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Advice for Waitlisted Seniors

Updated: May 20, 2021

It’s finally spring time! Around the country, we’re enjoying higher temps, blooming flowers and shots in our arms. And let’s not forget another hallmark of March-April: By now, colleges have notified seniors to let them know they have been accepted, denied or waitlisted.

This year, we are seeing a much higher number of waitlisted applicants across the board than we usually do at selective and highly selective institutions, and this is primarily because test-optional policies significantly boosted the number of applications. (See my blog post from last month:

Getting waitlisted is disheartening for seniors. It leaves students in a scramble of limbo-land, especially if they’re waitlisted at multiple institutions. To begin with, college waitlists do not follow a numbered, go-in-order system like a restaurant does when you’re waiting for a table. Instead, enrollment officers are trying to create a balanced incoming freshman class, taking various factors such as gender, major (if it’s an impacted program at that college) and racial diversity into consideration. They also consider financial need. If a family is "full pay," the student is more likely to get admitted from the waitlist because, at this point, most of the financial aid funds have been allocated. In reality, students are navigating more of a murky wait pool than a clear waitlist, so before they get too invested, they should research the school to see if it typically pulls applicants from its waitlist, and if so, how many. But also understand that this year is anything but typical.

If you’re a waitlisted student who wants to see if you’ll get admitted eventually, what should you do? First, and it seems obvious: You need to let the school know as soon as possible that you would like to stay on the list (usually this is done through the school’s online applicant portal). Then, read the instructions in your waitlist letter carefully to find out if the college will consider additional support materials, such as another letter of recommendation.

The college may also accept a letter directly from the applicant. In this communication, you would want to include specific observations about what drew you to the school in the first place, as well as new accomplishments and activities in your life that might help move you up the list. Forbes' Kristen Moon advises, "When you are writing the waitlist letter, keep it to one page and make sure to highlight your recent accomplishments. Don’t reiterate things that the school already knows from your application." Emailing the letter is fine, and send it as soon as possible once you've indicated that you plan to stay on the list. Beyond sending a letter, most schools will ask that you do nothing further, and you (and your parents) will just have to be patient.

Decision letter time is extremely stressful. It might feel unfair that other students from your high school were accepted to your dream college when you weren’t. Or maybe you were excited about attending your parents’ alma mater, but alas, it just didn’t work out. But, remember last summer when you put a lot of time and research into creating a list of colleges that you were excited about? To quote a wonderfully applicable piece of advice I heard recently, “Try not to take these admissions outcomes personally, and go fall in love with one of the schools that accepted you.” If you weren’t able to tour colleges before because of Covid, try and see a couple of schools this spring, especially if you are vacillating between two acceptances. Some campuses are opening up for in-person tours soon. Also, be sure to keep your grades up-- don’t let senioritis get the best of you:) Finally, if you do get accepted off of a waitlist and you choose to attend that school after you’ve already submitted your contract and deposit at another school, understand that the initial enrollment money is nonrefundable.

When you have finally settled on where you’ll attend college, allow yourself to get excited about what lies ahead! For most of you, this will be your first major adult decision, so congratulate yourself on making it through the process and start wearing that sweatshirt proudly.

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