What to do when you get waitlisted

As regular admission decisions begin to go out, it’s time to think about what to do if the answer you get isn’t Yes or No, but Maybe.

First, let me say I’m sorry. Getting waitlisted sucks. In some ways a Maybe is worse than a No, because it keeps the suspense going and also starts to make logistical problems for you. Take a little time to be frustrated or angry or completely freaked out, but no more than a day or two. You’ve got to figure out what to do next.

What to do if you get waitlisted to a school that’s your only option.

This may be because you only applied to one school, or you got denials from the other schools you applied to. If it’s because you got accepted to at least one other school but the financial aid offer is so bad that you can’t afford it, then you should also consider ways to ask that school for more money. Waitlist spots rarely come with good financial aid, because so much of the budget is already gone.

First you’ve got to demonstrate a lot of interest and keep demonstrating it. When a college starts calling people from the wait list, they’re often in a hurry. Even if they’re not in a hurry, they don’t want to waste their time. They’re more likely to call people who they know will enroll over people they’re not sure about. How do they know you’ll enroll? Because you’ve told them: “if you accept me from the wait list, I will attend.” You’ve opened all their emails and replied when appropriate. You’ve spent time looking on their website. You’ve asked them questions, and asked them what you can do to help yourself get off the wait list and into the school.

Next, you’ve got to understand that there’s no senioritis for you! It’s normal for seniors to slack off a little bit once they see the end in sight and know that they’ll be at college next year. You don’t yet know that you’ll be in college next year. If you’re hoping to get a spot from a wait list and you’re in contact with the college that waitlisted you, you need to be able to tell them that you’re doing really well and trying to prove yourself. You’re not done yet, and that’s ok.

You also need a back-up plan. You can start searching for colleges with rolling admissions or late deadlines. You can check out the local community college if there’s one near enough. You can explore gap year options. You should probably do all of these, and make sure you talk to your family about your options. The only bad option is to decide that you’re going to give up on going to college. There’s no reason to do that.

What to do if you get waitlisted to a school but you’ve been accepted to other schools.

If you get waitlisted by one college you applied to, but have affordable acceptances from at least one other, then don’t sign up for the wait list. Just tell them to go away, you have a better offer elsewhere. It can feel really good to know that you’re the one making the decisions, not the other way around. You have power in this situation—use it. Thank them for their time, and then move on and let it go.

What to do if you get waitlisted from your top-choice school and you want to stay on the wait list.

Sometimes it’s not that easy to tell them to go away, and you sign up for the wait list anyway. No problem.

First, do all the same things you’d do if the wait list school is your only option. Sign up the wait list, and contact the admissions rep for your area and let them know that if they call you, you will come. Reply to all their emails and keep checking back on their website. Keep demonstrating your interest, because it really counts in this situation. Keep working at school—no senioritis for you, either.

Choose your “backup” school from the ones you got accepted to, understanding that it’s probably where you’re going next year. 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. Once you take a spot at your backup school, you might quickly find that it’s no longer your backup and change your mind about the wait list.

Take a rational approach to figuring out your limits. 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 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 now $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 $1,500, 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 is, how much you are actually 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 Bug Off.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring