What To Do When Your College Choices Add You to the Waiting List

The letter from the college of your dreams is in the mailbox. You open it, only to find that you have been placed on a wait list for admission. This means you have not been accepted, but you have also not been denied admittance to the college that may have been your top choice. Although you may be disappointed, it is important to understand what it means to be wait-listed to determine whether you should accept admittance to a different college or wait to see if your first choice accepts you.

Why Colleges Wait List

The enrollment process in higher education can be unpredictable. A college has only so many freshman openings and most of them are aware what their initial acceptance percentage is. The average acceptance by students when a college offers them, enrollment is 50 percent. This means that if a college can accept 1,000 freshmen, only 500 of them will accept the initial registration letter. In most cases, the college will send out 2,000 letters, knowing that half will decline the enrollment to attend a different university. However, if less than half of those students accept, the open spaces are offered to students on the waitlist.

Chances of Admittance

When you are placed on the waitlist, you have not been denied admission to the college, but most admissions counselors agree that your chances of being offered enrollment are much lower. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, only about 30 percent of students who remain on the waitlist are accepted. The letter may tell you where you stand on the wait list and, if you are high on the list, you have a better chance of getting accepted.

Back Up Plan

The majority of high school students apply to more than one college, so it is possible you already have a backup plan. If you are high on the wait list, it is possible that waiting is a good idea. However, it is important to keep in mind that most college financial aid offices have deadlines for application. You cannot apply for financial aid at the school until you are accepted, so you will need to weigh the risk of not receiving aid with waiting for acceptance.

Some schools will allow you to apply while on the wait list, but may place limitations on your award until you are accepted. Most schools will require that you send a deposit of between $100 and $500 when you accept enrollment. If you are accepted at the college that placed you on the wait list, you will not get the deposit back from the second school.

Other Acceptance Letters

If you have been taken at other colleges, it might be beneficial to accept those offers and decline attendance at the college that has placed you on the wait list. You can discuss the situation with the admissions office as well. They will be able to give you a better idea of how often students on the wait list are accepted and whether your best option is to wait or to accept an offer elsewhere.

Some colleges only make offers to applicants that they are sure will accept from the wait list. However, do not contact the admissions office repeatedly to see where your application stands as this will not improve your chances of attendance. Most college admissions counselors suggest them every two or three weeks. They also warn against other elaborate ploys to get attention, such as sending gift baskets.

In many cases, a well-written letter to the admissions office explaining why the school is still your top choice as well as anything that has occurred since you applied, such as school awards or improved grades, may be beneficial in moving you up on the wait list. However, the student should be the one contacting the school, not the parents. Colleges and universities want students who can think for themselves. If your parents are the ones reaching out, they may believe you are not interested and do not have the initiative on your own to succeed.

Majors and Geographic Regions

Another reason that colleges may wait for list students is based on geographical locations of students as well as the majors chosen. If there are not enough students enrolled in a certain major or from a particular geographic location, any of those students placed on the waitlist will have a better chance of enrollment. It is impossible to know, however, whether your major or geographic area will be one of the ones needed to round out the registration process.

Financial Situation

In some cases, students with greater financial need have less chance of being admitted from the wait list. This is because colleges have a finite amount of aid that can be offered to students. Therefore, students who are accepted in the initial offering are more likely to receive merit or need-based aid, leaving less available for students who enroll from the wait list. You can learn more about the financial aid component of the wait list by talking to the financial aid office at the college and asking them:

  • Will you be eligible for the same financial aid as students who were not placed on the wait list?
  • Have wait-listed students been offered grants or scholarships from the college in the past?
  • If you are accepted from the wait list, when will you learn about your financial aid package?

Decide Quickly

When you receive an initial acceptance letter, you often have several weeks to decide if you want to accept the offer. When you are accepted from the waitlist, you may only have a few days to decide. There is no binding rule about how long a college may give you to decide if you want to accept their offer from the wait list, although the NACAC recommends that colleges give students at least 72 hours to make a decision. You may also have to make the decision with no information on the amount of financial aid you will receive. Counselors recommend setting a limit on the amount of tuition you can afford while you are on the wait list so that you can make an informed decision should you be accepted.

Being wait-listed at the college at the top of your list is not the end of the world, and it is still possible that they will accept you. However, you must also be realistic that statistics show a small percentage of students who are wait-listed are accepted. Deciding whether a college wait list is worth the stress of uncertainty must be made on an individual basis. You must determine whether you will be able to afford tuition if the financial aid package is limited and an understanding that you may not be eligible for any financial aid. Also, there are no guarantees that the college will accept you at all.

If you do not have a Plan B in place for another college to attend, you may still be able to apply to smaller colleges with later enrollment dates, attend a local community college or simply take some time off after high school before attending college. Ultimately, knowing whether a college wait list is worth it depends on your individual circumstances.