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What to Do When Waitlisted

Kennon Dick

Written by Kennon Dickon March 18th, 2021

I started my career as an admissions counselor for Johnson State College. Soon after that, I served as associate director at Drexel University, where I was also the athletic liaison between the admissions office and coaches. In addition, I spent a few years at Drexel working with transfer students, reviewing applications, and developing articulation agreements with area colleges. Moving to Swarthmore College, I served for eight years as an associate dean of admissions and again as the athletics liaison. My years at Swarthmore in what I call hyper-selective admissions is where I gained much of the experience I use to help me guide students in putting together the strongest application possible.
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by Kennon Dick, former admissions officer at Swarthmore College

What the Waitlist Means

Some students would rather be denied than waitlisted and I don’t blame them. For many, the college application process has been a long and protracted ordeal; with a waitlist letter, it’s going to last a few months longer with far less certainty about how it will end. Here is a little pretext for waitlist decisions from the more selective colleges: some waitlists are “genuine” waitlists. They truly signify that if space in the class opens up, the college would like to extend you an offer of admission at that time. Schools with “genuine” waitlists simply had too many qualified applicants to take all those they really wanted. However, some fraction of waitlist decisions are “courtesy” offers. These are for the applications where the admissions officer knows the applicant is not qualified for the class, but for whatever reason doesn’t want to send out a deny letter. Maybe your parent is an active alum or your aunt is a board member; or it could be that your application was the first one the college received from your high school and the office doesn’t want to discourage future applicants. There can be all kinds of reasons for a “courtesy” waitlist. How do you know which category your waitlist offer is? You don’t and it’s highly unlikely that an admissions officer will tell you unless they have a very good relationship with your school counselor and trust them implicitly. So what can you do?

7 Things You Should Do If You’re on the Waitlist

  1. Most schools will give you some mechanism for you to contact them and stay on their active waitlist. DO THIS QUICKLY. There is a big difference in perception if you reach out within a few days after the decision or if you do it on April 30. You want to be toward the front of the line.
  2. Write a letter to your admissions officer and tell them that you are still very interested in their school. Wait a week or so to take this step. Don’t do it five minutes after step one. Put a reminder on your calendar to take this step about two weeks after step one.
  3. Wrap your mind around the fact that your waitlist school is your Plan B at best. You must have a Plan A. This means moving forward with a school that didaccept you by sending in your deposit and reserving your place in the class prior to the deposit deadline.
  4. Once you have had time to let this settle in and the rawness of the decision has subsided a bit, consider the reality of your options. If you do get in, can you afford the waitlist school? Or do you really need a scholarship or sizable grant to make the finances work? In my experience in admissions, I never offered a scholarship to a waitlisted student. Are you prepared to uproot and forfeit your deposit at School A to accept a waitlist offer at School B? Often you have already talked to your roommate at School A, and possibly even chosen classes and your dorm room, when you get the call from School B. It might be harder than you think to make that switch.
  5. Send another brief letter in early May if you are still interested. Many, if not most, students feel at this point that they are so committed to their Plan A school that they have lost interest in their waitlist option. At this time, you may think that this is impossible, but it may happen to you too.
  6. Be prepared to make a quick decision. When I was calling waitlist students and making an admission offer, I would ask them to make a decision within 48 hours. If they needed financial aid, they would have a week to process everything and make their decision. If the call comes, everything will happen at light speed, so be prepared.
  7. Wait. Hence the name, There is no way to know if you are going to get a call or not and sometimes that call may come as late as July. The National Association for College Admission Counseling rules state that waitlist offers have to be made by August 1. That’s a long time to wait and not be sure where you are going to be in the fall. Most students commit to their Plan A well before this point.
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