Updated December 2020

Q.My high school senior was waitlisted at one of the colleges they applied to. What happens next?


First, provide encouragement. A wait list offer means the college would like to admit the student if a space opens up—they should feel great about that! We should also help students understand the reality, that on average, very few spaces become available down the road. Let the student know they are in the driver’s seat for the next step, and here’s how you can guide them during the process:

Accepting the offer or moving on

The student first needs to decide if they want to remain on the wait list (and according to a recent survey, an average of 50% do*). Encourage them to consider the following questions, and once the decision is made, they should follow the college’s instructions for accepting or declining the offer.

  • Were they already admitted to another school they’re really excited about? They may decide to decline the wait list offer and move forward with the other institution. In that case, congratulations are in order!
  • Was the student waitlisted at their top choice college or still waiting to hear back from additional schools? They may decide to remain on the list as they continue weighing options.

Staying on the wait list?

Colleges don’t usually turn to the wait list until they hear back from admitted applicants (typically after the standard May 1 deposit deadline) and may revisit the list, if necessary, throughout the summer. It can feel like a long wait, but there are several things the student can do in the meantime:

  • Update the college with any useful information during the senior year. This could include new accomplishments, awards, standardized test scores or mid-year grades. Only send relevant information, make clear your strong interest in the school, but don’t over-communicate. The college will know of the student’s interest, but it will not yet know whether space is available.
  • If the college publishes a list of regionally assigned staff, encourage the student to be in touch directly with that person, expressing their continued interest. It’s important for the student to take the lead on these communications to demonstrate that they are excited about attending the college while respecting the time of the regional officer (don’t stalk!).
  • Make a back-up plan. Whether or not colleges turn to their wait list depends on how many admitted students decline the offer—and some years, colleges don’t use their wait list at all. The challenge may be acute for students waitlisted at selective colleges in 2021 because of Covid-19. A higher percentage of students deferred their admission for a year which may mean fewer spaces in the Class of 2025. Students should focus on the colleges where they’ve been offered admission. Have them return to their initial list of priorities and choose a college they’re really excited about. Then, make sure they submit their deposit before the deadline to secure their seat in the incoming class.
  • If the student is granted admission from the wait list, they are not obligated to accept. The college may still be their top choice, or as they learn more about the school at which they deposited, it may become their preferred option.

Above all, remind the student that it’s what they do with their college experience that launches their future—not which college they attend!

*Source: National Association of College Admission Counseling

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