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Countdown to college: How to handle wait-list purgatory

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing how “this was an incredibly tough year" for students applying to college. The truth is, it was, and that means a lot more students were put on wait lists, and there were also a lot more rejections.


Your options:

1. Hopefully you received an acceptance from another college that you like even better. Easy decision: Inform the college that wait-listed you that you’re no longer interested and have made other plans.

2. You were wait-listed by your first-choice school and you’d sell your youngest sibling to go there. Easy decision: You make a deposit at one of the colleges where you were accepted and let the first-choice college know that you’d very much love to remain on their wait list.

3. You can’t decide. Tough decision: You want to be done with this college stuff and know where you’re going next fall, but you’d really love to go to one of the colleges where you were wait-listed. You still need to make a deposit at one college where you were already accepted before May 1. You can choose to remain on one or more colleges’ wait lists.

Choosing to remove yourself or stay on a wait list seems to be more of a psychological decision than a statistical decision. The wait-list conversion to acceptance numbers, particularly at the most selective colleges and universities, typically isn't very encouraging, but this year is an anomaly in every way, so there’s no predicting what could happen.


Check out schools' wait-list stats. Some colleges share their wait-list history on the College Board website (www.collegeboard.org). After you type in the name of the school, click on “Applying.”

One word of caution I always share with families: Wait lists are notoriously non-predictive. Being accepted from a wait list is tied entirely to the yield – the number of students who choose to attend. As an example, if a college had a yield rate of 50 percent last year, and it increased to 65 percent this year, it won’t be taking anyone off the wait list; instead, it will be hunting for beds for freshmen. On the other hand, when the yield shrinks, the wait list opens up. It’s just too variable to be predictable.

Students and families also need to evaluate the impact of the stress on the student at this point in the process. Some carefree students just want to find out and approach the decision in an easygoing manner: “If I get in, great. If I don’t, that’s fine too.”

But too many other students have already had their hearts broken once or even twice (if they were first deferred and then wait-listed). Unfortunately, many students take college rejections and wait lists too personally and beat themselves up over it, many sadly thinking that they have disappointed their parents, or that this rejection defines who they are. It doesn’t.

For many of these students, closure is a good thing. Let’s try to encourage them to make their best decision about the colleges that really want them and then encourage them to get excited about their new adventures ahead.

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