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The end of college admissions season is approaching as high school seniors make final decisions about where to enroll for the fall. Or at least, the end is near for most applicants.

After May 1, traditionally known as National Decision Day, thousands of others will stay stuck in limbo, hoping for a late acceptance off the waitlist at a coveted college.

This year’s admission season was wilder than most. While less competitive private colleges and regional public universities are still struggling to attract enough students, many brand-name colleges saw soaring application numbers, driven in part by a near universal shift to test-optional policies and a surge from international students who sat out last year. Colgate University, for example, saw applications more than double, from 8,000 to 17,000, while the University of California Berkeley fielded 112,821 applications — a 28% increase — for 6,000 spots.

The result is that colleges don’t know who’s going to show up come fall, because it’s hard to predict which students really want to attend and which applied on a whim.

Some families, meanwhile, are still coping with ripple effects of the pandemic, like financial pressures and health concerns, that may influence students’ decisions of where and even whether to enroll.

So, while waitlists are nothing new, admissions offices have leaned more heavily on them than usual this year, packing them so they have backup options if students opt out. A recent survey of students planning to attend four-year colleges found that 21% had accepted a spot on the waitlist, and of those who had, 42% said they'd choose a college where they were waitlisted as their first choice.

Why colleges create waitlists

Because the pandemic has thrown “yield” predictions (the number of students who commit to enroll) up in the air, colleges feel jittery about the fall.

That’s why even highly selective colleges are building longer waitlists this year, says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Institute of Technology. When a college doesn’t fill a class, it turns to the waitlist, creating a domino effect downstream. When the most popular campuses pull from their waitlist, they essentially take from another college’s incoming class and then that college has to turn to its waitlist.

Last year, “The selective colleges were losing kids to gap years and taking our kids, and then we were turning around and taking a group from other places,” Clark says.

Georgia Tech made 1,000 waitlist offers in 2020, some before May 1, because so many students deferred for a year. That might sound like a lot, but consider this year’s waitlist has 4,800 students on it, compared to 3,500 in past years.

Even though Clark expects colleges’ waitlists to be very active this spring and summer, the percent taken off waitlists will probably be smaller because waitlists are larger. Like Georgia Tech last year, some national public institutions have already moved to their waitlist because “they’re not seeing deposits trend the way they thought they would,” Clark says.

The million-dollar question is, will the college where you’re waitlisted make an offer? Waitlist activity varies every year, and predicting an offer is next to impossible.

“All we can do is encourage students to stay engaged if they’re interested,” says Jamiere Abney, associate dean of admission at Colgate University.

But students who are waiting can look up data to see how many students were accepted from the waitlist in previous years. At Colgate, for example, 1,009 students accepted a spot on the waitlist last year, and 97 ultimately got in. (Pro tip: You can look up the information for your college by searching for a college’s “Common Data Set” on Google, and then looking at the numbers under section C.)

If you're waitlisted by a top choice college, here’s what else to consider and eight steps to take so you're prepared to make a smart decision.

Weigh whether you’d actually go if accepted

If a college offered a spot in July, would you take it? Consider how important it is to you to wrap up your decision now. One factor that could help you decide might be housing: is it guaranteed at that college if you’re accepted late, or would you miss out on the best dorms?

Analyze college costs and what your budget can afford

When you accept a spot on the waitlist, you won’t know anything about financial aid from that college — financial aid awards come later with admissions offers. But not every college has aid to give waitlisted students, so it’s important to consider your bottom line ahead of time.

Some highly selective (and wealthy) colleges will meet demonstrated financial need even for waitlisted students — Macalester and Colgate, for example. That means eligible students will receive a financial aid package regardless of whether they’re accepted during the regular admit period or off the waitlist.

However, most institutions don’t have a big enough financial aid budget to meet full need, and they may have already awarded their merit scholarships and institutional aid. Plus, some colleges are “need-aware” for waitlist decisions, which means they give an edge to students who can afford to pay full sticker price.

Regardless of your financial profile, doing some cost research can help you understand if the college is worth waiting for, says Kevin Towns, director of financial aid at North Central College in Illinois, a college that is still accepting applications and awarding merit scholarships.

The best way to gauge your price is to run the net price calculator on the school website, says Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan University. It also doesn’t hurt to ask if a college will “pre-read” your financial profile if it’s complicated, though not all colleges offer this service, Towns says.

“Be prepared,” Towns says. “What can we afford? What resources do we have at our disposal to cover costs?” Be sure to look at the cost for all four years.

Clark suggests agreeing as a family on an amount that you need to see in a financial package or that you’re willing to borrow. “If it’s not there, let’s all agree while it’s exciting, it’s not the prudent decision,” he says.

If you need financial aid, ask the college what is available to waitlisted students, but know that they might not be able to give you concrete numbers. “We tell students they shouldn’t expect a high percentage of need met,” Clark says.

If a college looks feasible financially and waiting feels worth it, move on to the next steps. If not, decline your spot.

Claim your spot on the waitlist

You must claim your spot on the waitlist, so the admissions office knows you’re interested, Gonzalez, at Wesleyan, says. Keep in mind, colleges may prioritize filling classes with students representing geographic or racial or ethnic diversity, gender balance, or athletics.

“So even if a student is really eager and competitive, they may not get tapped,” he says.

Commit to a college that offered admission

By May 1, accept and make a non-refundable deposit to another college that accepted you.

“Be invested in that decision,” Gonzalez says. “And then be prepared to pivot.” If you do end up taking a waitlist offer, you’ll forfeit your first deposit.

Read your email — no, really!

Colleges may want students on their waitlist to submit additional information, such as end-of-year grades or updates on achievements. Be sure to read all emails, so you don’t miss anything. Ask admissions if you’re unclear on anything. Some schools, like Wesleyan University, post an FAQ on their website. Colgate recently held a webinar for waitlisted students with tips from admissions officers, Abney says.

Demonstrate interest with admissions

If you really want to attend a college and you’re still on the waitlist, tell the college how you feel. In the industry, this is known as “demonstrating interest.” Send an email to the admissions counselor in charge of your region expressing interest in attending if accepted and include any notable updates you didn’t already submit.

“Most admissions offices are happy to receive that information for new context,” Gonzalez says. It’s also useful to ask how many students are on the waitlist and if schools expect waitlist activity before May 1, but don’t pester them every day or even every week, Clark says. If you indicate interest with several colleges, be sure to decline spots as your interest changes.

Complete or update financial aid forms

Ensure the financial aid office has everything it needs from you to create an award. If your financial situation has changed since filing the FAFSA and CSS Profile, submit documentation right away, Abney says. You don’t want to be faced with a quick decision without knowing the updated award.

Be prepared to accept quickly

If you do receive an offer, the college will expect an answer quickly, generally within 1-3 days, possibly up to a week, experts say. You’ll receive the financial aid letter with the offer. If you’ve done your homework on costs, hopefully it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

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