When college acceptance letters are mailed out this month, tens of thousands of students will open a mixed bag.
They won't be denied outright but instead relegated to the limbo known as a "wait list."
The practice of wait listing—where colleges defer an admissions decision until accepted students have either taken or declined a spot in the freshman class—is essentially a school's way of saying, "We like you, but we just can’t commit right now."
Colleges often use a wait list to round out how their class looks. If there aren’t enough students in a certain major or from a particular region, the school will give wait-listed applicants who can help it meet those goals a higher priority. That makes it nearly impossible to predict your chances of getting off a wait list with any certainty, since it all depends on who applied in the first place, who chose to enroll, and how your characteristics compare to theirs.
Being wait listed is especially common for students applying to selective colleges, but some 550 colleges use them. More than 150,000 students accepted a spot on one in the fall of 2015.
Common as they are, however, wait lists remain one of the least transparent parts of the college admissions process. There are no rules for how many students can be put on a wait list, how long applicants can remain there, or even how long those who are accepted off the wait list have to decide whether they want to enroll.
Despite all that uncertainty, there are a few things you can control.
“Most colleges will be as upfront as they can be, if you ask questions,” says Jake Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School in Maryland. Here are the steps to take and questions to ask.
1. Consider your odds
Between 2007 and 2010, colleges admitted less than a third of wait-listed students, on average, according to a study from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC). But that percentage drops considerably at more selective schools. At colleges where fewer than 50% of applicants overall were admitted, just 17% of students got in off the wait list.
These statistics can swing wildly from year to year at any given school, but it’s still worth asking your target college these questions:
- How many students are usually offered spots on the wait list?
- How many usually accept spots?
- How many are ultimately admitted?
You can also look up the college at bigfuture.collegeboard.org. Many schools have wait list statistics under the “applying” tab.
2. Solidify your plan B
No matter how confident you feel that you’ll be admitted off the wait list, you should submit a deposit to another school to ensure that you have a spot somewhere in the fall. Most colleges require a deposit by May 1.
That deposit—typically $100 to $500—is money you won’t get back if you ultimately enroll at the other college where you were wait listed.
Bear in mind that if you aren't accepted off the wait list, your Plan B college could be where you end up on come fall. So note when its freshman orientation starts and whether you need to send a separate deposit for on-campus housing, too.
3. Show you’re still interested
When Muriel Chase was put on the wait list for Marist College, she wasn’t too upset. The college wasn’t even one of her top schools. But when she went for a visit after she'd been wait listed, she fell hard.
Within about a month, she’d visited again, talked regularly on the phone with her admissions counselor, and ultimately, got accepted. She’s now a student employee in the admissions office and talks to prospective applicants about the process.
Colleges want to close their wait list—that is, fill all their open spots—as soon as possible, so they like to make offers to the applicants who are most likely to accept. In fact, at some schools, such as Vanderbilt University, the wait list is the only time where demonstrating your interest matters.
It’s important to go the extra mile—but not the extra five miles. Kent Rinehart, dean of undergraduate admissions at Marist, says reaching out every two or three weeks to update the admissions staff and ask about the status of the wait list is fine. But don’t call every other day. Also avoid more elaborate ploys, such as sending baked goods or gifts to the admissions staff.
But do consider writing a letter to the admissions officer explaining why that school is still your top choice (or one of them, if that’s the case). Update the office on your academics, too, by sending in recent grades and anything noteworthy, such induction into an honor society.
Finally, parents: Don’t do your child’s bidding here.
“It shows a lot more when you’re the one who’s taking initiative,” Chase say to students.
Be sure to heed any directions the college gives with its wait list notification. Some will ask for specific follow-up information, such as additional recommendation letters.
4. Figure out if you can afford it
When you’re asking colleges about their wait list admission stats, ask about financial aid for wait-listed students, too. Chances are, getting in off the wait list will be more expensive than regular admission.
Nearly four in 10 colleges that have a wait list are need aware, which means they’ll consider how much students can afford to pay in deciding which ones to admit. That’s good news for families who can afford the college without extra help, less good for those who need aid.
Even if a college doesn’t favor students who can afford to pay, you may not be in line for the same aid as students accepted during regular admission. Some colleges, such as Miami and Villanova universities, don’t offer any merit aid to students admitted from the wait list. At many colleges, whether you receive any grants or scholarships will depend on what’s left in the financial aid budget.
(Use our calculator: How much should I be saving for college?)
Almost half of the colleges in the NACAC study said they provided grant aid to all students admitted off their wait lists. But some of those colleges may have chosen students who needed only limited aid, or they may have awarded some aid, but not enough to make the college truly affordable for the family.
To get a better idea of where you’ll stand, ask the college:
- Are students admitted off the wait list eligible for the same financial aid as other students?
- Have students admitted off the wait list in the past received grants or scholarships from the college?
- When do students admitted off the wait list learn about their financial aid package?
5. Prepare to make a quick decision
With regular admission, students have at least a few weeks to evaluate colleges' offers, weigh what they like about different schools, and ultimately decide which one they want to go to.
That’s not the case with wait lists. NACAC recommends that colleges give applicants at least 72 hours to decide whether to accept their offer, though there's no binding rule. You may have even less time to evaluate the financial aid package, which doesn’t always come with the initial offer of acceptance.
One way to make your decision easier is by setting the ceiling price you can afford to pay ahead of time, says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech.
6. Be positive but realistic
The optimists like to say that the bright side of being wait listed is that it’s not a downright denial. True enough, but the harsh fact is that at most colleges, the majority of wait-listed students will eventually be denied admission anyway.
We get it—a wait list designation from your top college makes it hard to move on. There’s always the "what if" scenario in the back of your head that keeps you from fully committing to the college you sent your deposit to. Clark writes in a blog post that it can be especially tough for wait-listed students to hear their friends talking about who they’re rooming with or what activities they’ll join freshman year.
Most colleges don’t turn to their wait lists until after May 1, and many will still be offering admission to students on wait list through June, well after some high school graduations.
Clark suggests students in that position focus on why they’re excited about college in general, regardless of which school they end up attending. That will let you enjoy the spring of your senior year even as the exact details of your future remain unknown.
Sophia Tewa contributed to reporting.