While getting wait listed isn’t exactly labeled a “rejection,” high school seniors may be disappointed to find out they aren’t in the clear just yet when it comes to going to their choice school.
With historically high application pools, selective colleges and universities are using wait lists as a way to admit applicants on the cusp during the regular admissions process and determine how many students they can enroll with each freshman class, explains Chuck Cohn, founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors
“It is good for the institution because they have a highly qualified pool of students to draw upon should they have open spots to fill,” he says.
Landing on the wait list can be discouraging, but students should weigh out all options before deciding to hold out for a spot or accept admission to another school, says Matthew Greene, educational director at Howard Greene & Associates.
“The wait list is a sign that academically the student is qualified, they just didn’t get in that first cut and it’s frustrating but these factors in the admissions process are beyond the student’s control and sometimes they’re able to turn a wait list over,” he says. “If they’re excited about a school, they can’t count on it but they should pursue it actively.”
For students and families unsure of how to navigate the wait list process, here’s what experts say to consider before making a final decision.
Follow Protocol when Contacting Colleges
It’s important to respect every college’s procedure when it comes to contacting the admissions office about a wait list status.
If a college is willing to look at additional information, students can build a case for themselves by submitting any new achievements or developments to enhance their application, says Cohn.
“This can be something that helps you stand out – did you lead a club/ team/activity to victory at a noteworthy competition, were you recognized for a unique contribution to your community or school, did you get selected to participate in something special? Or it can be that you've addressed a weakness – did you increase your SAT score or GPA?” he says.
Factor in Possible Aid Limitations
Wait-listed students can be at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving aid.
“It depends on the school, size of the freshmen class, your need for student aid and the number of students in the class who also require financial assistance, [but] if you are wholly dependent on receiving a full financial aid package, you may need to consider accepting an offer at another school that is less expensive or has more financial support for you,” says Jerry Slavonia, CEO of Campus Explorer.
For families who don’t require financial assistance to pay for college, alerting the admissions office can make a difference in the decision-making process in some cases.
“If you are in a position to pay for college without scholarships, grants or loans, you may want to consider letting the admissions office know that your ability to attend would not be dependent on financial aid and that you are able to cover all expenses directly,” says Cohn.
Consider Spring Admission
Some universities are starting to offer admission for January rather than September, according to Greene.
“Colleges have their own lists of things that they might offer for a student, a special exchange program or foreign study placement to make sure you’re on track to start with the freshman class, or you may come up with something on your own that’s exciting or interesting,” he says.
While it’s smart to consider how a delayed start will affect future plans, waiting a semester to go to college can be a great opportunity to gain experience, says Slavonia.
“A semester off for an internship or job is a great way to jump-start your career and education path,” he says. “If you get into the school you want, you can still take classes elsewhere (make sure the credits transfer) and get an internship, a powerhouse combination that can teach you a lot about what you may want to study and later pursue as a career.”
Hold a Space at Another School
Experts encourage students to hold a space at a school where they have already been accepted while waiting to hear back from a school.
“Every student should have a backup plan whether they are on the wait list or not--maybe you don’t come off the wait list or you no longer can afford tuition at the school you were accepted,” says Slavonia. “If you are prepared with options like acceptances at your safety schools, then you will be ready to attend college next fall.”
It’s important that students take the next few weeks to mull over their decision, take a closer look at the schools where they’ve been admitted and realize that they don’t have to take a wait list offer, says Greene.
“So many students that I counsel have gotten into a college, have gone and revisited, put a deposit down and they might be on one or more waiting lists and sometimes they get that [acceptance] email or phone call sometimes as late as mid June or July and they say, ‘you know what I’m set, no thank you.’”