How to Handle a College Waiting List

April 4, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

"Jennifer" applied to seven colleges this year. A good student, with several honors and Advanced Placement courses, A and B grades, and SATs in the 1200s, she was involved in many activities, and showed a lot of leadership and initiative throughout her high school and community life. Choosing to stretch for admission to some competitive colleges this year, she focused most of her attention on her "dream schools", while applying to a balanced list of moderate reach, target, and probable schools overall. In April, Jennifer finds herself in an increasingly common position among her peers: rejected from her stretch schools, she has been put on several colleges' waiting lists, those in the moderate reach group, and admitted to several schools in her target and safety groups.

A reflection of selective colleges' increasing focus on an applicant's "demonstrated interest" in the institution during the admission process, as well as the growing number of real applicants and the number of applications each files, the trend toward more and larger waiting lists continues unabated this year. A student may be placed on a waiting list because she did not express a lot of interest in a university for which she is clearly qualified, and thus the college deems it unlikely she will enroll if admitted. That affects the college's "yield" statistic — the percentage of admitted applicants actually matriculating. A student may also be wait-listed because he is a late bloomer, and the college wants to see additional grades from the student through senior spring. Many public universities, like Michigan and Wisconsin, are also deferring applicants during the regular, rolling admission process, which in its own way is a form of an early waiting list. These schools may also maintain a formal waiting list through the summer. Hindsight may be 20/20, but students must move forward in April given the choices they have in hand, and pursue waiting list admissions if they remain interested in those colleges that have determined that they are qualified, but not in the first cut. Here is some advice and explanation for seniors handling one or more waiting lists:

  1. 1. Being put on the Waiting List (WL) is not the same as being rejected by a college. If the admissions committee thought you were unqualified and had no chance of being admitted, they would turn you down outright.
  2. 2. A WL offer indicates genuine and serious interest in you, since you have been designated as fully qualified for admission. The problem you and the college face is the combination of a limited number of available spaces and too many qualified candidates.
  3. 3. Colleges guess at their typical yield each year. If a smaller percentage of admitted applicants than usual commits to a place then the admissions committee will accept some applicants from the WL. If the yield is on target, or higher than expected, WL candidates will not be accepted.

Q. How do I know where I stand on the WL?
A. Colleges do not rank the order in which applicants appear on the WL. They will review only those students who indicated a desire to remain on the WL. Many will decide to enroll elsewhere, thus taking themselves out of the competition for a space.

Q. How do colleges decide whom to admit from the WL?
A. The admissions staff will look for signals of serious interest on the part of the student. They will want to offer admission only to those who are most likely to accept their invitation. They will also take into account the composition of the entering class based on those who have been accepted and add to its academic, geographic, ethnic, extracurricular, and gender mix accordingly.

Q. How do I indicate my serious desire to attend and what else can I do to help my cause?
A. Return a WL card you may have received from the college expressing your desire to remain on the WL. Then write a letter to the Dean or Director of Admission in early April indicating your commitment. Give some specific reasons for remaining interested in the college, such as particular programs of study, or extracurricular activities that you excel in and will want to continue. Offer to come to campus for a personal interview, or to speak on the phone, to explain your interest and your qualifications directly.

Q. What else will help my cause?
A. Have your school counselor send your most recent set of grades (and teacher comments where available) to the admissions office if they reflect a strong performance. An active counselor will not hesitate to telephone the admission officer responsible for your high school. Also send new teacher, coach, or instructor recommendations if you have excelled in that individual's course, sport, or activity since submitting your application.

Q. What do I do about the other colleges that have accepted me?
A. You must hold a place for yourself at your favorite college among those that have admitted you outright, prior to the May 1 common reply date. Failure to do so will result in a loss of that offer of admission.

Q. When will I know if I will be accepted from the WL and what do I do about the college that I notified of my acceptance?
A. After May 1, the admissions staff will know if it has met its target of enrolled students. If this is the case, it will notify WL candidates that the admissions process is over. If, by contrast, the staff wants to offer a number of acceptances it will notify students immediately by letter, telephone, fax, or e-mail. All colleges understand that a student may now rescind his/her earlier commitment in order to attend his/her first choice WL college. The only penalty is the loss of the enrollment deposit. It is possible for a college to maintain an active WL through the spring and summer, in order to ensure meeting its enrollment targets. It is legitimate to remain on that college's WL as long as you like if it is truly your first choice. Make a full and enthusiastic commitment to the college that you are most likely to attend in the coming Fall.

Q. Are there other opportunities for admission?
A. Sometimes colleges offer creative ways to enter the school other than a standard fall admission offer. Be prepared for acceptances for the following spring or fall, acceptances to divisions of the university to which you did not apply, or requests that you go somewhere else for a year and take certain courses with a B average, prior to a guaranteed transfer. Be aware that you do not need to accept either a standard or creative offer from a WL college. Often students who have committed to another college in April revisit the school, talk with students and staff there, plan their course schedule for the next year, and decide that they are happy with their choice.