Don’t Simply Wait out the Waitlist: A Pre-Collegiette's Guide to College Waitlists

It’s officially spring, so no doubt you suffered through anxiously checking your mailboxes—both electronic and regular—for that acceptance letter. Pop culture has taught you that a big packet from the college of your dreams means you’re in while a crisp, small envelope cues that it’s time for pizza, tissues and sad movies. But what about the other kind of letter: the “we-like-you-but-we’re-full” letter ? Opening thatenvelope to see “You’ve been waitlisted” prompts mixed feelings. Choosing between enrolling in a different school and hoping that a spot becomes available is a stressful position. Well, it’s time, my conflicted pre-collegiettes, to decipher when it’s worth the wait and to discover how to improve your shot of finally receiving that big envelope.    

What “Waitlisted” Means  

So you’ve received this ambiguous decision, but what exactly does “waitlisted” indicate about your admission status? “Colleges have limited space available for new students,” says Todd Johnson, author of BS/MD Programs-The Complete Guide: Getting into Medical School from High School. “Colleges will often find that they have more good candidates than they can accept,” he explains, “so, they take those students that they want but are just not as strong as the strongest candidates and put them on a wait list.”

If accepted candidates turn down the offer, colleges look to the waitlist to fill this void.

Some colleges rank this list. “One way is to rank students by academic achievements,  while other colleges choose certain types of students from the list,” clarifies Johnson. This largely relates to extra-curricular activities, so schools can expand their own campus groups. 

But Johnson notes that some schools accept more than they actually hope to admit, assuming some students will turn down the offer. If too few students turn down admission, the waitlist contenders are left, well, waiting.  

Don’t Feel Insulted 

After reading through your consideration letter, don’t take it personally and remind yourself that it isn’t a 'no'. “The waitlist is not a rejection,” emphasizes Pam Proctor, author of The College Hook: Packaging Yourself to Win the College Admissions Game and an independent college consultant with Aristotle Circle, “it means they love you but didn't have enough room for you.”  

When a spot opens up, admissions may re-evaluate your submission. For this reason, it’s important to maintain high grades and other activities, so stay focused during your last few months of high school. If you’ve been accepted to other schools, focus on that excitement and “use it as a positive way to build your confidence rather than to detract from it,” stresses Proctor.  

When It’s Worth Waiting 

Now that you understand the process behind the waitlist, it’s important to know that “there are no guarantees that [you] will get off the wait list,” cautions Johnson. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, a low 33% of students on waitlists in 2009 were admitted. With chances like this, deciding whether or not it’s worth holding a spot on the waitlist can be challenging. Choosing the school that's the best fit for you concerns “not only academic and social factors, but also a regard for financial aid,” advises Johnson. If you love everything about the school but are facing a significantly higher debt than at a school you were accepted into, you may want to re-consider your spot on the waitlist. 

Regardless, Candace J. Boeninger, Interim Director at Ohio University, proposes, “If a student is interested in a particular university, it is usually harmless to opt in to the wait list.” Proctor enthusiasticallyagrees, urging “it’s always worth it to work the waitlist.” Although the process may be harmless, it could be heart-breaking, cautions Rachel Kossman, an Admissions Fellow at Northeastern University. When applying for college, Rachel was waitlisted at Syracuse. Instead of considering this as a 'maybe', she simply considered it a no. “Unless the school you've been waitlisted at is your top dream school, or you don't feel like you have a lot of other acceptances and options, save yourself the anxiety and frustration and pull yourself off the waitlist,” she advocates.  

What to Do While You Wait 

Looming angst aside, if you’re certain that this is the school for you, it’s best to take action. Refuse the all-eggs-in-one-basket mentality and put down a deposit at another school as a back up. “Most schools don't even take a look at their waiting list until after May 1st,” says Rachel, so you don’t want to miss the deadline for a different school and end up without an alternate.  

That said, not going to college directly after high school doesn’t have to turn into a year in your parent’s basement bingeing on Dorito's and Sabrina the Teenage Witch re-runs. For students who hope to mature further before committing to college or are contemplating exploring other options time off can be positive, says Johnson.  

Conversely, Proctor animatedly warns against taking time off unless you have “something extraordinary”  instead. Rather, she advises attending another school that did accept you and acing your grades there. That school may in fact “turn out to be a terrific fit and you may be extremely happy,” she proposes. However, if you still believe your top choice was meant to be, you can use your stellar grades to try to transfer.