What to Do When Your Senior is Placed on a College Waiting List

Your student’s path to college gets confused because he’s not rejected, but he’s not accepted either.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady


The main reason colleges put so many kids on their waiting lists these days is because they’re receiving record numbers of applications. Your student might have been one of many perfect applicants, but there’s more competition everywhere.

If you’re senior is wait-listed at one of her top choice colleges, here’s what you need to know and what she has to do:

Decisions about who comes off the waiting list are made in mid-May, at the earliest Since May 1 is the deadline for admitted students to accept an offer, colleges can’t do anything with the waiting list until then. That means an answer might not come until June or July. 

Colleges use the waiting list to fill in the missing pieces of their freshman class People often joke about a college needing an oboe player, but it’s not far from the truth. Once the acceptances are all in, admissions officers closely examine the makeup of the incoming freshman class.

If it’s heavy on engineering majors or East Coast kids, they’ll be looking at applicants who don’t fit those categories. Are they short on thespians, softball players, drummers, student journalists, community service-minded kids? Unfortunately, you don’t know.

The reality About 30 percent of students, on average, are taken from the waiting lists of colleges across the country. Some schools have a few hundred students to look at, and others have a couple thousand.

Fill out the required form to stay on the waiting list Colleges usually include a form with the wait list letter for students to confirm they’re still interested in attending the school. Make sure your teen sends it in immediately if he receives one.

Of course, if this is not a top-choice school for your senior, don’t let him say it is because there’s another kid who really wants that spot.

Your senior should contact the admissions office Depending upon the college, your anxious applicant might be able to find out where she stands on the waiting list, why she’s on the list in the first place and any advice on what to do next.

Don’t allow your student to call more than once or twice, otherwise she’ll only annoy the already busy admissions officer and possibly hurt her chances of getting in.

Guidance counselors or school administrators will sometimes contact a college on behalf of a student. Your senior should ask if anyone in her school will do this for her.

As the parent, you should not call. Colleges don’t want to hear from you. They’re interested in your proactive student.

Your teen must write a one-page letter to admissions Here’s his chance to explain why this college is his number one choice and say that he will attend if accepted (this must be true). The letter should be well-written and also discuss what he can bring to the campus, like any special talents, skills or interests that might not have jumped off the application, any awards he’s won post-application, information on his third quarter grades if they show significant improvement, and any other factors that could make him stand out.

Admissions officers will be receiving many of these letters, so make sure your senior sticks to the one-page limit.

Put a deposit on a college where your senior has been accepted There are just no guarantees that your student will make it off the waiting list. Now’s the time to go to Plan B. Help your teen review her college acceptances and decide which school she’d like to attend and can afford. Sure, you might lose the deposit if her top-choice school ultimately accepts her, but if that doesn’t happen, she’s still going to college.

If your senior has only been wait-listed and has no acceptances to fall back on, sit down with your student and his guidance counselor to learn what options are available. The counselor might know which schools take the most students from their waiting lists and can share the names of the colleges still accepting applications. Be encouraging because your teen is probably already feeling pretty down about the situation. Your job is to help your kid through.

There is no magic formula for getting off of a college waiting list, but the steps above should give your student the best chance.

Share your thoughts and experiences with college waiting lists in the comments section below. 

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