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What Do I Do if I’m on a College Waitlist? Steps you can take to make the best of that stressful time

You put a lot of time into researching universities. You poured all of your energy into those college applications. Then you find out that your top choice put you on its waitlist.

What now?

Deep breaths; everything’s fine.

You were not rejected! That’s something to be proud of. Plus, you’re not alone.

Almost half of the colleges out there report using waitlists in their admissions processes. According to the most recent NACAC State of College Admission report, most institutions reported placing about 10 percent of applicants onto their waitlists for Fall 2018 admission. Only about half of those students choose to stay on the list, and most schools reported admitting about 20 percent of those who waited it out (more selective institutions admit only about 7 percent). Still, these acceptance numbers have been steadily increasing over the years. Just between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018, the number of those accepted off of the waitlist increased by 18 percent.

But enough of those numbers.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a popular type of talk therapy, teaches us that our thoughts determine our feelings, which consequently directs our behavior. Our attitudes about being wait-listed, and therefore our actions, can be easily spun into a positive experience. Through a little motivation and self-accountability, there’s a good chance that the time you spend on your top college’s waitlist will benefit you in the long run.

Let’s begin with why you might be put on a waitlist.

Colleges use waitlists as a way to control the admission process so that they can maximize the number of students who enroll. Private colleges and more selective universities lean heavier on their waitlists than other schools. The lower the acceptance rate, the higher the chance of getting wait-listed.

With the continually record-breaking number of applicants they receive each year, colleges want to make sure you want to be there. You can get wait-listed even if you meet all of the college’s admission requirements. In addition to keeping enrollment numbers in check, colleges can put you on the waitlist for the following reasons:

  • If another applicant from your high school is admitted for something like athletics or another institutional priority
  • If you don’t meet admission requirements, but you come from a school/area where the college rarely receives applicants
  • If the college is “need aware” (meaning, they consider applicants’ ability to pay), and you require a lot of financial aid that they don’t have the funds for
  • If you meet all requirements but with lower test scores
  • If you apply to the college as a “safety school” (your last choice), and you don’t really show interest in enrolling
  • If the overall applicant pool is deep and highly competitive

Frustratingly, most colleges don’t alert you of being accepted from the waitlist until after May 1 (some will let you know earlier or even as late as August), and there’s no telling whether you’ll actually get admitted. This is why getting wait-listed by one of your top college choices can be stressful.

So, what do you do?

First thing’s first.

Decide how important this college is to you. You’ll need to let the college know whether or not you’re interested in waiting things out by or before May 1 (some schools have their own specific deadline).

Typically, the letter that notifies you of being wait-listed comes with a response form to send back. If you’re really interested in going to this college, then stay on that waitlist. You’ll want to note your intentions on that form, and specify just how important acceptance at that school is to you. If it’s your goal college and you would 100 percent accept their admission offer, include that in this form/response.

Otherwise, tell the college that they can cross your name off, and send in your enrollment deposit elsewhere.

If the stress of the unknown is too overwhelming, you may be better off going with your second choice. Starting college as a new student is stressful on its own without the uncertainty of whether you’re getting in. The goal college that wait-listed you will still be around if you want to reapply and transfer later on down the road.

Before you say yes to staying on the list, find out whether being on that college’s waitlist comes with any stipulations. When you enroll later than your peers, you may have fewer options to choose from for things like housing and financial aid. This could alter the way you feel about hanging on to that waitlist.

You’ll also want to consider whether that goal school is a long shot or not. We often apply to prestigious universities as “dream school” options. If that is the college that wait-listed you, remember that there’s less of a chance of getting into a highly selective institution. Additionally, think about your personal academic abilities and if you’ll be able to keep your head above water at that ivy league/prestigious college. Accepting admission at a less-competitive school might be less stressful and more realistic in the long run.

Ok, you want to stay on that waitlist.. Now what?

Have a backup plan.

Even if the odds are in your favor, you’ll want to be prepared for the chance that you don’t get accepted. This will help ease the stress of those unknowns.

To avoid being left without any options, plan to enroll at your top-choice school among the other colleges that accepted you. Simply fill out the paperwork and send in the deposit by its enrollment deadline. This way, you can guarantee that you will be a college freshman by the fall.

On the chance that you get off of the waitlist and choose to enroll in that school, you won’t be able to get that other enrollment deposit back. Keep this in mind if you’re working with a tight budget.

Be responsible and proactive.

Being on a waitlist does not mean you should just bide your time. You can do a number of things to improve your chances of getting accepted and to support your long-term goals. Talk to your guidance/college counselor about developing a plan of action.

You should communicate clearly that you really want to go to this school. Call or email the college’s admissions office, and ask about how its waitlist works. 

  • Do they want wait-listed students to come visit campus?
  • How often does the school dip into its waitlist?
  • What is the size of the waitlist pool?
  • Is there a ranking among wait-listed students?
  • Is there a priority list?
  • What is the percentage of students the school typically accepts off of the waitlist?

The answers to each of these questions differ depending on the year and college/university. Some ivy league schools and other prestigious private colleges won’t accept any students on their waitlists.

You can also ask if there is any additional information you should send in to help your chances.

Consider writing a “letter of interest” to your admissions rep and the dean of admission. Highlight any additional information that could enhance your file, like achievements or experiences that are related to your program/goals. In this letter, explain why you’re motivated to go to this school without showing any frustration or negativity. You’ll also want to state whether you’re 100 percent on board to enroll upon acceptance, but only if you mean it. If you know details like what classes you’d like to take and/or professors you want to work with, include them. You can send the letter via email or on the college’s waitlist response form. If the college requests that you don’t send additional information, listen to that.

Some colleges will encourage you to send brief update emails, as well. If you experience any positive life changes, awards, etc., you can let the school know what you’re up to. This can include an updated resume and/or an improved GPA.

Otherwise, avoid sending in more recommendation letters or having anyone call on your behalf, because college admissions staff don’t take kindly to bombardment. Unless, of course, the college states that it’s open to receiving more recommendations.

Just be sure to check the college’s admissions website about whether or not they want any additional correspondence from waitlistees. Nevertheless, keep your updates/correspondence to a minimum to avoid annoying the admissions office.

Finally, you should check into whether you can get an interview (or a second) with the college. This will create a relationship between you and a contact at the school, who can then keep an eye on your waitlist status. With or without an interview, make an effort to stay in contact with the college’s admissions office or dean. This is more commonly accomplished via email. Unless they explicitly warn against this kind of communication, some schools will award preference to wait-listed applicants who show their interest by keeping in touch.

Continue working hard in high school. The college that wait-listed you may reevaluate your academic abilities based on your second-semester grades. Work with a tutor to get closer to that 4.0 GPA.

In a similar way, the college may look at how you finish the year off with any sports, clubs, etc. that you’ve been involved in. So, don’t be a quitter!

Finally, retaking the SAT and/or ACT can also improve your chances of getting accepted. Even if you’re comfortable with your previous attempts, it only helps your case to raise those scores.

Still, there are alternatives.

If you’re comfortable with delaying your start to college, your backup plan can be a summer job, internship, community service position, etc. In this case, aim for a skill-building experience and/or something that relates to your long-term career goals. It’s never too early to build up your resume.

Sarah McCawley, RN, BSN, made the most of her time spent on the waitlist for the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s School of Nursing. Instead of sitting still, she chose to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA). While it’s not a requirement or a common certification among new nursing students, that CNA made her stand out. It put her ahead of others, who chose to use their time on the waitlist for travel.

“I ended up getting off the waitlist; yes, it actually happens,” said McCawley. Her particular experience was stressful in that, after she finally enrolled, she had only a few days to complete what the other students had months to get done. “But it all worked out in the end,” she said. “Don’t let yourself get discouraged if you get wait-listed.”

On the other hand, saving money may be the goal. In that case, focus on getting a decent-paying summer job (preferably one that will add value to your resume).

Another affordable alternative is starting your journey to a degree with one or more classes at a local community college. The core curriculum at a university (required lower-level courses) and other prerequisite courses (classes you need to take prior to higher-level courses) can be completed at most community colleges. By knocking out some of these classes at a lower tuition rate, you’ll be able to save money and transfer those credits once you gain admission elsewhere. Also, this will give you the opportunity to earn a good college GPA. That way, you can reapply to that goal school with the added bonus of showing how well you can perform at the college level.

As is the case with most life experiences, your college career (and time spent on the waitlist) will be what you make it. So, go into these big decisions with an open mind and drive for a prosperous future. College can be incredibly fun and rewarding when you go into it with a positive attitude!

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