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What To Do if You're Wait-Listed at Your First-Choice College

Each year, more and more students apply to college, and colleges regularly report having fewer and fewer open seats. As a result, the number of students placed on waitlists has grown. The uncertainty of being waitlisted can hit prospective students hard. Learn what to do if you find yourself on the waiting list.

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Why Have I Been Waitlisted?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 21.8 million students enrolled in US colleges and universities in Fall 2013. That record number of college students resulted from record numbers of college applicants. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the number of college applications rose significantly between 2001 and 2011, as did the average number of schools to which each applicant applied. Innovations like online applications and the Common Application process made it easy for students to apply to 10 schools with one click.

With more students applying to more schools, acceptance rates at all schools have gone down and waitlist numbers are on the rise. Colleges are no longer sure whether or not accepted students will attend, so they are padding their waitlists with qualified applicants in hopes of fielding a full freshman class.

Small numbers of waitlisted students are only offered admission after accepted students make their decisions. They are always offered admission after May 1, the national deadline for admitted students to accept offers.

Students who are waitlisted find themselves in a pickle - wait and hope for a spot, or move on to another school on their list. Admission offers from the waitlist are few and far between, particularly for very selective schools. For example, the College Board reports that in Fall 2012, the University of Michigan received over 42,000 applications, accepted roughly 15,500 students, and offered about 13,600 students a place on the waitlist. Four thousand of those waitlisted students accepted, and 74 students ultimately enrolled.

Students who choose to wait don't have to do so passively, though. There are steps you can take to move from the waitlist to the freshman class.

Your First Decision: Do I Stay on the List?

If you are not admitted to a college and they wish to place you on the waitlist, you're given a chance to accept that placement. You do so with no promises, and you're not bound to accept any admissions offer in the future. If you're hoping for admission, your first step must be to accept the spot on the waitlist. If you're waitlisted at more than one school, you can accept each school's offer to wait.

What to Do If You Want to Wait It Out

While the ultimate decision is out of your hands, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of getting off the waitlist.

Respond Immediately

Let a college know right away that you'd like to be considered for admission from the waitlist. Schools will let you know what you need to do - follow any directions you're given. Do not call if the school asks you to indicate your choice online.

Contact the Admissions Staff

Write a letter to the admissions officer indicating your interest in attending that school. Provide insight into why you're interested and why you feel you're a good fit, including extracurricular activities you plan to participate in. Let the college know that it's your first choice, and be forward in stating that you'll attend if you're accepted. You may also provide another letter of recommendation, particularly if it's from an alumnus who knows both you and the school well. Keep your counselor informed about your plans, and see if he or she can relay to admissions officers your enthusiasm for their school.

Keep the Admissions Office Informed

Continue to do your best academically and remain involved in extracurricular activities. Submit your next round of grades to the admissions office through the Common Application or via your counselor. Great third- and fourth-quarter grades may mean the difference between the waitlist and admission.

Make Alternate Plans

College waitlists can range in length from a few prospective students to a few thousand. With such long lists, there's a great chance you won't be offered admission. Hope for the best, but plan as though you won't be accepted. Consider schools that accepted you, and prepare to enroll at one. If you're ultimately admitted from the waitlist, however, you have to forfeit any deposit you make at another school.

Will you be living on campus at the school you ultimately choose to attend? Find ten tips for making the most of your campus experience.

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