Waiting on the Wait List

College acceptances bring shouts of joy. But if you get a rejection letter, you may feel the need to rant and rave. Go for it, but once you’ve gotten it out of your system, remember that awesome applicants get rejected all the time: Steven Spielberg got rejected from film school at USC and UCLA. So there.

That said, having helped hundreds of families through this process, what I think is hardest to deal with is being put on a wait list. What does a wait list mean? Are they “just not that into you”? In fact, it’s probably more about trying to balance out a class. Maybe there were just too many accepted kids from New Jersey, or too many who chose a certain major. You’ll never really know – and the school won’t say.

The real issue is that wait lists are far too long. They drag out the process, prevent closure, and give false hope to too many. Remember, colleges accept many more kids than they can take anyway, since some they accept will choose other schools. This “yield” is factored in, so they already have a good idea of how the class will be filled. Might an applicant get in off the wait list? Yes, but the more selective the school the more unlikely that is. Also, bear in mind that when a school goes to its wait list it is hunting for a specific demographic it is lacking once its initial acceptees reply: tuba players, earth science majors, kids from Oregon – it all depends. There is usually no meritocratic “pecking order” to the waitlist.

If your child is waitlisted, get the facts. Visit the College Board Big Future site and search for admissions statistics. Princeton offered 1,395 applicants spots on the wait list last year, and took 33. Over 5,000 were offered a place on Boston University’s wait list, and 70 were enrolled.

There’s always hope, and the standard advice to accept a place on the list and send in any new and impressive accomplishments is fine IF you also remain realistic. Meanwhile, choose another school and move on. If the wait list opens – and that might not be until mid or even late summer (I had a client get in off a wait list after they had already moved into another school’s dorm!) – see if that school is as alluring as it once seemed.

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