You finally heard back from the school you really want to attend, and they put you on the waitlist. First, let me acknowledge that getting waitlisted sucks. In some ways a straight-up No would feel better than a Maybe, because then you could just start accepting the No and move on. But a Maybe? It both gives you hope that there might be a Yes, but also makes you act as though it's a No. It stinks. I got waitlisted at Oberlin in 1992, and it still stings. I understand.
But you have to act as though it was a No. You can't refuse to make other plans hoping that you'll hear back from the school that waitlisted you. Depending on the college and the year (even if you look up their statistics from last year, they may be wildly different this year), your chances of hearing good news later are either slim, very slim, or maddeningly slim. Some people will advise you to mount a campaign: send in extra rec letters, offer to write another essay, pester the school daily. But really, you just have to move on.
Somewhere in your mind, though, you'll keep wondering what to do if it turns out you actually are one of the rare few who gets a spot later. Let's go over two different approaches to dealing with that possibility so it doesn't add anxiety to all your days between now and September.
The emotional approach. You know what feels good and empowering? Saying "screw you" to someone who rejects you but then comes back later and decides they need you. I remind students to think of college applications as looking for a good relationship, so let's think about this like a typical teenage romance movie.
Our hero has a massive crush on a charming and popular boy. Going out with him will not only be romantic, but add to her popularity and give her a sense of belonging and success she hasn't achieved yet. But when she gets up the nerve to talk to this popular guy, he won't engage. He says "maybe I'll call you later," but makes it pretty clear he's not going to call later. But it's going to be ok. The hero has found a nice boy who shares her interests and wants to take her to Prom. Sure, he's not quite as handsome and popular, but he's a fine match, and they agree to go to Prom together. And then, the day of Prom, the popular boy actually does call. His prom date went into rehab, and he expects the hero to drop her date with the nice boy and go with him instead. What should she do? Obviously, she should say "screw you," not drop the nice guy.
You can do the same. When the school puts you on the waitlist, just say you don't want to be on the waitlist. Move on. Be the person who says No. It will feel good, and it will let you focus completely on getting ready to go to the school that you accept and that accepts you.
But maybe you're not ready to do that. I totally understand. You need...
The rational approach. You need an analytical way to think about the costs and benefits of hanging on to hope that you hear back from this school. You could make a spreadsheet. You could study up on opportunity cost and the sunk cost fallacy. You can also think about all the extra hoops you have to jump through as extra fees that the dream school adds on to your bill.
Say you get waitlisted from Dream School, and you accept a place at Decent School and put down a $1,000 non-refundable deposit, and then Dream School calls back and gives you a spot. Think of that $1,000 as a one-time fee. Ask yourself: do I want to go to Dream School even if they charge me an extra $1,000 fee they don't charge most people? If your answer is yes, and it likely is, then you know what to do. But as time goes on, the fees add on. If you also make a $500 housing deposit, then the one-time fee to drop Decent School and go to Dream School is $1,500. And if you've already paid transportation costs, add those to the fees.
The really hard part is that the fees can also be emotional. Would you take a spot at Dream School even if they charged you a one-time fee of $2,000, and made you get emotionally invested in finding a roommate who you will now abandon, and made you buy t-shirts for some other school and pretend for four months that you were going to some other school? What if Dream School will also make you register late for classes and have fewer options than other freshmen the first semester? What if they'll also take away the opportunity to use Facebook groups to seek out your own choice of roommate but instead stick you wherever they have happen to have room left? These are all real possibilities of getting pulled from the wait list, and the sanest way to think about them ahead of time is to think of them as additional fees the Dream School charges. Think about where your threshold if now, how much you are and are not willing to pay. Talk to your family about it, too. Then you can rationally figure out, if you do get the call, whether you say Thank You or Screw You.
[This blog post first ran a year ago. It was one of my most popular posts of 2017, and it's still quite relevant in February and March, when so many people are beginning to hear back from colleges.]
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