Get Off the Waitlist and Into College in 12 Steps

Now that it's April and all the big-name colleges have sent their regular-decision notifications, many somewhat disappointed applicants are wondering what to do with the waitlist decisions from their top-ranked schools.

College waitlists are anything but an exact science. In fact, the waitlist system is even more opaque than the rest of college admissions. Different colleges use waitlists differently — some carry long lists and choose few candidates, whereas others have short waitlists and choose many. There's no way to predict whether a school that waitlisted you will even have space to accept anyone off its list.

Even though there are many factors you cannot control, there are several steps you can take to maximize your chances of gaining admission to the dream school that waitlisted you. Follow these 12 guidelines, and you will increase your likelihood of success in getting off the waitlist and into college.

Part 1: What to Do As Soon As You're Waitlisted

The first part of the post-waitlist process sets you up for admission to your top-choice school.

1. Consider the colleges that admitted you. Choose a favorite college from among those that have admitted you. (If you have struck out altogether, then call your high school's college counselor immediately.) Waitlists are not a sure thing, so it's crucial that you already have a college offer locked in. If you don't, then visit the front-runners of the schools that accepted you, in addition to the waitlist school that you love. If finances don't allow you to travel, then call the schools that admitted you and politely ask if they offer funds to offset the costs of admitted-student visits. Be sure to sign in at the admissions offices, gather the necessary facts, and when you get home, put down a deposit at your favorite of the schools that accepted you. That deposit will be non-refundable, so you must be prepared to eat the fee if you do gain admission at the school that waitlisted you.

2. Make a decision, and move forward. Now that you are certain you will have a college to attend in the fall, you are ready to move forward with your Plan B. From this point on, it is crucial that you do everything yourself, rather than letting your parents take the lead. (If you are a parent reading this article, step aside and let your senior use this process to learn to advocate for herself!)

3. Talk to your high school's college counselor. Ask her if she will support you in your effort to get your favorite college to choose you for the waitlist. Tell her you will definitely attend that college if you are admitted anytime up to the start of the upcoming academic year (or even, if you're willing, as a January freshman. Discuss with her any academic or extracurricular achievements that you have earned since submitting your application, or anything else you think the admissions committee might want to know. She will use this information, along with her impressions of your maturity, commitment, and attitude, when she speaks on your behalf with the admissions officer at the college you want to attend.

4. Find out who read your application, and send that person a letter. Find out the name of the person who read your application at your waitlist favorite. If your college counselor cannot answer this question, call the admissions office of the college and ask over the phone. You can simply ask who reads the applications for your high school. All you want is the person's name, title, and address so you can send a proper letter. Then, go buy some nice stationery, and write a polite letter to the admissions officer who reads applications from your high school. Tell her that you are thankful for having been considered so strongly; that you are still very interested in attending the college; that you will definitely attend if admitted anytime up to and including the first day of classes (or as a January freshman, if applicable); and that you continue to believe that you are a perfect fit for the college for a variety of (specific) reasons. Add any new information, achievements, or other enhancements to your application, and close with a polite thank-you.

5. Let your counselor know that you reached out to the admissions officer. Provided that your head or principal is accessible and helpful, make an appointment to speak briefly with her. Tell her your plan and progress to date, and ask for her support. Bring a copy of your application and any subsequently-submitted materials, and go through the reasons why you think you would be a good fit for the college. In other words, tell the head of your high school how to sell you to the college. He or she, too, can advocate for you.

Your plan will now be in play! You are approaching the second part of the process, in which you continue to pursue your goal — without doing anything to hinder your chances of acceptance.

Part 2: How to Follow Up (and How Not to)

6. Don't try to get in by pulling strings. Unless those strings are really ropes (say, your parents are billionaires), it won't help — and it is likely to backfire.

7. Remind your college counselor and head of school about once a month of your waitlist status. When you do this, be sure to inform them about any updates on your achievements.

8. Send hand-written thank you notes to anyone who helps you. This may include your college counselor, head of school, and anyone at the college's admissions office.

9. Be persistent. Most people quit. Don't.

10. Prepare to fall short. Some colleges don't need to take any names off their waitlists. Remember that there are far more qualified applicants than available spaces, and remind yourself that you already have a great college to attend.

11. Be aware that things can change up to the start of the semester. Colleges do not like empty dorm rooms (or classroom spots), and they will try to fill available openings if they can.

12. Maintain a positive attitude. Use this arduous process to learn how to advocate for yourself.

Good luck!

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