Avoiding the Wait List Limbo

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) cites an increase in college applications at 73 percent of schools, and states that 25 percent of students currently apply to seven or more colleges.

More applicants + uncertain economic times = More wait-listed students

What Is a Wait List and How Does it Work?

Forty-eight percent of universities indicate that they employ wait lists, and that number is rising in response to the rapidly growing applicant pool.

Instead of the usual thick or thin envelope indicating acceptance or rejection, students who have been extended a spot on a school’s wait list may just receive a postcard to return. Students must accept wait-list placements in writing.

Most schools don’t rank their wait list—but it’s important to ask if yours does. A lower ranking indicates a greater likelihood of acceptance. A school that doesn’t rank its wait list will often seek students who meet various demographics. For instance, a school that had fewer civil engineering applicants than it expected may seek to wait list students for this major.

Before You Accept a Wait-List Spot…

1. Make sure it’s a school you really want to attend. Have you been fully accepted to another school that you’d be just as happy with? If so, don’t accept a wait list offer, since doing so and then not attending would take that opportunity away from a student for whom the school is a first choice.

2. Ask questions. Only 28 percent of wait-listed students are ultimately accepted. Ask the school the percentage they admitted the previous year as an indicator of your odds. Recently, MIT went through a four-year stretch where not a single student was admitted from the wait list. In 2010, Oberlin accepted 15 students from the list, but none to the College of Arts and Sciences.

3. Consider your ability to pay for the school without aid. The pool of accepted applicants may cut into available financial aid, leaving wait-listed students with little to no funds. Furthermore, a college may consider a student’s ability to pay full cost of attendance when deciding whether to admit them.

If you do decide this school is your first choice, be prepared to possibly wait until after May 1st. To increase your chances, do the following (but don’t become a pest):

• Send updated grades and ACT or SAT scores, if you are on an upward trend
• Write a brief letter indicating why you are an excellent fit for the school and your intent to attend if accepted
• Notify the school of recent additional awards or recognitions
• Don’t send more than one additional letter of recommendation


This article was written by Lisa Mader

Lisa Mader relies on extensive teaching experience, a master's-level education, and affiliation with some of the industry's most important accreditation boards to help college-bound students maximize their performance and find their best-fit college. Through her company LEAP, Lisa has helped countless families in the areas of test preparation, college selection/application, choosing a major and future career, and much more.

1 Comment

  1. Marc

    Great and helpful article. Thanks. I will use this with my kids.

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