Posted by Julia Wasson

Apr 8, 2015 1:38:00 PM

How to keep your application active and improve your chances of admission

’Tis the season when high school seniors are receiving acceptance and rejection letters from the colleges they’ve applied to. These letters are easy to understand — either you’re in or you’re out, right?

Actually, there’s another possibility: the “wait list.” If you receive notice that you’ve been “wait-listed,” what does this mean exactly, and what can you do about it?

Welcome to the Wait List

If the college has more qualified applicants than room in the freshman class, they may create a waiting list. If you have met the college’s requirements but didn’t quite make the acceptance list, you may find yourself on the wait list. You may still have a chance of getting in if openings become available, but that’s not guaranteed. About 10 percent of college applicants are placed on waiting lists.

Imagine asking someone to go with you to prom, and their response is, “Well, I’ve asked someone else, and I’m waiting for their answer. If they say no, maybe I’ll go with you.” That’s kind of what it’s like being put on a college’s wait list.

Most colleges wait until after the May 1 Common Reply Date to notify candidates on the wait list whether they’ve been offered a place in the fall. That’s because they need to hear from those they’ve accepted to know whether there’s room for more students. Some colleges may notify candidates a little earlier, or even as late as midsummer.

A Proactive Approach

You don’t have to just sit back and wait to hear the verdict. If you’re serious about gaining admission, you must remain an active candidate for the schools that have wait-listed your application. Here are a few steps you can take to improve your chances.

First, take another look at the colleges that have accepted you.

Before you decide about a wait list, reassess the schools that have accepted you in light of the priorities you have set for your college education. Most colleges have a deadline for students to make a commitment and put down a deposit; for many colleges, that deadline is May 1, but check each institution you are considering to be sure.

Choose the best fit from among your options, complete the paperwork, and submit a deposit. Sure, you will lose your deposit if the wait-list college comes through and you decide to attend there, but you can’t risk being caught without having made any choice at all.

Decide whether to stay on the wait list.

Re-examine your feelings about your wait-list school. If you’re ultimately accepted, are you positive you’ll want to attend? When you do hear, you may have very limited time to make a final decision, so get as many details now as possible.

If you’re admitted late, you may have fewer financial aid or housing options. Would this affect your ability to attend?

Consider the effects of a drawn-out admission process on your life. Are you ready to get this decision over with and move on to the next steps? Or are you okay with being in college-admissions purgatory for a bit longer?

Also consider the effects that your decision could have on other students. By staying on the wait list, you may be holding onto a spot that could go to someone else. If you aren’t really passionate about the school, let another student have a shot. If you decide to stay on the list for now but later change your mind, let the school know.

Get a sense of your chances.

On average, only about 30 percent of students on a wait list are eventually accepted, and this can vary greatly from school to school. Research the college’s wait-list history using the “College Search” feature at After entering the college’s name, select “Applying” from the menu at left. This will take you to a page with the college’s wait-list statistics. For example, for fall 2014, Grinnell College offered 1,532 places on their waiting list, and 602 students accepted the wait-list offer. In the end, 70 of the wait-listed students were ultimately accepted by the college.

Experts disagree about whether it’s wise to contact the school for more information about your chances of being admitted. Discuss this idea with your counselor, bringing the letter you received from the school. Many counselors have relationships with admissions offices at particular colleges and may be able to find out more — including how many students are on the list and roughly how many are likely to be admitted.

Your counselor may be able to find answers to the following:

  • Does the college rank the wait-listed students; where do you fall?
  • Does it have a priority wait list; are you on it?
  • Will the wait list be used to “round out” the freshman class? If so, what characteristics — talents, abilities, experiences, etc. — are the admissions counselors looking for?
  • Are there weaknesses in your application that kept you from being accepted?

Write a professional letter to the director of admissions.

Indicate your continued interest by writing a professionally worded, handwritten note to the director of admissions thanking him or her for considering your application. If the college is your first choice, say that you will enroll if accepted. (But don’t say you’ll enroll if admitted unless you truly will.)

Briefly and politely make your case. Give specific academic reasons why you should attend that particular school. Why is it your top choice? What does it offer that other colleges don’t, and why does this make it the right fit for you? Just don’t whine, complain, or beg; it definitely won’t make you more appealing.

Update your application.

If you’ve won any major awards or had any significant academic or extracurricular accomplishments since you submitted your application, let the college know. Don’t restate what your application has already told them. But a significant new academic accomplishment, such as the following, deserves a mention:

  • Improved ACT or SAT test scores
  • New honors, distinctions, awards, leadership roles, or scholarships
  • Recent extracurricular activities that show character and maturity
  • Completion of a significant academic project that shows initiative, passion, and intellectual curiosity — especially if you did independent research and solved a significant societal or community problem (In this case, have the supervising teacher submit a new teacher recommendation.)

Request an interview.

Call the admissions office and request an interview, especially if you haven’t interviewed there yet. In the interview, make your case for why you would be a good choice for the school. If you have some weak spots on your application, explain why you are confident you will excel at the school, and describe steps you’ve taken to clear up the issue. Tell why the school is a good fit for your aspirations and how you will contribute to the school.

Study hard and stay involved.

Colleges may reevaluate you as their admissions process continues, so keep those grades up, and stay involved in the activities that matter most to you. Don’t become a senior slacker and “phone it in” for the rest of the school year.

The Big No-Nos

Admissions counselors are busy. Don’t pester, harass, or argue with them. Don’t repeatedly call or show up at their office like a creepy stalker. This goes for your parents, as well.

Parents are necessarily part of the planning process, but you must show your maturity and independence by advocating for yourself. You should be the one to contact the admissions office, not your parent(s). Also think twice about asking alumni to nag the admissions office for you.

Don’t send new information that is trivial or off-target. A fatter file isn’t necessarily a stronger file. And don’t try to get the attention of the admissions office with clever tricks or gimmicks.


Life will go on. You can still have a happy and successful future, even if you don’t get into your dream school. So celebrate your successful applications and even the honor of being wait-listed at your dream school. Say yes to a school where you can picture yourself being happy. Then enjoy the rest of your senior year. You’ve earned it.

Related posts:

College Campus Visits: Deciding What You Want Before You Go

Social Media Spring Cleaning: Polishing Your Online Persona

Improving Your Chances After the College Application Deadline

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