Private School Wait Lists: Survival Tips from a NYC School Advisor

It’s that time of year.

Within weeks, parents will receive acceptance, rejection, and waitlist letters that deliver admissions decisions about their child’s applications to independent preschools as well as private elementary, middle, and high schools. Rejections and acceptances are self-explanatory; your child either got in, or she didn’t. Acceptances are always welcome, and no one second-guesses them. Rejections, by contrast, are usually disappointing. What’s more, in highly competitive markets like New York City, they almost never change and cannot be appealed.

Of the three responses from private schools, waitlist notifications can be the most confounding. Read on to understand what this particular kind of limbo means for your family.

What Is a Waitlist?

From preschool through high school, independent schools tend to accept about the number of students they know they have places for. This approach differs from college admissions, which typically accept more students than they have space for, based on historical yield rates, leading to January admittances when the estimates are wrong. Otherwise, the trends in college waitlists are similar to those of private schools.

Families, on the other hand, understand how competitive this landscape is, and typically apply to multiple schools. In our experience at Manhattan Private School Advisors, parents who applied for admissions in September 2015 submitted between 10 and 14 applications to independent schools. And, while a student may be accepted to multiple schools, she can clearly only attend one.

Schools create waitlists with this reality in mind; families will apply to multiple schools but will only accept one admissions offer. To ensure that they are not left in the unenviable position of having too many open seats for the following year, private schools rely on — and in most years — turn to their waitlists.

What Does a Waitlist Mean for Your Family?

Parents should not take a waitlist notification personally. Often it is an indication that a school or preschool wishes it had more spots available to offer to strong prospective candidates. In any given year, candidates may be competing with an especially high number of siblings or legacies (the children of alumni), who are given preference over the children of families who are new to the school. This doesn’t necessarily mean your child was a school’s second choice; rather, it may just indicate that the school has admissions criteria that favor a family’s prior connections to the school.

At the same time, parents should understand that schools use waitlists in different ways, which may vary depending on the age of your child, your family’s relationship to the school, and an institution’s own admissions criteria. For example, preschool waitlists are often polite rejections because no one wants to turn down an adorable two- or three-year-old outright. Very often, the school’s available seats may already be filled by rising students, siblings, and legacies.

In higher grades, however, waitlists typically function as their name implies. There is frequently more mobility when children get older, as families move, financial circumstances change, or parents and children decide the school fit isn’t exactly right. The consequence of this movement is that schools are more likely to turn to their waitlists for later grades than they are for preschool and kindergarten.

One exception to this rule of thumb involves instances in which siblings or legacy applicants are waitlisted; in these cases, the likelihood of ultimate acceptance is slim. The school is trying to provide a polite “no” without alienating current families or alumni. It’s a very uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, but it’s best to face it squarely. In this circumstance, it’s advisable to accept an offer from another school, rather than hope to make gain admission off the waitlist.

How to Negotiate from the Waitlist

First, let the school know if you want to remain on the waitlist as soon as you are notified. It’s important to signal your continued interest — if, in fact, it still exists — as well as to be considerate to waiting families if you’ve decided on a different school. If this particular school is still your first choice, be prepared to move quickly, because schools typically send out waitlist acceptance offers between 10 days and two weeks after the first round of acceptances.

It’s also important for families to understand that some schools maintain their waitlists beyond the initial reply date because they recognize that current students may leave the school before the new year begins, in turn allowing the school to offer these seats to other students as openings become available. If your heart is set on a particular choice, you have the option of keeping your child’s name on the waitlist to see if there’s a spot down the road.

There is one catch to this advice: The Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) strongly encourages its member schools — which include all nonprofit private schools in NYC — to offer a seat to a waitlisted family even if the family has signed a contract with another school. This is, after all, what waitlists are for. That said, the ISAAGNY also urges its member schools to communicate contractual obligations clearly to families.

What does this mean exactly?

It may mean that, if you sign a contract with a school and later decide to accept an offer from the first-choice school at which your child was waitlisted, you can be on the hook for part or all of the tuition at both schools for the first year. Parents are urged to read the fine print of each contract carefully to understand what they’re committing to. Schools may opt to release families from a contract, but they are not required to do so. Those that waitlist candidates understand the quandary this process places families in — after all, they too have waitlists of their own — but these are nonetheless the rules everyone is following.

Should Parents Contact Waitlist Schools Regularly?

Absolutely, and don’t be shy. You want an answer, and the school wants to provide one. On your first call to the admissions office, let them know how interested you still are, and ask about the status of your child’s application. Depending on the response, ask the administrator when would be an appropriate time to call again for an update. You may be told a day and time, or that the school will call you. Admissions officers handle these inquiries skillfully because they have years — sometimes decades — of experience helping families deal with the stress that a waitlist notification causes. They understand the desire for a quick and positive resolution, and they will do as much as they can to move the process along.

Do Waitlists at Certain Schools Move More Quickly Than at Others?

There isn’t much variation among schools in how quickly students move from the waitlist. The reason is that first-choice schools differ by family. This is a fortunate situation: If everyone wanted to go to the same three schools, can you imagine what the waitlists would look like? That said, larger schools have more students and longer waitlists, but also more spots available. The end result is that there is usually greater chance for a waitlist acceptance at these larger institutions.

If My Child Was Waitlisted at a School and Not Accepted, Can I Reapply?

Parents can always reapply to schools — whether their child was accepted, rejected, or waitlisted. Prior applications do not generally figure into a new admissions cycle.

The one exception to this guideline is in the case of a student who was accepted and chose not to attend a school, but now wants to reapply. In this scenario, there may be an issue: You rejected them; the school did not reject you.

Do Schools Offer Mid-Year Acceptances to Waitlisted Candidates?

Just as most independent schools are reluctant to allow students to skip grades today, mid-year acceptances are unusual. Most schools are concerned about issues that have nothing to do with the waitlist, such as the social challenges that arise from missing a significant portion of the school year with peers, and academic struggles related to being unfamiliar with the school’s curriculum. There are examples of mid-year acceptances, but they are few and far between.

Waitlists — whether for preschool or K–12 private schools — are not to be dreaded, feared, or taken as rejections; rather, they are promising signs that the school is strongly interested in your child. While a waitlist response is probably not the one you most hoped for, approaching this speedbump in a proactive and savvy way will teach your child that setbacks can be faced calmly. It also signals that your family would be an asset to the school community.