Guidelines for Understanding and Navigating the College Waiting List Process

May 3, 2013

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Are you one of the many students (or the parent of one of them) who has been placed on one or more college waiting lists recently? Here is some advice we share with our clients about how to handle the increasing number of waiting list situations.

(1) Being put on the Waiting List (WL) is not the same thing as rejection from a college. If the admissions committee wants to reject a student because he/she is unqualified, or there is no chance of his/her being admitted in the competition, they will typically turn the student down outright.

(2) An offer to remain on the WL usually indicates a student is considered qualified for admission. The problem is the combination of a limited number of available spaces and too many qualified candidates. Sometimes, students are put on WLs for polite or “political” reasons, including protecting the college’s reputation with a particular high school or showing sensitivity to an alumni legacy or otherwise connected applicant. Other times, a college is waiting to see how a student’s academic performance continues to develop through senior year. Or, the college may be unsure about how interested a student is in enrolling, and is waiting to see how the student responds to a WL offer.

(3) Each college will guess at its traditional yield factor (i.e. the percentage of applicants offered admission who will accept the offer). If a smaller percentage than usual commits to a place then the admissions committee will turn to its WL to accept more applicants. If the yield is on target, or higher than expected, then WL candidates will not be accepted.

(4) More colleges have been using WLs, and longer WLs, to manage historically high application pools and a greater degree of uncertainty in the admissions process. Institutions will use a large and broadly diverse WL in order to fill particular gaps in their first-year class.

Q. How do I know where I stand on the WL? Admissions staff usually do not rank the order in which applicants initially are placed on the WL. They will, however, prioritize their review to those students who indicated a clear desire to remain on the WL and a strong interest in the college. Many students will decline a WL offer, thus taking themselves out of the competition for a space. Once a decision is made to go to the WL, many colleges will ask admissions officers to prioritize their list of WL candidates they would like to see admitted. It is unlikely that you will be able to find out exactly where you stand on a WL, though sometimes school counselors can learn of strong or weak chances for your admission.

Q. How do colleges decide whom to admit from the WL? 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 made an enrollment deposit and add to its mix accordingly. They also look for continued strong academic performance by WL candidates.

Q. How do I indicate my serious desire to attend and what else can I do to help my cause? Write a letter/email to the Dean/Director of Admission as soon as possible (by the middle of April) indicating your commitment. Give some specific reasons for wishing to do so, e.g. 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 by phone or Skype) to explain your interest and your qualifications directly (though colleges rarely take students up on this). Follow any specific instructions a college provides for responding to its WL offer. During the first week of May, email to indicate continued strong interest in the WL college(s), update them again, and see if there are any developments on the WL. Ask your college counselor to contact the college(s) again during the first or second week of May. Choosing one WL college and making it clear to your counselor and that school that you will enroll if admitted can be helpful. You can follow up with a phone call during the middle of the month to see if there is any news or a sense of when, if any, WL candidates will be offered admission.

Q. What else will help my cause? Have your school counselor send your most recent set of grades (and teacher comments where available) to the admissions director if they reflect strong performance. An active counselor will not hesitate to telephone the admission officer responsible for your high school (preferably near the end of April). Also consider sending new teacher or coach/advisor recommendations if you have excelled in that individual’s course, sport, or other major activity since submitting your application. This is the strategic point in time to ask a very active alum or friend of the college to call or write on your behalf if you know such a person.

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

Q. Are there other opportunities for admission? Colleges are increasingly offering creative ways to enroll students they are interested in, beyond standard Fall entrance. Be prepared for acceptances for the following Spring or Fall term, offers of admission to divisions of the university to which you didn’t apply, suggestions about international study options, or requests that you attend another college for a year, earn a B average, and then apply to your WL college as a guaranteed transfer admit. You don’t need to accept either a standard or creative offer from a WL college, but we encourage you to be open-minded about these opportunities.

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? After the May 1 Candidate Reply Date 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, typically by phone or email. All colleges abide by this reply date process and thus understand that a student may now rescind his/her earlier commitment in order to attend his/her first choice college. The only penalty is the loss of the enrollment deposit. It is possible for a college to maintain an active WL through the entire Spring term and into the 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. Most often, we find that students who have committed to a college in April revisit the school, talk with students and staff there, begin to plan their course schedule and residential life options, and decide they are quite happy with their choice.

© Howard Greene and Associates