools, and those spots are held until they inform colleges that they are going elsewhere (or until Decision Day — May 1 — whichever comes first). Others are left waiting to see if they get even one offer of admission.

In recent years, increasing numbers of students have been waitlisted at one or more selective schools, with some fearing that they won’t have a college to attend in the fall. Some larger elite universities have waitlists in the thousands; most of these ultimately accept only a small fraction of that number — or even zero.

How do students end up on the wait list?

Students can be waitlisted for a number of reasons. The simplest answer is that there are simply too many qualified applicants.

Admissions staffs have difficult decisions to make and sometimes the criteria seem arbitrary. There are many considerations when assembling a new freshman class. While these vary by school, sometimes it is a desire to have a balanced class. Things such as intended major, gender, extra-curricular interests and geographical area all may play a factor. Interviews, stellar essays and personal connections can also play a role. It is impossible to say with certainty what, if anything, an applicant could have done differently.

Heather Mende, Assistant Director of Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University, says, “We see many more highly qualified applicants than we can admit.” At Carnegie Mellon, freshmen are accepted directly into their chosen program, so there are limited spots. Students are put on the waitlist “because we see that they do have strong potential to be successful, but we just cannot select them all. We look for fit. Students here are evaluated holistically, whether they are admitted regular decision or off the waitlist."

Here are the steps your high school senior should take if they are offered the waitlist at one or more schools they would like to attend.

1. Be sure to RSVP!

Unlike many other waitlists in life, being offered a spot does not guarantee one is actually added to the list. A student needs to accept a university’s invitation to be put on the waitlist. If they do not respond by a certain date, it is perceived as a “no, thank you” and they will no longer be considered for admission for the incoming class.

Students need to make sure to carefully follow any instructions provided and these will differ by college. The method of responding can vary from checking a box online to sending back a postcard or letter. According to Mende, even at the same school, “communications can change from year to year.” At Carnegie Mellon, “We communicate with them with what we would like them to do. We ask them to complete a form to be active on the waitlist.” She also stresses that students need to be active in checking their email so they don’t miss crucial instructions or deadlines.

2. Get all the information.

Check the school’s website for further instructions or information about the waitlist. Most schools offer basic information about the waitlist process or like UC Berkeley, even a video to instruct students on their next steps. Call or email the admissions counselor who is your contact at the college to ask if submitting more information or scheduling an interview would be beneficial. Be sure to mention any new awards or recognitions or improvements to the GPA. Remember to keep in touch with your high school counsellors, too. In some cases, they may have contacts and be able to get info you can’t.

“At Carnegie Mellon,” Mende says, “we do not recommend submitting additional material or to visit campus. This will not help.  We may ask for a statement of interest, but don’t do this unless it is requested.”

Some schools, such as Berkeley, routinely offer the option to add an essay to your application. Others may welcome an additional letter of recommendation or updated transcripts. In some cases, a visit or other personal contact may help. If your only contact with the school has been the Common App, you might not be seen as being genuinely interested and therefore less likely to be offered a spot in the first round. (That being said, colleges recognize that travel can be a hardship; other personal contacts such as phone calls, emails or meetings off campus also effectively indicate interest.)

Ask about financial aid options.

At some schools, the financial aid pot is split up “first come first served.” Merit aid may not be an option for those accepted off the wait list. How soon after an acceptance does the school offer an aid package? Is the school affordable without it?

Ask about housing options.

If on-campus housing is not guaranteed for all incoming students, how fast does it fill up and what are the other options? If off-campus housing is the only option, how much are the rents? Does the college have relationships with area landlords or help match roommates?

Keep in touch, within reason.

Contact admissions and let them know you are still interested. If this is your first choice, make sure they know it. Some schools welcome periodic emails to check in and ask questions. Keep in mind that they don’t enjoy this process any more than you do. Mendes recognizes that the process is stressful. “This is not completely in our control. We have to wait. Patience is certainly important,” she says, adding that “Parents are welcome to bring questions, but there are some things students must do themselves.”

On the other hand, don’t keep calling and emailing or send more information if the college has indicated they don’t want it. Initiate conversations only if you have something of substance to add to your application.

While you’re waiting…

If practical, visit the school.

Especially if you haven’t done this already. Even if you are unable to meet with admissions staff, you can get a better sense of whether the school really is a good fit. Unlike those accepted under regular admissions, waitlist acceptances don’t have the luxury of weeks to plan visits and compare schools before making a final decision and by the time you hear back, admitted student programs will likely have passed. If you are visiting for the first time and find you don’t love the school (or even if you have and discover you’ve changed your mind), you can remove your name from the waitlist.

Try to determine your odds.

Look at FAQs to find answers to questions like: How many students are on the waitlist? Is the list ranked? How many students were accepted off the waitlist in prior years? (Note this is just a guideline; Mendes points out that these numbers can vary greatly, in her experience at Carnegie Mellon, from a handful to 40.)

Try not to get your hopes up; many schools in recent years have been unable to accept any students off the waitlist. To see the most recent waitlist statistics, click here.

Choose — and get excited about — another college.

There is no way to determine when or if that waitlist status will become an acceptance or if any necessary resources will still be available (such as financial aid and housing). In most cases, students aren’t accepted off the waitlist until after the May 1 deadline. This may mean making a deposit at another school that you will lose. Keep in mind that sometimes the waitlist can carry over to second semester and transferring midyear also may be an option.

Attending admitted student visits at the schools that offered you admission is a good way to fall in love with one of the places that are very eager to welcome you to campus in the fall. Dig deep into these other options and prepare to accept an offer.

If you really aren't enthusiastic about any of your choices, consider a gap year. Think about productive ways to spend a year (or even a semester). What experiences would add to your resumé and make you a more attractive candidate next year? Consider whether the odds of transferring from a community college may be better than reapplying without significant experiences over the year.

Spend time thinking about your answer if you are offered a spot. Make the decision so you will be ready when you get the email/letter/call. Colleges want to fill their classes, so you may have to commit right away. Some schools are still accepting students of the waitlist in the week or so before semester starts.

If accepted, be sure to notify the school you chose so that they can open up a spot as well. Besides being the polite thing to do, as you have learned, letting a college know you decided to go elsewhere is important to those who are waiting for that acceptance letter themselves.

Don't miss:
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How to Decide? Making the Final College Choice
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Kimberly Yavorski is a freelancer and mom of four who writes frequently on the topics of parenting, education, social issues, travel and the outdoors. Her work has been published in Grown & Flown, Your Teen, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Her View From Home, Pacific Standard, The Progressive, Racked, and Reader’s Digest.
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