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Guest Post by Julie Wolf

Talking with parents whose children were waitlisted at one of their top college choices, a handful of words came up repeatedly: Limbo. Nightmare. Horror story. False hope.

I had barely heard of waitlists before my daughter landed on three in spring 2019. The letters went something like this: “This year we saw more incredible applicants than ever before. You were among them. Congratulations! We are delighted to offer you a spot in the Class of 2023—if one opens up! We’ll be in touch after May 1.”

The waitlist is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. An extraordinary but elusive tool called the Common Data Set can reveal waitlist numbers, but it won’t provide concrete answers about how to pry your way in from this precarious admissions perch. And before May 1, even the admissions office may not know.

For college-bound seniors, May 1, “Commitment Day,” can be either celebratory or sobering. But “commitment” isn’t merely announcing your intention with spirit wear; there’s a financial cost. By May 1, even if their preferred school hasn’t yet invited them to the ball, students must forge ahead and submit a nonrefundable deposit, usually hundreds of dollars, to a school that has extended a viable admission offer. If they’re accepted off a waitlist and choose to attend, they’ll have to put down yet another deposit, sacrificing the first one.

Some parents have a nonnegotiable rule about waitlists: No way. That was me. To my inexperienced mind, a spot on the waitlist was equivalent to a rejection— until the waitlist offer actually came. Suddenly my “just say no” rule about waitlists seemed as cruel as the waitlist itself.

During the college search, dream schools loom large. Kids throw their whole selves into their applications. Attachments are inevitable. While the feeling of being a second-best accepted student is incentive enough for some to withdraw from the waitlist, for others, like mine, it can feel like a lifeline. I knew we might lose money, but I let her grab it. She clicked “Yes, I’m remaining on the waitlist” and sent admissions her auto-response. An AP teacher sent a supplementary recommendation. Her guidance counselor called the admissions officer. My daughter wrote to him herself. And then we waited.

In April we attended the accepted-students day at the university she had chosen (reluctantly). Over lunch hosted by the school, awkward introductory conversations with potential classmates crystalized around a commonality: All three kids at the table had been waitlisted at other schools. This uneasy bond raised new issues: If I wasn’t good enough for the school I really wanted, is there something wrong with this one for accepting me? If I enroll, will I be with a bunch of kids who would prefer to be elsewhere?

At the end of the day, my daughter put on a brave face, but she’s not a great actress. We returned home with heavy hearts, knowing we would commit to a school that didn’t feel like a fit.

We made time for another tour of her first choice, to confirm whether it was worth playing this waiting game. At check-in, we bumped into the admissions officer my daughter had emailed. She introduced herself. I blurted out: “Her guidance counselor called you; she was waitlisted.” He immediately found us a quiet spot to talk. He was kind but direct. She should feel good about getting this far, but, if recent years were any indication, she should realize she might not go farther. However, transferring sophomore year was always an option. With his words ringing in our ears, we started the tour. Once again, she loved the school. We submitted her deposit to the other university.

So how did my daughter’s story end? The way it had ended for just one student the year before at her top choice—one admitted out of 3,446 who had been waitlisted. On May 1, she had worn a t-shirt from one university. On May 2, she received an email from The One that announced: “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to the Class of 2023!” After nearly two anguished months, she had two days to decide what to do. She felt guilty about the first deposit; guiltier that there would probably be a very poor financial aid offer this late in the game.

Reader, she accepted the offer.

My son will apply to college in a year and a half. I’m already contemplating how unbending my waitlist rules will be. My daughter’s experience shows that long shots happen, so you might think I’d toss those rules out the window. But really, what are the chances of that pumpkin turning into a gilded carriage twice?

Somewhere around 1 in 3,446, I guess.

Check back tomorrow for the companion piece to this post, where you’ll learn about the waitlist from the admission officer’s perspective and how to use the Common Data Set.

About the Author

Julie Wolf, the sole proprietor of Qwerty Editorial, is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Framingham, MA, with her husband and their three children: an eighth-grader, a high school sophomore, and a first-year college student. She can be reached through LinkedIn.

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