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On a College Waitlist? Here Are Your Next Steps

After months of waiting (and hoping), the decision is finally in for your teenager’s top college choice. Your teenager logs into the admissions portal, clicks on the notification, and they’re . . . waitlisted?

Welcome to the college waitlist, a sort of limbo where your teenager hasn’t been accepted or rejected. Rather, your teenager still has to wait for her decision from that college. And that process could take weeks, even months. But do we know what to do if you teen is waitlisted? We asked Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, for her advice for students on the college waitlist.

Q: What is waitlisted for college? What does it mean?

Cohen: Colleges create waitlists to fill open slots in their freshman class left by admitted students who decide to go somewhere else. Take heart. This means the college considers your teenager to be qualified to attend. Colleges fill their waitlists with highly qualified applicants that just barely missed the admit pile. These students are likely great fits for the institution; the college may have just run out of room when building their well-rounded class. However, waitlisting a student is also a tactic some colleges use to politely reject a student who might be legacy or have some other connection to the institution.

Q: When will my waitlisted student get a decision?

Cohen: At most colleges, waitlisted applicants are considered after the students admitted regular decision let the college know whether or not they will attend. Some colleges start letting in students off the waitlist as early as April, but some don’t notify students until July or even August when school is about to start!

Q: What are the chances of getting accepted off a waiting list?

Cohen: That depends on the college. But at many selective institutions, waitlist admittance rates tend to be lower than the regular admittance rates. For example, at the University of Michigan, the regular admissions rate for the class of 2018 was 23.5 percent, while a mere 1.6 percent were admitted off the waitlist. You can find waitlist statistics for many colleges (though not all) at Search for the college, then look under the Applying tab for that college.

Q: What should my waitlisted student do next?

Cohen: First, your student should consider whether or not they still want to attend that college. Students should be open minded about the schools that have accepted them. Those schools may ultimately be a better fit than previously expected. And they want you. Your student may decide to go to another school. In that case, simply decline the spot on the waitlist. And send in your deposit for the school they plan to attend.

However, if your student decides they would like to try to get into a college at which they’re waitlisted, then they must accept the spot on the waitlist, while also still sending in a deposit for another school. Don’t rely on your waitlist school without securing a spot at a school that did admit you. There are no guarantees you will get admitted off the waitlist. And you don’t want to be left without any school to attend come the fall.”

Note that you may have to forfeit that deposit if your teenager is accepted off a college waitlist and decides to attend.

Q: How can my student improve their odds of getting off the waitlist?

Cohen: Start by following directions. Some schools allow and encourage students to send additional materials like recommendation letters, waitlist letters, new test scores, spring semester grades, etc. Double check to see what your waitlist school recommends and asks for and follow directions. Don’t send the school 10 new recommendation letters if they say they do not accept additional materials. Students can work with their college counselors to ensure they are providing the right materials and that the waitlist letter they draft includes the right information.

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The waitlist letter should reiterate your interest in attending the school, as well as update the admissions office about what you’ve been doing, both inside and outside the classroom, adds Cohen.

Q: How do colleges pick students from the waitlist?

Cohen: Colleges do not rank waitlisted students. Rather, they select students off the waiting list for college admission in the same holistic way they select students for regular admission: by picking the applicants that will round out their freshman class. Colleges choose the students off the waitlists that meet their institutional needs. For example, if the school expected more engineering students to enroll than the actual number of students who matriculated, they may go to the waitlist and admit select engineering applicants to fill those spots.

Q: What else does my student need to know?

Cohen: It’s hard not to continue to be hopeful about a waitlisted college. But it’s best for students to move on and look forward to the college they’ve committed to with a deposit. Start preparing for the next step in your academic career. And get excited about this school—not your waitlist school.

And if your teenager does beat the odds and gets accepted to a waitlist college? Send in your deposit. Then let your alternative college know you will not be attending in the fall after all. That way that college can offer the spot to someone else ASAP.

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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