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Wait List FAQs
Q. Just what is a wait list decision?
A. April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot writes. He was not writing about the college process, but he could have been! Certainly April is a month fraught with college news, good and bad. But what about college news that appears to be neither good nor bad? What about this in-between decision that neither “is” nor “isn’t”; such letters seem especially cruel, at least at first light because you don’t know where you stand. And by April, we should know where we stand. You would think. Students and parents have come to expect acceptance and rejection letters in or by April. Getting a letter that notifies students of a wait list decision is another matter and often brings confusion. “Wait a minute! Are they telling me I have a chance? Or are they really telling me politely that I'm not getting in, and they just don't want to say so in so many words? I know what accept and reject means, but what really is a wait list?" The wait list decision means that a college would have liked to admit a student, but because of space limitations, or an upward trend in grades that the college wants to see validated with just a little more time, or because of a question about the student’s interest in the college, other students came just a little ahead of the wait listed student. But the wait listed student’s merits were clearly more apparent than a decision to deny, outright, would have implied.

Q. Why do colleges even have a wait list?
A. 
The wait list can be a valuable tool for colleges, allowing them to fill in the gaps that the returns on their first run through the applicants might have left: for instance, gender balance, "friends" of alumni or trustees, athletic needs, academic departmental needs, or even balancing decisions from a particular high school, are just a few issues that colleges can address through the use of a wait list.

Remember: the wait list is full of students that the college would like to take, and there is often little qualitative difference between those students who have been admitted and those wait listed.

If a class, let's say, of admitted students comes in at 500, instead of the 525 that the college planned to enroll, there is no problem in going to the wait list to admit 25 or 30 more students. Having that kind of flexibility, or being able to admit a few more students in recognition of some institutional need or needs can make a lot of people happy with the admissions office and can make a number of friends for the college.

Q. Who gets offered a place on the wait list, and how many are offered such a place?
A. Students who applied to a full range of selectivity in their college list should, in fact, expect to see one or more wait list letters among their admissions results. As noted above, colleges will use wait lists to identify and hold those students whose applications they like very much, and would like to admit. Colleges will initially send out hundreds of wait list offers. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 wait list offers from a given college is not an unusual number to hear. Colleges know that many, or most, of the students will respond that they do not want to remain on the wait list because they have already been admitted to the school they wanted to attend, so hundreds of students will say “No!” to the initial offer of being on the wait list. Then, too, after two or three weeks of weighing their offers of actual admission, and feeling that heavy tug of someone liking you and admitting you and wanting you more than a college that wait lists you, even more students will “fall off" the wait list by the end of April. The size of the wait list might, therefore, shrink from a daunting sounding 500 or 1000 or so wait list offers down to 150 to 200 or so, without the college ever having even begun to use the list.

Q. It's the college’s turn to fret: who is actually going to come…and how many?
A. 
No matter how college admissions officers try to dress up their work in admissions with hard numbers and scientific research, making a decision on just how many students they should admit is never much more than an educated guessing game. The month of April in college admissions is the "shake-out month.” During the month of April, the college process shifts to the students’ favor; instead of colleges choosing students, now students are choosing colleges. (OK, keep down the applause, please!) Colleges must now wait and see how many students will actually enroll. Will their class be filled? Probably not. As you'll read later on, most colleges like to use their wait list, for at least 15 to 30 students, anyway.

Q. What is the May 1st deadline and do I need to be concerned about it if I am hoping to be admitted from a college's wait list?
A. 
Students who have been admitted to a college or colleges have until May 1st to notify a college by deposit or, in some cases, a written letter, that the student accepts the college’s offer of admission. Here is the warning: any student who fails to notify a college of his acceptance of a colleges's offer of admission by the May 1 deadline, will, in all likelihood, forfeit his acceptance. So even if you are hoping and trying to get an in from the wait list at a particular college, you must choose one colleges's offer of admission by May 1. The “kicker,” here, is that you need to put down a deposit at a college before you will hear from any wait lists regarding whether or not you are or will be admitted. And let us emphasize by reiterating that if you fail to put a deposit down on a college, even if your deposit is postmarked before May 1 but arrives in the college's admissions office after May 1, you will probably forfeit your offer of admission. Over the years, colleges have only become more and more strict about this policy.

Q. What are my chances, ultimately, of getting in from the wait list?
A. 
The chances of being admitted from a wait list vary greatly from year to year and college to college, but we typically expect a percentage of wait list offers to those students who are on a wait list to range anywhere from 0% to perhaps 25 or 30%, at most. Some colleges have admitted as many as 100-plus students from their wait list, or as few as one or two, or even none. Again, colleges will not know how many students they will be offering admission to from their wait list until usually several days after May 1, or until they have a relatively clear picture of what the class looks like from the admissions office's initial acceptances.

Q. What should I do if I am wait listed?
A. 
First, you should ask yourself if you are truly interested in the wait list offer from that particular college. It may be that you are perfectly happy with your other offers of admission, and you might have little or no interest in those colleges that have wait listed you. In that case you would simply notify the wait listing colleges that you are not interested in being kept on their wait lists. And actually, it would help a college to know what school you have chosen to attend instead of remaining on their wait list; colleges like to know just who their competition is, and it gives you a little chance to exercise some bragging rights.

The first thing to do is to decide if you want to remain on the wait list if you have any such offer or offers. If you choose to remain on the wait list or more than one wait list, the most important thing you can do is to complete and return the postcard which is usually enclosed with a wait list letter that asks you if you would like to remain on the wait list. The postcard usually comes pre-stamped and addressed, and asks for your signature. The sooner you decide that you want to remain on the wait list, and the sooner you mail that postcard to the college if you do choose to remain on its wait list, the better it is for you. Some colleges have taken to conducting this process online. The same principles apply for a web-based notification.

Q. Is there an overall strategy that I can follow?
A. 
There is, indeed, a strategy to consider which has helped many students in the past. The strategy is simple and it is this: keep your name in front of the admissions office regularly over the next month or so; not every day, but, perhaps, at least once every week or two. Completing and returning the enclosed postcard or online form, indicating that you would like to remain active on a college's wait list would be the first step.

The second, and perhaps most important step that a wait listed student could take, is to write a thoughtful, one-page letter or email, expressing disappointment that you were not admitted initially, but also expressing enthusiasm and energy that you are, nonetheless, extremely happy to still have the opportunity to become a member of the colleges's community. Included in the letter should be an expression - two or three reasons - of why you are so interested in the college, what it is about the college that has drawn you to it. You could focus on a particular academic program within the college curricular offerings; you could mention specific extracurricular opportunities, special features of the school, or aspects of the college's character, and why the college seems to be such a good personal fit. Simply saying that you really like the college location in or near a city and that you will take advantage of the city and that the college has a strong academic reputation, just won't “cut it.” In your description of why you are so interested in a college, you must be specific. Conclude this first letter by stating that you will update the college over the next month with all new and relevant information that comes your way, especially new grades - spring mid-term grades/progress reports, for example. Also within the first week of receiving a wait list letter, you should come into the college office to see Ms. Edwards about making sure that we know where to send your mid-term progress grades. We will also want to know specifically where you have been wait listed and which college or colleges you wish to remain active on the waiting list.

Once you know your grades are slated to be sent to the wait listing college(s) of your choice, follow that up with a short, perhaps quarter to half-page letter or email talking about your midterm progress grades. Something like: "I'm really happy with my English grade. It reflects what I feel was the best paper I have written yet in school... while my math grade was lower than I wanted, I worked really hard preparing for the last big test, and I feel that I have given that class my all. I am enclosing an excerpt from my math teacher's comments to help you understand how enthusiastic I am even in classes which aren't my favorite or best classes. I want you to know that I am just as focused on your college now as I was when I got the wait list decision, keeping alive the opportunity for me to be reconsidered for admission. I am very interested in attending X-school."

Accompanying your midterm progress grades will be a note written by your college counselor that will go with your grades. The college counselor’s letter will praise the continued growth in your classes - where that is evident - and we will quote as generously as possible excerpts from your teacher comments. Generally it is not wise for students to send his or her full teacher comments, unless you are sending brief excerpts of those comments. While we are, on the one hand, keeping your name in front of the admissions office as much as seems appropriate, we should try to keep things at this point short and sweet for the admissions office. If a student is pursuing a senior project, or completing an independent study course, that student may want to share some pertinent information on those activities. That might be a letter aimed for the third week of April or so. Finally around the first of May, you should write a very brief note stating that you understand the admissions committee will be meeting soon to begin to make some decisions about the wait list, and you just wanted to be sure that the admissions office knew that you remain extremely interested in X-college, and that you look forward to hearing from the admissions office soon. You can add anything new that has come along in your school and personal life at this point. You can close by thanking them for their attention to your application for their thoughtfulness. You hope to see them next year on campus!

Again, the rule is to keep your name visible, to make your strong interest known - you don't have to promise that you will enroll if admitted - but the college needs to feel your interest is genuine and high. It could well be that the wait list decision was made on the basis of the college not being sure of your interest in their initial evaluation of applications. You don't want to leave the college ambivalent on your interest at this point.

If this all sounds like "the squeaky wheel" policy, it is to some extent - but only in terms of providing useful, helpful information on a regular, but not obnoxious, interval. You want to be noticed, and there is a difference between making yourself noticed and coming across like the sound of chalk dragging across a blackboard. You don't want to aggravate but you do want to be known. Although backhanded, perhaps, the wait list is in some ways a compliment; although chances of being admitted from any given wait list for any given individual case may be slim, sometimes the wait list is just the right opportunity. To be sure, it has some wrinkles of which students and families need to be aware. Being admitted from the wait list is nothing that any of us can count on, but there are ways to take advantage of the wait list and to maximize one's chances of ultimate admission. Knowledge about the wait list - what it is, why it is, and how it works - helps.
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