Help for Despondent Son in Waitlist Limbo

Question: My high school senior was accepted to six schools, to one of which we had to submit a deposit. His first choice wait listed him, and now he anxiously waits. He revisited the week after the university notified him of his status, he spoke with his regional admissions counselor on campus, spoke with a lovely professor who gave him an additional recommendation while there and has since submitted his third quarter grades and more recent honors. He has a very high GPA and a 30 ACT. In fact, he is in the middle-upper range of admitted students at this East Coast school, which is quite selective and on the smaller side.

Now, It’s May 3. The Admissions Committee is likely deciding who to admit off the waitlist. My son is physically ill, anxious and refuses to accept that he is likely to attend the other school. Is there anything else he can do to help his chances and get him admitted off the wait list? Is it silly for him to retain any hope after a certain point, like the end of May? I think he should be cautiously optimistic.

This situation is worse than being rejected. He is so disappointed in himself, and I only want him to be happy and mentally move forward if he truly has no realistic chances to attend this school. Do you have any advice about this Wait list Limbo? I would greatly appreciate your input. Watching my son struggle with this is so difficult, and I feel so helpless.

As a parent myself, I empathize. As hard as this limbo-land is for your son, I suspect it’s even worse for you. It sounds as if your son is doing all the right stuff to try to get off the waitlist at his top-choice college. The only other suggestion I can make is for him to ask his school counselor to telephone the college this week and lobby for him.

Waitlist admission—as I suspect you know—is very much a numbers game. Colleges use the waitlist to remedy deficiencies in the entering class, and some years –if the admission folks have guessed well—there are no deficiencies at all. But, if they do use the waitlist, it’s often to fill specific voids (e.g., in gender, geography, race, ethnicity, undersubscribed majors, etc.) The students who are usually the first ones to come off a waitlist are those who can bolster some flagging numbers (and often who can pay full freight as well). So, if your son thinks he might be able to fill a void, he should ask his counselor to highlight this during the phone call by saying, “I bet you need more students from Alabama!” or “How is your German-major head-count this year?” If you don’t require financial aid (or if you qualify for just a little) the counselor can remind the admission office of this, too.

However, keep in mind that small colleges must be especially particular when selecting students from the waitlist. These schools often admit only students who can do “double duty”—i.e., they are both alumni children and soccer players or they are both minority students and tuba players. The admissions dean at a small and extremely selective liberal arts college recently told me that his waitlisted roster was actually stronger than the admitted class! That’s because his institution was required to accept certain students with “hooks” (legacies, athletes, etc.) which—in such a tiny school—left little room for the unhooked candidates whom the admission committees might have liked better!

Finally, I assume that your son has already told his regional rep that this college is his first choice and he will definitely enroll if admitted. Likewise, if the counselor makes a call, he or she can also say that “This student will come ANY TIME you contact him, even if it’s at the end of August,” if indeed this is true. While most waitlist activity wraps up before the end of June, there are some years when there is more “summer melt” (the number of enrolled students who bail out at the last minute) than anticipated, and thus a couple waitlisted students may get a surprise phone call just as they are Mapquesting directions to a different campus!

In The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” … apt words for your son right now. Yes, he should be cautiously optimistic, but he also needs to concurrently try to move on and get excited about the school where he has sent his deposit. Encourage him to reach out to other students who already go there or who will be in his freshman class. He can do this via Facebook, College Confidential, through friends or friends of friends, etc. If his number-one college doesn’t admit him, he may be sad for a while as he mourns the loss of a dream, but he should bounce back. (If he doesn’t, it may be a warning sign that something else is going on.) And, above all, you need to move on, too. If he sees you feeling despondent and helpless, he may believe that he’s disappointed you as well as himself. So endeavor to be upbeat about the option that he has right now. Learning to stand up again after a fall is an important life skill, so—whether he gets the news he wants or he doesn’t—your son should be in good shape, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the moment.

(posted 5/3/2014)