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Strategies for students on wait lists at U.S. colleges

If you are placed on the wait list by a college you wish to attend, read this section with care.

For the past few years, many colleges have wait-listed an unusually large number of students.

Some selective colleges routinely place one or two thousand students on their wait lists. Occasionally, several hundred of these students may be eventually accepted; most years, perhaps a dozen students will gain a spot; sometimes no student on the wait list will be offered a place. Several years ago, for example, Emory University wait-listed more than 4000 students for a freshman class of 1800; 133 students from that list were eventually admitted.  It is important to realize that these lists exist for the benefit of colleges rather than for the welfare of students.

It is essential that you notify the University Counselling Office that you intend to remain on a wait list; we need to know in order to send your updated April transcript to the correct institution. It is important to speak to your university counsellor about this decision so that you can be properly advised.

You may accept one college’s offer while still on the wait list at another, and in fact you are strongly advised to do so. The position of wait-listed candidates varies from one college to another—and from year to year. Many colleges send along the wait list statistics from previous years to help applicants decide what their chances may be of receiving an offer. Please be aware that financial need will often have an impact on whether or not a student is likely to be taken off the wait list, as at most colleges there is no aid left by the end of the regular round of admission.

The university should provide you with some indication of the latest date by which you should expect to hear back about your final status; the school may also indicate whether it ranks students on the wait list (if it does, you should contact the admission office to ask your position on the list). A survey conducted in 2011, however, indicated that over 70% of institutions do not inform students about their position on the wait list and only 16% rank wait-listed candidates.

If you are especially eager to get into a college that has wait-listed you, you should respond without delay, asking to be reconsidered in the second round.

Then read any communications that the college has sent you concerning the protocols for wait-listed students. Many schools will request that you do not submit any additional materials for consideration and that you do not contact the admission office to inquire about your chances of being admitted. Please respect such guidelines.

However, if the admissions office does not explicitly request that you not contact them during the wait-list period, please meet with your university counsellor to discuss appropriate strategies. It may be helpful to send a carefully written note that includes the following points:

  • An expression of thanks for being placed on the wait list, along with your disappointment at not being admitted outright;
  • An update on your academic and extracurricular achievements since the original application was sent;
  • A strong statement about your enthusiasm for attending that college. Be specific. If possible, you should go so far as to give the admission office an undertaking that you will accept an offer if one is made. This is why we advise that you remain on only one wait list. Demonstrated interest is a key factor in wait-list decisions at many schools.

It is also a good idea to speak to your teacher referees at this point. If they are teaching you this year, one or both of them may feel that there is significant new information about your performance in their subject. If this is the case, you could ask them to update their original letter with a brief note. If there is another teacher who can add new information, he or she could also be asked to write on your behalf. Speak to your university counsellor before you embark on this path, however, and don’t overdo it.

Occasionally, wait-listed students will visit the admission office at their first-choice college in early to mid- May in order to demonstrate just how keen they are to get into that school. This is the most drastic action that an applicant can take. Some colleges actively discourage this strategy; in these cases, a visit would obviously not be a good idea. If in doubt, contact the admission office to find out whether or not a visit would be welcomed.