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Countdown to college: How to decide whether to stay on the wait list

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

Consider saying “no.”

Being offered a spot on a college’s wait list is stressful, unsettling and demoralizing, and for some it's just not worth the wait.

One student who said “no thanks” to Harvard’s wait list described it this way: “I didn’t like being wait-listed. It felt like a consolation prize. Why would they wait-list so many people when clearly they’re letting in very few? It seemed so pointless.”

College counselors always advise students to make other plans, deposit elsewhere, agree to stay on a college’s wait list, but don’t count on eventually being accepted, and do your best to move on. Students need to fall in love with one of the colleges where they were accepted. If they get lucky and receive an offer to be removed from the wait list and be accepted, then they’ll have a big decision to make.

Parents should really step in here and take the lead by helping their students put it all in perspective. Help them understand that “Plan B” – a college that told them they want them – is probably better than a college that can’t quite make up its mind.


If you say yes …

Follow the instructions carefully, answer any supplemental questions they might ask, send in additional recommendations if requested, and be aware of deadlines. Students and parents always want to know, “Where do I sit on the wait list?” Colleges don’t have ranks on their wait list. That makes it almost impossible to get a sense of your chances. Colleges don’t want to rank because they want to fill their spots strategically in order to balance the class.

It’s worth a phone call to see if the admissions office will share any relevant information. Try to find out how many students are on the wait list and how many of them are from your high school, your town and your state. I would also suggest asking how many students they took off the wait list last year and, if they have the research, what were the average GPA and test scores for those admitted from the wait list. Since the yield (the number of students who choose to enroll) is variable, you shouldn’t count on that information being predictive for your situation.

Traditionally, colleges and universities will personally call wait-listed students and offer them a spot in the freshman class. Some can get very pushy and ask students to make a decision within 48 hours or they’ll lose their spot, again. These calls typically start coming in mid-May, once they have reviewed who has accepted, how many spots are open and what holes they have in the freshman class.

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