Use 6 Tips to Get Off College Wait Lists

Make sure the school knows it is your first choice.

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The word on the street is that college wait lists are huge this year. But what does that mean? Are colleges rejecting more students, albeit more gently, by way of the wait list—or are we seeing the emergence of new enrollment strategies?

Experience would suggest that is it much more the latter than the former. In recent years, admissions officers have found that they can improve institutional yield and selectivity rates by reducing the number of talented but low yielding students admitted through the regular decision process and taking more high yielding (and talented) students from the wait list.

Think about it. The anticipated return on admissions offers in the regular decision process is relatively low given the fact that those students are likely to have compelling offers from other schools as well. It's not uncommon for a selective institution to admit four or five regular decision candidates in order to enroll one.

[Follow 10 steps to picking the right college.]

However, admissions officers can be much more targeted as they select students from the wait list. Rather than sending hundreds of offers in anticipation that the right number will respond in the affirmative, they contact wait-listed students one at a time until they have received the right number of commitments to meet their enrollment goals. Operating this way, admissions officers can manage the yield on wait-list offers at a much more desirable rate of about 75 percent.

Such tactics are becoming commonplace. In the spring of 2010, a "most highly selective" institution admitted more than 200 students from its wait list. That happened despite early assurances from its admissions officers that its enrollment picture was strong and, at most, it might admit a few "political" cases from the wait list. The truth is that by engaging in such heavy wait-list activity, the institution was able to address internal needs while substantially burnishing its admissions profile.

That being the case—and despite institutional rhetoric to the contrary—you can expect to see considerable movement of students from wait lists in the coming weeks. Far from a polite denial, the offer of wait-list status now looms with much greater promise—if you elect to remain active on that list.

The wait list is to the admissions process as what "overtime" is to athletic event. In either case, your chances of success correlate directly to your determined engagement. Finding success as a wait-listed student at the school of your choice means you need to:

1. Make sure the school knows it is your first choice: Write a letter confirming your interest. Visit—again.

2. Send new grades: Provide new insight into your performance as well as evidence of recent accomplishments that might not have appeared on your initial application.

3. Provide evidence of your potential "hooks:" Colleges redefine their needs as they go to the wait list. For example, they may have acquired plenty of soccer goalies, but now have need of a striker or two.

4. Stay on the radar screen of the recruiter: Make sure that the staff member who recruits in your area knows you are available and ready to accept an admissions offer. Continue to show your interest without becoming a pest.

5. Be clear about what your family can afford to pay: Your need of assistance could well be a determining factor.

[Learn more about paying for college.]

6. Be ready for the call: Many wait-list offers will come after the May 1 deadline for submitting enrollment deposits. If such a call comes, you need to be prepared to decide quickly (often in 24 hours) whether you want to forfeit an earlier enrollment at another school in order to take advantage of the acceptance from the wait list.

Finally, don't allow yourself to become so preoccupied with the wait-list situation that you lose track of your more immediate options. If the wait-list offer doesn't come, you need to be prepared to happily embrace one of your other options.


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