Ready to deal with a wait list

Tomorrow is May 1st! That's the deadline to commit to a college for next year. While that means it's the end of the admissions process for most people, for admissions offices around the nation it means it's the beginning of Wait List Season. I have advised, strongly, against agreeing to be on a wait list. However, if you are on a wait list and are still hoping to get that call, here's what you'll need to know.

The first thing to understand is that it's not really a list. It's more of a pool. Students often ask questions like "what is my place on the wait list?", which really doesn't reflect how wait lists work. The people on a waiting list are not ranked. There's no order. There's no "top of the list" or "first in line." 

Let's imagine a May 2nd scenario. The Dean of Admissions for a private university looks at the final numbers. They were aiming for 2,000 first-year students, but so far they only have 1,850. The Dean is freaking out, because that's a lot of unfilled seats, a lot of tuition dollars not coming in. And the Dean knows that one of the main ways she'll be evaluated by the university's president is how well she "fills the class." She needs 150 more students, but not just any students. The Dean calls all the admissions officers in for a meeting and says something like this:

"We're still 150 short. We boast that we have students from all 50 states, but we have no one from Hawaii or Idaho this year. So far this year's class is whiter than last year, but we're aiming to be more diverse. The South is one of the few areas where the student population is growing, so we need a strong reputation there. But we're under-represented in the South. The head of the music department is telling me that orchestras don't work without enough violin players...and we don't have enough violin players. And the soccer team really needs a back-up goalkeeper. So let's get to work and get this wrapped up as soon as possible."

So you see why it works more like a pool than an ordered list. They're going to try to fill those 150 seats--fast, before people get too committed to the school they accepted--but they're going to prioritize applicants from the South, Hawaii, and Idaho. They're going to be looking extra hard for non-white students. They're going to be looking for violin players and goalies. That's how they're going to rank the list, but they didn't know that's how they'd be ranking it until May 1st.

There are two other things they're going to prioritize. First, they're going to give more weight to students they think will actually go to their school if called. Demonstrated Interest is probably more of a factor after May 1st than any other time. The admissions staff is under intense time pressure, so they want to only work with people who seem most committed. The people who seem most committed are the ones who have been in contact with them, who have visited campus if possible, who open the emails they send and click on the links. By this point they have pretty good data on who has actually been behaving as if they're interested, and those are the people they'll call first. It's too late to fake demonstrated interest.

The other priority is that they'll be looking as much as they can for people who can afford the school. There may not be any financial aid money left in their budget at this point. Sure, people who were offered aid didn't accept and that frees up some money. But the people who received the most financial aid are the ones who probably accepted it. So there's not much, if any, left to go around. Also, because time is a factor, the admissions staff may not want to wait the hours, days, or even weeks it takes to get a financial aid package from the Financial Aid office. Once all the paperwork is done, the Aid Office may tell Admissions that there's still money to go around and this might change how they approach it. But the first people they call are probably going to be the people who can afford it. 

If you're on a wait list and still want to get in, what can you do?

Send an email, on May 1. Be very clear and to the point. "I've accepted a place at _____, but I'm still very interested in going to your school. If you offer me a place, I will take it."

I think it's good to let them know your time frame. Give them your deadline. You're not doing this to "look strong" and "negotiate." You're doing this to be clear and honest, and to not waste their time or yours. If you don't want to deal with the emotional and logistical stress of getting a call one week before school starts, then go ahead and tell them what your time limits are. 

Politely offer to answer any questions, to interview (or re-interview), and to send more recommendations. They probably don't want any of those things, but offer.

Send this email to everyone who matters. Send it to the admissions representative for your area. You should already know who this is. Send it to the heads of any special programs you dealt with (like that orchestra director or soccer coach). Don't send it to the Dean of Admissions or the school's President unless you happen to already have some sort of relationship to them.

Once you accepted a place on a wait list, you probably already did a lot of this. Do it again, this week. And make sure you state clearly that you will go if you get a place.

If you get any follow-up calls or emails, reply to them quickly, thoroughly, and honestly. 

And then repeat as necessary. The line between "persistence" and "being annoying" is fuzzy, but it can be crossed. So don't bug them daily. On the other hand, being near the top of their inbox isn't a bad idea. So, if you don't hear back from them, repeat your message once a week until your deadline passes.

There's really not much more you need to do. You don't need to beg--that just looks bad. You don't need to remind them of your Legacy status--they already have that in your file. You don't need to let them know that you can afford to pay full cost--they already know that. You don't need to tell them that your family donated money to the school--they're already aware. What they most want to hear at this time is that if you're someone they're still looking for, you will come. And, as much is it hurts to say it, if you're not someone who they're looking for, there's really nothing you can do about that.

Good luck! And congratulations to all the seniors who have accepted their place somewhere (or who will by tomorrow)!

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