After months of waiting to hear back from their college picks, not every student finds a thick admissions package in the mailbox welcoming them to the school.

Being waitlisted or flat out rejected from a college can be difficult for students to handle, but increased early decision and general admissions applications have made colleges more selective.

Considering the hyper-competitive college application environment, admissions outcomes can be very tough to predict and in turn, students shouldn’t focus on a single “dream” college but build a list of several schools where they feel they could be happy and engaged, recommends Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor for College Confidential

“Students also should make sure that, if top-choice colleges fall under the ‘reach’ rubric, there are others on the list that they can call ‘realistic’ and ‘safe,’” she says.

Although it can be a disappointment, here are expert tips on what to do if students find themselves waitlisted or rejected from one of their choice schools.

You’ve Been Waitlisted….

While not being rejected outright can soften the blow for students, Rubenstone warns that some waitlists include 1,000-plus students.

In addition to waitlisting applicants, some colleges are taking additional measures to hold off on the decision making process until they have a better sense of what students will be accepting acceptance letters, says Matthew Greene, educational director at Howard Greene and Associates

“We’re seeing more schools like Michigan and Wisconsin and other big state schools doing more deferrals, which means they’re telling students ‘we’re not making a decision yet and we’d like to defer action on your application until later in the winter or the middle of the spring,’” he says.

Rubenstone explains that many colleges use wait lists to fill deficiencies in certain demographics they are looking for to round out incoming freshmen classes.

“When a senior has been waitlisted, I always ask, ‘What void do you think you might fill? Are you a minority student? Do you play to pursue an unusual major? Do you have any unique talents?”

According to Rubenstone, having a trusted college counselor reach out to the college can sometimes work in students’ favor, especially if they can emphasize strengths that may not have come across clearly in the application. 

However, the school may not be able to field communication about applications until later in the admissions process (April or May) and may not have much information to offer up.

“Usually waiting lists aren’t ranked--more schools are using waiting lists and the waiting lists are growing in length typically,” says Greene. “They’re going to balance male and female, academic areas, athletic talents, or other things.”

While there’s no harm in inquiring about relevant statistics or other application issues, there is a fine line between what’s appropriate and overdoing it, says Jon Small, vice president of College Prep at Veritas Prep.

“The only liability is harassing the admissions office and having them make a note on your file to that effect.”

You Got Rejected…

Greene explains that when schools deem applicants unqualified, it’s often because the student is not meeting a certain criteria, whether it’s state-wide criteria or not being competitive enough for that college’s applicant pool.

“Sometimes there is no rationale, it’s just that you didn’t happen to get picked this time around and that’s hard for students to understand—they’ve done everything right and they have what everyone else has and they still don’t get picked and that can be frustrating,” he says.

As for trying again for the next semester, Rubenstone says it is highly unlikely a rejected student will be admitted for the subsequent semester.

"Admission officials will need more evidence of college-level success before reversing a verdict,” she says. “An applicant who would like to reapply to a college that has already said no would be wise to spend at least a full year and, ideally, more at another institution.”

If students are set on a school and want to become more attractive for the subsequent year, it’s imperative for repeat candidates to demonstrate incremental value, suggests Small.

“This can be as easy as adding 100 points to your SAT score or as painstaking as engaging in an extracurricular research project,” he says.

If students intend to attempt transferring to their intended college after a year or two at another school, Greene explains the importance of taking good courses at their college, doing well academically and being engaged throughout the entire process.

Although students may not ultimately be admitted to their “dream” college, it’s important for them to realize that there are many colleges and universities that would be a good fit for their academic and social expectations and success, says Rubenstone.

“I often tell disappointed seniors that the college they plan to attend—even if it was a last-choice “Safety” school—may turn out to be the place they were meant to be all along.”