You've put your all into your college applications, but the school you really had your eye on sends you back one word: “Maybe." Okay, they probably sent more than a single-word response when you end up on the waitlist, but the message still feels the same. You might be wondering, “Why wasn't I good enough?" And while that's a totally normal reaction, I urge you to not view it that way — you are plenty good enough, and that's why you're on the waitlist! It's not that you're not qualified so much as it is that the school received too many qualified candidates. It may seem personal to you right now, but while it may be hard, I urge you to put those feelings aside and face your waitlist status logically.
First things first, you have to decide whether you want to formally join the waitlist. This may seem like a simple decision — there's almost no downside to putting your name on the list, as it is not a binding decision, whereas saying “No" means that you definitely won't be admitted. However, if you've already gotten into a school you'd rather attend, declining the waitlist is a generous way to free up a potential opportunity for somebody else. If you're at all uncertain about that choice, accept the “Maybe" and take your place on the waitlist.
If you've ever been to the DMV, an airport or anywhere else with a waitlist, then you probably understand that how long you have to wait, and your chances of getting what you want can vary based on a number of factors. In the case of colleges, some put way too many students on the list and almost no one gets in. Some only put a limited number on their list, and therefore many get in. To determine your chances, research your particular school to get a reasonable idea of how many students in your position have gotten accepted from the waitlist in years past. (One such reference guide, The Best 385 Colleges, features percentages of students admitted off the waitlist for some of the schools that might be on your list.)
Whether you take your place on the waitlist or not, you're going to have to make plans to go to a different school; waitlist decisions often don't arrive until after May 1, which is typically the deadline for putting a deposit down at another school, and you don't want to be left out in the cold! This is where the small downside of getting in off the waitlist comes in: If you put a deposit down at one school and end up attending another, you won't get that other deposit back. So, having a realistic idea of whether you'll be admitted from the waitlist can help you make the necessary decisions now.
While it may be tempting to convince the school that they should let you in by keeping their admissions office updated with your grades and other activities, many schools specifically note that no supplemental material will be considered. Plus, remember a waitlisted status is the school's way of saying that your application is already strong enough to be accepted — so you don't need to do anything additional to prove that. Simply stating your acceptance of that waitlist status is all the school often requires or wants.
Of course, there are schools that are exceptions to this rule. And, again, researching your particular school's waitlist policy could help you tip the proverbial scales in your favor if they do accept supplemental material during this time. However, my biggest recommendation here is to just do what the school is telling you to do: wait.
If you're weighing your options now in the wake of a waitlist, look to our guide The Complete Book of Colleges to get any information you might have missed about the schools that have already admitted you. Giving yourself a strong Plan B after your Plan A ends in a waitlist could be your smartest course of action.
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