Your child got waitlisted…Now what?

Portrait of a nervous asian girl biting her nailsRegular decision results rolled in throughout the month of March and with them confusion and uncertainty for applicants who received waitlist letters.  What does getting waitlisted mean?  How does it impact chances for admission?  What can waitlisted candidates do to strengthen their applications?  The answers to these questions, as with many aspects of college admissions, vary depending on the school and the kid.  One key point to keep in mind this year:  All bets are off with any established admissions patterns due to the current public health crisis.  You should expect waitlists to move, although how much we do not know.

What does getting waitlisted mean?

Getting waitlisted means that your child did not gain admission to a college but did not receive a rejection either.  The admissions committee accepted a certain number of applicants based on their best estimates of how many of those accepted would enroll.  Should that estimate fall short—meaning should more admitted students than they anticipated choose to go somewhere else—they will go to their waitlist to fill that gap.

How can we figure out my child’s eventual chance of admission?

The eventual outcome for waitlisted students depends on the school.  Generally speaking, colleges have been expanding their waitlists over the past few years, often leaving hundreds or even thousands with the hope that they might receive an acceptance email over the summer.  This year, Yale admitted 2,304 students and waitlisted 1,290 applicants.  Stanford admitted about 2,100 undergraduates and waitlisted approximately 950.  As usual, MIT does a fabulous job of making their admissions process transparent.   For the Class of 2023, MIT received 21,312 applications.  The school admitted 1,427 students (6.7%) and invited 460 to remain on the waitlist, of whom 17 (3.7%) eventually received an offer of admission.  Contrast the two admit rates and you see a clear gap:  Getting in off the waitlist at MIT presents a significant challenge.

I suggest to my students that they gather information to figure out how much stock they want to place in their waitlist status.  Specifically, seek answers to questions like,

  • How many candidates did the school waitlist?
  • Is the waitlist ranked?
  • In any given year, how many students generally move off the waitlist and into the incoming freshman class?
  • Until what point in the spring or summer does the college plan to continue going to its waitlist?
  • Do candidates who move off the waitlist still have access to financial aid?

Your college counselor at school may know some of these answers.  If not, feel free to call the admissions office yourself.

What can my child do to increase the chance of admission?

First and foremost, make sure that your child’s academic profile remains competitive.   Many of my students are telling me that, with schools closed, they have time on their hands.  Waitlisted students can send strong end-of-year results to the admissions office as an update.  Some schools have moved their grading system to pass/fail with the current shift to remote schooling.  If so, consider having your child take an online course or two that will provide grades to send to colleges.  Places like Laurel Springs offer accelerated summer courses starting in April that would provide your child with additional grades as of late May.  I expect that colleges will be going to their waitlist throughout the summer this year as events on the ground change, so those grades will maintain their relevance.

New information can also come through a third party, such as a supplementary letter of recommendation, provided that your child did not already submit additional letters with the original application.  I have referred before to an expression in admissions that my former boss at Yale shared with me:  “The thicker the folder, the thicker the kid.”  I only advise my clients to submit one extra sheet of paper (preferably one side of one sheet) in addition to the required elements of the application.  With that in mind, you do not want to deluge the admissions office with extra paper.  Choose wisely and send in one additional letter.  (You may find useful information in a previous post that provides guidance on supplementary letters of recommendation.)

Communicate with admissions offices to update them, not simply to correspond.  A college may well need your child to fill out its class and they have already shown that they think highly of them—after all, they did not reject them.  That said, make sure that your child spaces out their communications (I suggest every three to four weeks) and that everything that they send adds value to their folder.

I do think that an expression of continued interest can help, as long as your child puts in the necessary time and effort to make it an original expression of who they are.  They should invest in this piece in the same way that they did with their personal statement when they first completed applications.  They can refer to specific faculty that they want to study with, courses that they want to take, clubs and teams that they want to join.  Let the admissions officer reading the letter feel like it is telling the story of the life that your child envisions on campus.  Remember that your child should express only what they honestly feel.  For example, if they have received waitlist offers from multiple places, do not make all of them think that they stand out as a first choice.

Perhaps most importantly, encourage your child to commit wholeheartedly to a school that has accepted them and assume that they will attend—the likely outcome for most waitlisted students.  Your child should develop a relationship with that school, rather than spend a disproportionate amount of emotional energy coveting a seat at a place that, odds are, will not come through.  The greatest danger of the waitlist lies in the impediment it can create for your child in nurturing that relationship.  Should waitlist status change, consider it a bonus.

Please contact me if your child could benefit from guidance on how to navigate a waitlist situation.