Surveys of admissions officers show that fewer than 30 percent of the students who agree to stay on a college's wait list are eventually accepted. At many elite schools, the chances are even slimmer. In recent years, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has accepted anywhere between none and 40 students from its wait list of several hundred.
But admissions officers say there are a few steps students can take to ease the anxiety and improve their chances:
• Choose among the colleges you have been accepted to, and send a deposit and commitment by the May 1 deadline. At the very least, you should arrange to enroll in a local community college. Admissions officers say the single most important action for all wait-listed students is to be realistic about the low acceptance rates for those on the wait list and make sure they have some other college alternative lined up.
• Don't automatically ask to stay on a college's wait list. Colleges typically ask wait-listed students to mail a card or letter stating their continued interest in getting a shot at admission in May, June, or even later. "If they are happy with their other choices, please don't say, 'Yes' to the wait list," says Eric Kaplan, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. "They could effectively be taking somebody else's spot."
• Ask the school about your chances. Some schools rank their wait-listed students: Lower-ranked students have lower odds of getting accepted. But many schools don't rank. They instead look to the wait list to replace the kind of student they had been counting on with a similar student—such as someone to fill a spot in an orchestra, a team, or a major. This system makes any individual student's chances much harder to predict.
• Ask the school about criteria for getting on, and off, the list. Emory University in Atlanta says that the students on its wait-list are typically those with academic credentials matching those of students who were admitted but who didn't demonstrate any special interest in or affection for Emory by, for example, visiting the campus or attending a local recruiting session.
• Be eager and creative, but not scary or desperate. There's a fine line between admirable persistence and stalking. Most admissions officers say students can help their causes by obeying the school's instructions and perhaps sending one well-written letter updating their achievements and explaining why they still should be admitted. Creative stunts can sometimes help. Jean Jordan, dean of admissions at Emory, remembers admitting a student who rewrote the words of the school song to argue her cause. But Jordan's pretty tired of getting mailed shoes from students who "want to get their foot in the door" and is a little leery of any gift of food. "Don't come down here and make a big plea; and hounding us can be superdestructive," she adds.