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Articles / Applying to College / Wading into A Waitlist

Wading into A Waitlist

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 21, 2015
By now, you've probably seen the results of this past year's college admissions cycle. I've already cited some of the punishing acceptance rates. Stanford set the pace with just a hair over five percent. It's significantly easier to accept being denied at a school where well over 90% of applicants are denied than it is to be waitlisted there. As I always refer to it, being waitlisted is “the purgatory of college admissions." You're not in and you're not out. You're just … waiting.

Being waitlisted at your “dream" school can be exceptionally frustrating. There's the economic aspect. You have to enroll somewhere, so you must commit to one of the schools who judged you to be clearly worthy of attending. That leads to the possibility that if your waitlist campaign is successful, you will have to withdraw your enrollment from the “bridesmaid" school where you paid your commitment deposit and, naturally, sacrifice those dollars.

Speaking of bridesmaids, there's also the psychological aspect of being waitlisted at your dream school. If you are eventually denied, you may make the mistake of thinking about the school you do attend as being second best, a kind of consolation prize. Well, let me tell you that this is completely wrong and such a mindset will undermine your chances to have a positive, bonding experience at your school. Truth is, though, that nearly everyone who doesn't get into their first-choice college and enrolls in an “alternate" school finds that school to be a wonderful match. Things tend to work out for the best.

In any case, back to the topic at hand: your waitlist … how to deal with it.

One of the more common waitlist directives from colleges asks that you let them know (usually by way of a response card) if you wish to remain on their waitlist. If so, they recommend that you make an enrollment deposit at some other school to ensure that you'll have a place to go in the fall. This, as I mention above, sets up the possibility that you would lose that money if you get off the waitlist and accept the offer of admission.

Reacting to a waitlisting takes many forms. There is that famous example from Jacques Steinberg's book, The Gatekeepers, about the admissions process at Wesleyan University:

“Carter Bays '97 got waitlisted—and then sent the office of admissions a postcard every day for a month. Acclaimed today as the award-winning writer and producer of How I Met Your Mother, Carter Bays '97 was just an aspiring playwright from Shaker Heights, Ohio, when he applied to Wes in 1992. He got waitlisted, so he did what any other student would do: he attempted to 'prove that I am worthy of attending your school' by sending the office of admissions a new postcard every day for weeks. Office staff members began to race to the mailbox to get his latest note; eventually, they vouched for him and pushed his name to the top of the waitlist pile. At Wesleyan, he ended up becoming editor of The Ampersand; today, he's apparently really embarrassed by his articles. After he graduated, the same admissions staffers typed his name into the alumni database to check his first job. The answer: 'Staff Writer, The Late Show with David Letterman.'"

Granted, you may not have the imagination, motivation, dedication, and patience that Carter Bays had to deal with a waitlist situation. However, there are some structured methods to deal with this situation.

First of all, note that being waitlisted is not a comment on your qualifications. I've mentioned before the words of Princeton University's late Dean of Admission, Fred Hargadon. When asked about why he waitlisted so many applicants during his reign at Old Nassau, he said (paraphrasing), “There are so many superb applicants here every year, I just don't have the heart to deny them outright. So, waitlisting is my way of saying, 'You were good enough to get in, but we just didn't have enough room for you.'" I find that to be quite compassionate.


I generated a structured approach to deal with waitlists some years ago. For what it's worth, here are some excerpts from an email I sent to one of my waitlisted clients. You may find something of value in it …

… I'd like to give you a bit of perspective on the waitlist campaign process:

– You need to fill in any gaps that could add to your existing profile. Look for examples of things that can set you apart from other applicants. I'm thinking about special long-term hobbies, work-related experiences, or anything at all that is unique. Don't hold back or fail to mention anything, regardless of how unimportant or insignificant you may feel it to be. Maybe your mother, dad, or friends might be able to remind you of something. Be comprehensive. I'm talking about eclectic, broad-based, personal things you do (not resume stuff). Do you create quilts (yeah, guys do that, too), collect Civil War figurines, fly airplanes, do creative photography, etc.? If so, tell them about that. The point is to let them know what makes you an interesting person, beyond the “usual" stuff most applicants write about.

– Next, I want to make sure that you understand some basics about dealing with waitlists. Your “marketing campaign" (that's what it really amounts to) should have two main parts:

– Getting help from your school counselor.

– Helping yourself in the classroom and through contact with your waitlist schools.

– Your counselor should have enough motivation and advocacy ability to contact your respective regional admissions reps and lobby for your admissions case. It's something school counselors either know or don't know. If you haven't already done so, you should ask your counselor what s/he will be doing on your behalf regarding your waitlists. S/he should ask the reps about what specific areas they would like to see you improve in order for you to increase your chances for admission. Once s/he finds out what areas they're looking at, s/he can lobby in your behalf and brief you. Then you can conduct your side of the campaign while s/he does his/her thing. You or s/he should also try to find out if the wailtlists are ranked and, if so, where you rank, either near the top or bottom. That will help you determine how likely it is that you may be admitted.

– Your job will consist of doing your very best in your academics and continuing to pursue your activities, perhaps even making something “dramatic" happen in one of them. You should also make a point to maintain regular contact (not to the point of being a pest, though) with your admissions reps until they close the incoming class and discard their waitlists.

– You should also consider getting one more outstanding (hopefully extraordinary) recommendation. The qualifications for an additional rec writer include knowing you well enough to write about you at more than a surface level. The majority of recs are ineffectual because they don't reveal anything other than platitudes about the applicant. A truly insightful, moving rec can do a lot to influence an adcom to make a positive decision. You've probably used your best teacher recs already. Think long and hard about someone who fits this description of knowing you well and let me know who that might be.

You must tell your adcom reps of your intentions to prove, beyond a doubt, that you are a worthy admit. This statement will take the form of a brief, but pointed, message sent to your reps. Send an e-mail now, because time is short. Here's a spec for that message:

Length: 250-300 words, 3-4 paragraphs.

Tone: Upbeat, optimistic, eager. Kind of like “I can't wait to show you all these additional great aspects about me that are sure to convince you that I'm worthy." (Don't use that exact sentence. It's just a mood-setter for you.)

Key points:

– I'm not discouraged but relish the challenge of turning my waitlisting into an admit.

– There are some additional aspects to my profile that I will be revealing to you.

– I plan on writing an additional personal statement to tell you about some special aspects about me that I didn't have room to include in my application.

– I hope that you'll take my appeal seriously and be willing to review my periodic contacts.

– [School's name here] is still my absolutely clear first-choice school and I hope to prove that I am a worthy member of your Class of 2010.

– Thank you for your time in considering my resolve here. I'll be in touch again soon.

Put these points into your own words and, as I mentioned, make three or four brief paragraphs.

– Now, you may want to do an additional personal statement. The topic will be some aspect about yourself that you didn't cover in your original applications. Think hard and try to come up with something that ties you to what you want to pursue at these schools (engineering?). I see this statement as being in the range of 500-700 words. That would be 4-6 decent paragraphs. These are the key elements of a strong statement:

– attention-grabbing lead

– short, but effective sentence structures

– good paragraphing with logical transitions

– a firm thesis statement

– pointed anecdotes (mild humor would not be entirely inappropriate at least once)

– a conclusion that wraps up everything and ties back into your opening.

Send this statement about a week after that initial message I mentioned. The key is getting your name and profile in front of the adcom reps and then reinforcing your position with new and convincing information.

The big picture is that you should be prepared to develop a strong relationship with your adcom reps as soon as possible. You should be ready to provide him/her with news about any kind of significant (emphasis on “significant") accomplishment on your part. You won't be in constant contact, but a good rule of thumb is at least two-to-three contacts of some kind per month. Your counselor can do his/her thing, too, along the way.

If you follow these guidelines, you will have done the very best you can to take your best shot at turning your waitlistings into a fat envelope. It's going to take some work, but that's the price you must pay to pursue these elite colleges …


I'm sure that some admission committee types would laugh at this seemingly obsessive approach to approaching a waitlist. However, just remember old Carter Bay sending the office of admissions a new postcard every day for weeks. Rise about the perfunctory!

Finally, some colleges send out specific guidelines for dealing with their waitlist. I suppose that they want to avoid an avalanche of postcards and/or communications like I suggest in my approach. Here's an except from an actual set of guidelines sent out this year by Columbia University:

…Thank you for your interest in remaining on the Columbia University waitlist. If places in the class do become available, we typically notify candidates no earlier than May 15 and no later than July 1.

If your interest in Columbia remains very high, we strongly recommend that you submit a very brief (one-page maximum) supplementary statement of your own by e-mailing ugrad-confirm@columbia.edu by May 1, 2015. We do not conduct interviews for students on the waitlist, and we advise against the submission of any additional recommendations.

Please refer to your waitlist letter for additional information regarding the waitlist.

We will be in touch with more information in the coming weeks …

So, you can see that Columbia eschews extra recommendations but will entertain a “supplementary statement." They provide an opportunity for you to “market" yourself.


So, it pays to be informed before you wade into the waitlist waters. History has shown that the more selective the school, the lower your chances of getting in off the waitlist are, but it does happen. If you're willing to wade in, I wish you the very best. I hope the above may be of some help to your campaign.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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