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The Year of the Wait List in College Admissions

Original post made by Elizabeth LaScala on Apr 18, 2011

A reader asks:

My daughter was accepted at a number of good colleges, but she was wait-listed at her top choice. We've heard that being on a wait-list is like playing a game which has gone into overtime; you can't win if you don't play. But my husband and I think she should just move on with her college plans and not bother playing this game. Since she wants to give it her best shot, what is your advice?

~Wait Listed in Lafayette

The offer to be on the Wait List for college admission means that you were on the competitive margins of that school's applicant pool. The offer acknowledges that you are qualified to attend the college and that you certainly deserve consideration, but for one reason or another you did not quite make it in the door. By offering you a place on the Wait List, the committee is recognizing the fact that the college may not get the enrollment it needs from the first round of acceptances and may be able to offer you admission later in the process.

Information about the Wait List is hard to come by because it is a sensitive subject. Colleges tend to be discrete about the extent they rely on lists for enrollment. A college's move to use its Wait List is direct evidence that offers of admission are being declined. Since colleges are essentially businesses, they compete with one another and they strive for efficiency. Colleges do not like to advertise the fact that they too experience rejection and when they do, they want to fill their empty seats as quickly as possible. For these reasons they tend to call or email candidates one at a time with an offer of admission until they receive the required number of commitments. A college does not want to extend an offer to dozens of candidates, and wind up with more students accepting than can be accommodated at the school.

Now that you understand the Wait List option a bit better, there are some things you can do to give yourself a competitive edge.

1. Make sure the school knows it is your first choice. Write a brief and clear letter confirming your interest. Visit the college. Send an updated transcript. Provide evidence of recent accomplishments that might not have appeared on your initial application.

2. Stay in touch with the staff member who recruits in your area. Make sure that person knows you are available and ready to accept an offer of admission. Continue to show your interest without being an annoyance. Avoid gimmicks. As a general rule, they tend not to go over well in admissions offices.

3. Be sure to provide evidence of your potential "hooks." Colleges re-define their needs as they go to the Wait List. For example, a goalkeeper may have declined an offer of admission and now the women's soccer team needs a backup keeper. Or the school may have acquired several saxophonists and now needs a tuba player.

4. Be aware that your need of financial assistance could well be a determining factor. Movement from Wait Lists if often limited to students who do not need financial aid. Be sure to take this into account and update the school if your need for assistance changes.

5. Many Wait List offers will come after May 1st, the national deadline for submitting enrollment deposits. If such a call comes, you need to be prepared to decide quickly (often in 24 to 48 hours) whether you want to forfeit an earlier enrollment at another school in order to take advantage of the acceptance from the Wait List.

6. Stay on track with your priorities. That means being certain to deposit at a school you are willing to attend. If the Wait List offer doesn't come, you need to be ready to happily embrace your other option.

Finally, while parents may be key members of the college planning and admission team, it is best for the student to be his or her own advocate when seeking admission from the wait list. Mom or Dad should not be the ones communicating with the admissions office. And, of course, notwithstanding financial considerations, the final decision should be the student's to make, since it is the student who must attend the college for the next four years.

Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admission advisor. Her goal is to help freshman applicants as well as transfer students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or elizabeth@doingcollege.com.

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