Get Off The Waitlist And Into College In 12 Steps

Now that it’s April and most colleges have sent their regular decision notifications, many somewhat disappointed applicants are wondering what to do with the waitlist decisions from their top-ranked schools.

College waitlists are anything but an exact science. In fact, the waitlist system is even more opaque than the rest of college admissions. Different colleges use waitlists differently — some carry long lists and choose few candidates, whereas others have short waitlists and choose many. There’s no way to predict whether a school that waitlisted you will even have space to accept anyone off its list.

Even though there are many factors you cannot control, there are several steps you can take to maximize your chances of gaining admission to the dream school that waitlisted you. Follow these 12 guidelines, and you will increase your likelihood of success in getting off the waitlist and into your favorite college.

Part 1: What to Do As Soon As You’re Waitlisted

  1. Consider the colleges that admitted you. Choose a favorite college from among those that have admitted you. (If you have struck out altogether, then call your high school’s college counselor immediately.) Waitlists are not a sure thing, so it’s crucial that you already have a college offer locked in. If you don’t, then visit the front-runners of the schools that accepted you, in addition to the waitlist school that you love. If finances don’t allow you to travel, then call the schools that admitted you and politely ask if they offer funds to offset the costs of admitted-student visits. Gather the necessary facts, and when you get home, put down a deposit at your favorite of the schools that accepted you. That deposit will be non-refundable, so you must be prepared to eat the fee if you do gain admission at the school that waitlisted you.
  2. Make a decision, and move forward. Now that you are certain you will have a college to attend in the fall, you are ready to move forward with your Plan B. From this point on, it is crucial that you do everything yourself, rather than letting your parents take the lead. (If you are a parent reading this article, step aside and let your senior use this process to learn to self-advocate!)
  3. Talk to your high school’s college counselor. Ask if they will support you in your effort to get your favorite college to choose you for the waitlist. Tell them you will definitely attend that college if you are admitted anytime up to the start of the upcoming academic year (or even, if you’re willing, as a January first-year.) Discuss any academic or extracurricular achievements you have earned since submitting your application, or anything else you think the admissions committee might want to know. They will use this information, along with their impressions of your maturity, commitment, and attitude, when they speak on your behalf with the admissions officer at the college you want to attend.
  4. Write to the target college’s admissions office. If you can, call the target college or ask your college counselor for the name of the person who read your application Then write a polite email to that admissions officer or the office. Tell them that you are thankful for having been considered so strongly; that you are still very interested in attending the college; that you will definitely attend if admitted anytime up to and including the first day of classes (or as a January first-year, if applicable); and that you continue to believe that you are a perfect fit for the college for a variety of (specific) reasons. Add any new information, achievements, or other enhancements to your application, and close with a polite thank-you.
  5. Let your school’s college counselor know that you reached out to the target college’s admissions office. Provided that your head or principal is accessible and helpful, make an appointment to speak with them briefly. Tell them your plan and progress to date, and ask for their support. Bring a copy of your application and any subsequently-submitted materials, and go through the reasons why you think you would be a good fit for the college.

In other words, tell the head of your high school how to sell you to the college. He or she, too, can advocate for you.

Part 2: How to Follow Up (and How Not to)

  1. Don’t try to get in by pulling strings. Unless those strings are really ropes (say, your parents are billionaires), it won’t help — and it is likely to backfire.
  2. Remind your college counselor and head of school about once a month of your waitlist status. When you do this, be sure to inform them about any updates on your achievements.
  3. Send thank you notes to anyone who helps you. This may include your college counselor, head of school, and anyone at the college’s admissions office.
  4. Be persistent. Most people quit. Don’t.
  5. Prepare to fall short. Some colleges don’t need to take any names off their waitlists. Remember that there are far more qualified applicants than available spaces, and remind yourself that you already have a great college to attend.
  6. Be aware that things can change up to the start of the semester. Colleges do not like empty dorm rooms (or classroom spots), and they will try to fill available openings if they can.
  7. Maintain a positive attitude. Use this arduous process to learn how to advocate for yourself.

Good luck!

Another version of this article was published on on April 2, 2015. 

Related Reading:

What To Consider When Visiting Colleges

A Graduate’s Guide To Thriving At Harvard

Five College Fair Don’ts

College Transitions: Malaysia To Swarthmore

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