The Agony of Waiting
It's that season - colleges have started sending out application decisions. That means a lot of excitement, heartbreak and hard choices for many prospective students. But for some, it just means more waiting. Although the final numbers aren't in, early evidence suggests that waiting lists are exceptionally big this year. The New York Times reports that Stanford and Yale offered almost 1,000 spots on their respective waiting lists, and Duke offered a staggering 3,000.
Experts say that the surge may be caused by the general uncertainty of college admissions these days. More students are applying to college than ever before, and many are applying to more schools than ever before in order to hedge their bets. As a result, colleges have to make more acceptance decisions with less certainty about who will actually attend. So they hedge their own bets by placing more students on the waiting list. The situation has led one college counselor to declare that 'the wait list is now the defining endgame in college admissions.'
Unfortunately, the odds aren't great for students who've been wait listed. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, fewer than 30% of students get accepted off of wait lists. Johns Hopkins University, for example, didn't admit any students from their 2009 wait list. But that doesn't mean that you should despair or just sit back and do nothing. There are a few things you can do, or avoid doing, that may improve your chances.
Make a decision.
The first thing you need to do when you get wait listed is decide how much you really want to attend that school. Chances are you've applied to several other schools and gotten in to at least one or two. And there are financial considerations - students admitted from the wait list typically get the dregs of financial aid.
If you're pretty sure you're going somewhere else, let the admissions office know right away. Your spot on the list - or potential spot at the school - could go to another student. However, if it's your dream school, or you haven't been accepted to a better school yet, then accept that spot on the waiting list as soon as possible. Most schools provide a paper or online form that you'll need to fill out to indicate your interest and there's typically an early spring deadline.
Do some research.
The waiting will be a little less stressful if you feel informed. Most schools won't tell you exactly where you are on the waiting list, but you can find out useful information about the school's process. Do they number each student or group students in tiers? When do they typically decide to go to the waiting list? How many students have they accepted from the list in the past?
Write a letter.
The personal essay is your chance to stand out from all the other prospective students when you're applying. Similarly, a well-written letter can set you apart from the rest of the waiting list. Express your commitment to the school and explain why you would be a great fit. Keep it short and eloquent, and make sure to emphasize what makes you unique.
Keep them updated.
A lot can happen in the few months between sending in your application and getting your admissions decision. If you got good grades in your last term, request that a new transcript be sent to the school. (If your official grades aren't in yet, you may be able to request preliminary grades from your teachers.) Fill them in on other academic accomplishments as well as any extracurricular activities that have earned you bragging rights, such as volunteering, a successful art project or that big sports victory.
Request another recommendation.
Some schools will allow you to send in a supplementary letter of recommendation when you get wait listed. Ask someone who's familiar with what you're doing right now like a current teacher or other mentor. Avoid asking someone just because they attended the school - recommendations from alumni don't hold any extra weight.
Request an interview.
Many schools will grant interviews to wait listed students who haven't interviewed already. If you can, schedule a meeting with the dean of admissions. Use this opportunity to impress them with your poise, intelligence and passion for their school. This can also be your chance to account for any rough patches in your academic history and explain what you learned from them. If you can't make it to the school's campus, seek out the admissions representative who covers your area. This person may also be able to help you figure out what your application is lacking.
Let your parents get involved.
Schools want to see evidence of your independence. Your parents may want to advocate for you with the admissions office, but don't let them. Colleges expect you to fight this battle for yourself.
A big no-no for job and college applications is asking why you didn't make the cut. The same rule applies when you're put on a waiting list. There are so many factors that go into admissions decisions that no one will be able to give you a specific reason, and putting admissions officers in an awkward position does not make a good impression. You might, however, be able to get a feel for where you went wrong from the school's local admissions representative.
Rely on gimmicks.
Don't try to bribe the admissions office with homemade goodies or get their attention with cheesy tricks. Admissions officers are clear about the fact that gimmicks don't work and can reflect poorly on a potential student.
Harangue the admissions office.
It's a good idea to follow up with new information or a letter of interest, but making yourself a pest isn't going to win you any points. Don't flood them with emails or call every person in the office. Make your interest in the school clear, then demonstrate some patience.