You've Been Put on the Wait List for College. Now What?

If you don't get in but you don't get rejected, there's more to do than just wait it out.

By + More

Nobody likes being strung along. But if you're one of the roughly 10 percent of college applicants today who find themselves on a waiting list—the basic equivalent of purgatory when it comes to admissions—that's pretty much what it feels like. "Students on the waiting list anguish over whether or not they have a chance at being admitted," says Cheryl Brown, director of undergraduate admissions at Binghamton University in New York.

If you're being wait-listed by a college or university high on your list, the uncertainty is even worse. But the situation is not entirely out of your hands. Two years ago, we took a look at what strategies savvy students could use to turn that confounding "maybe" into a solid "yes."

[Read How to Get Off the Wait List and Into College]

Today, things are pretty messy in the high-stakes college admissions landscape. More students are applying to more colleges to maximize their chances of securing a spot. In turn, colleges are accepting—and rejecting—more applicants. And because it is becoming so hard to predict which students will attend, experts say that admissions officers are building large wait list pools as insurance. Most campuses at the Universities of California, for example, are using waiting lists for the first time this year. "Wait lists are longer and more unpredictable this year than ever before," says Marjorie Jacobs, director of college counseling at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. "The wait list is now the defining endgame in college admissions."

If the wait list is indeed the endgame, then you should be able to make some game-changing moves if you're placed on one. Here are some things to keep in mind:

First and foremost—and this might sound like a no-brainer—but return the card or fill out the online form to indicate your interest in staying on the wait list. Many colleges want an answer on your decision by mid-April, says Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Richmond. And think about whether you really want to attend that school. You shouldn't stay on the list if there is any doubt about whether you would enroll there, because if and when the time comes, you might only have a few hours to confirm. If you say "yes" to the waitlist and you subsequently turn down an offer, you could effectively be taking somebody else's spot. "Think of it in the same terms as an early decision commitment," says Jonathan Webster, associate dean of admissions at Washington and Lee University. "Don't say you'll enroll if admitted unless you will." And if you do decide to stay on the list, send your deposit and make plans to enroll at another institution in the event that you are not admitted from the wait list.

It might be tempting, but don't call to get the skinny on why you were put on the wait list. "It's kind of like asking someone, 'Why do you prefer an apple over a banana?'" says Eric Staab, dean of admission at Kalamazoo College. "There are many variables that come into play when admissions officers make their decision, and rarely will they tell you it's because of X, Y or Z that you didn't get admitted."

If you have new academic information or special accomplishments to boast about—strong third quarter grades, new standardized testing results, a track team win—let the college know. If you don't have new official grades yet, you can contact your teachers and ask that they provide you with a midterm update, says Richmond's Tessier. Also, some counselors say you can send one—and only one—additional letter of recommendation from a teacher, coach, or administrator who can speak to exactly who you are right now, and why you are a good fit for the school.

Crafting a well-written letter to the admissions committee that expresses your commitment to the school, as well as an academic reason for wanting to attend, could also tip the scales in your favor. In the letter, relay in one short paragraph why the school is a good fit for you, whether it's an academic program or an extra-curricular activity, and how you would contribute to the campus community. "Selective schools look for that person on the wait list who will fill that 'empty' space on their grid—a boy majoring in art or a girl who is going to do journalism," says educational consultant Annalee Nissenholtz.

college admissions