Nobody likes being strung along. But if you're one of the roughly 10 percent of college applicants today who find themselves on a waiting list—the basic equivalent of purgatory when it comes to admissions—that's pretty much what it feels like. "Students on the waiting list anguish over whether or not they have a chance at being admitted," says Cheryl Brown, director of undergraduate admissions at Binghamton University in New York.
Today, things are pretty messy in the high-stakes college admissions landscape. More students are applying to more colleges to maximize their chances of securing a spot. In turn, colleges are accepting—and rejecting—more applicants. And because it is becoming so hard to predict which students will attend, experts say that admissions officers are building large wait list pools as insurance. Most campuses at the Universities of California, for example, are using waiting lists for the first time this year. "Wait lists are longer and more unpredictable this year than ever before," says Marjorie Jacobs, director of college counseling at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. "The wait list is now the defining endgame in college admissions."
If the wait list is indeed the endgame, then you should be able to make some game-changing moves if you're placed on one. Here are some things to keep in mind:
First and foremost—and this might sound like a no-brainer—but return the card or fill out the online form to indicate your interest in staying on the wait list. Many colleges want an answer on your decision by mid-April, says Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Richmond. And think about whether you really want to attend that school. You shouldn't stay on the list if there is any doubt about whether you would enroll there, because if and when the time comes, you might only have a few hours to confirm. If you say "yes" to the waitlist and you subsequently turn down an offer, you could effectively be taking somebody else's spot. "Think of it in the same terms as an early decision commitment," says Jonathan Webster, associate dean of admissions at Washington and Lee University. "Don't say you'll enroll if admitted unless you will." And if you do decide to stay on the list, send your deposit and make plans to enroll at another institution in the event that you are not admitted from the wait list.
It might be tempting, but don't call to get the skinny on why you were put on the wait list. "It's kind of like asking someone, 'Why do you prefer an apple over a banana?'" says Eric Staab, dean of admission at Kalamazoo College. "There are many variables that come into play when admissions officers make their decision, and rarely will they tell you it's because of X, Y or Z that you didn't get admitted."
If you have new academic information or special accomplishments to boast about—strong third quarter grades, new standardized testing results, a track team win—let the college know. If you don't have new official grades yet, you can contact your teachers and ask that they provide you with a midterm update, says Richmond's Tessier. Also, some counselors say you can send one—and only one—additional letter of recommendation from a teacher, coach, or administrator who can speak to exactly who you are right now, and why you are a good fit for the school.
Crafting a well-written letter to the admissions committee that expresses your commitment to the school, as well as an academic reason for wanting to attend, could also tip the scales in your favor. In the letter, relay in one short paragraph why the school is a good fit for you, whether it's an academic program or an extra-curricular activity, and how you would contribute to the campus community. "Selective schools look for that person on the wait list who will fill that 'empty' space on their grid—a boy majoring in art or a girl who is going to do journalism," says educational consultant Annalee Nissenholtz.
Colleges seek out students from their wait lists who are committed to attending if offered a seat in the class. If the college is your No. 1 choice, state that in your letter and say you will attend if you are taken off the list. "It is the job of the student to make sure that their first choice interest in the school is clear and their plan to attend is unquestionable," says SAR High School's Jacobs.
You can also call and ask if you can interview, especially if you haven't interviewed already. Some colleges permit this for students on the wait list. Try to schedule the meeting with the dean of admissions, and make your case directly. "If the student had a rocky patch in her high school career, it's imperative to discuss what happened and explain what steps she took—or will take—to ensure it will not happen again," says Kalamazoo's Staab.
Don't try to buy your way in with goodies. "Cookies, posters, and YouTube videos expressing their interest in enrolling generally do very little to further a cause," says Patrick Winter, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Georgia. Mandee Heller Adler, a counselor and president of International College Counselors, recalls one instance where begging actually worked, but in general resorting to tactics like sending multiple e-mails and calling every officer on staff is considered a no-no.
But sometimes it doesn't matter how great your extra essays or recommendations are. The National Association for College Admission Counseling estimates that only about 30 percent of students who opt to remain on a wait list are ultimately admitted. Johns Hopkins, for instance, did not accept a single person off its 2009 wait list. So counselors recommend that students embrace their backup colleges and try to see the positives in them. This might also be an ideal time to explore a "gap year" between high school and college. Colleges and guidance counselors alike encourage it, and it might open some new doors and give you time to re-assess your goals. "A gap year could take a disappointment and transform it into an exciting opportunity for growth, adventure, or a career internship," says college counselor and educational consultant Shirley Bloomquist. If your second choice school turns out to be a poor fit after a year, you can try to transfer.