04.20.11

How to Get in When You're Waitlisted

Suffering in waitlist limbo? Seize the opportunity! Kristina Dell on 8 proactive moves you can make to nudge yourself into the “accepted” category during this make-or-break moment.

College acceptances are out and many students are finding themselves stuck in waitlist purgatory. The Daily Beast caught up with admissions officers and college counselors to uncover tips of how to go from waitlisted to welcome—and when gimmicks might actually work.

“Hurry up and wait” could be an apt descriptor for this year’s college admissions environment. With admission rates at selective schools at an all-time low, many colleges will be leaning on their waitlists to help them pad the coming year, just in case their original enrollment numbers come up short. And those waitlists, according to insiders, look more like Depression-era breadlines this year.

“It seems like a large number of students are being waitlisted,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “The economic slowdown and anxiety of affordability appear to be inducing applicants to apply to more places. Admissions officers can’t quite figure out whether there’s a general increase in demand or duplicate filings.”

But don’t be fooled by more colleges hedging their bets. Selective schools will still pluck an extraordinarily low number of students from waitlist purgatory, even though we’ll likely see more movement than in years past. In 2009, 34 percent of waitlisted students were given the go-ahead to matriculate, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a significant bump from 30 percent in 2008. The bottom line: Proceed with plans to attend another university and don’t bank on your waitlist choice alone—think of winning the waitlist bid as a bonus.

But how to handle waitlist limbo can be a tricky task—the school is on the fence about you, and everything you do during this critical period can be make or break. (And yes, that includes Internet rants trashing the school that waitlisted you! Admissions officers surf the Web, too.) Here are a few tips for how to turn a waitlist slot into an acceptance letter without alienating the admissions office, being impolitic, or acting flat-out crazy.

1. Accept the Offer
It sounds silly, but it’s important to spell out that you’re accepting a place on the waitlist by filling out the card and sending it in. And of course schools want to know that, if offered a spot, you will definitely show up. “If a school is truly your first choice, you should let admissions know that,” says Jenny Rickard, chief enrollment officer for Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “They want the process over and they want students who are really excited about the school.”

2. Make Them Wait
May 1 is the common reply date for acceptance, but admissions officers are tearing their hair out during that whole first week—they don’t want to deal with waitlist candidates right away. “No one wants to hear about waitlists until they figure out the yield,” says Mimi Doe, co-founder of Application Boot Camp. So ask your college counselor to place a call on your behalf, but have them wait until after May 10 to give the school some breathing room. Your counselor should ask why you were put on the waitlist and what you can do to improve your chances. He or she should also reiterate that you’re absolutely dying to attend the school. Meet with your high-school counselor after the call and ask if the school listed any weaknesses in your application.

3. Come Highly Recommended
Talk to one of your current teachers about sending in a recommendation on your behalf. It should highlight why you want to attend this school and what you will bring to the class—more information about what a qualified applicant you are can only help your chances.

4. Stay in Touch
Since you’ve already sent in your original application, now’s the time to keep the school abreast of any late-breaking honors or leadership distinctions that you’ve received since you applied. “It is worthwhile for students to be in contact with the admissions office even if it’s to give an update to their application,” says Art Rodriguez, acting dean of admissions at Pomona College. Didn’t win any awards or merit scholarships in the past few months? You can still use this time as an opportunity to tell the school something noteworthy about yourself. “If a teacher gave you a compliment or said you had the highest grade on an essay, explain that,” says David Montesano, admissions strategist at College Match US, an admissions consulting firm. And if the school told your guidance counselor of a weakness in your application, here’s your chance to address that drawback and say how you’re improving. Think of this as closing the deal.

5. Don’t Be a Sycophant
In your update letter, explain why this school is the best fit for you, but don’t be too obvious. “It’s like dating,” says Montesano. “You can’t tell the pretty, popular person they’re pretty and popular. Give them something specific that attracts you to the school that not everyone else is going to see.” Maybe mention a particular class, a teacher, or a program that you like. (It should be something academic.) And lastly, make sure you tell them what you’ll bring to the school, too.

6. Highlight Your Niche
What makes your application stand out? If you’re a white male from New York, that’s not it. Remember, colleges are using the waitlist to fill in the gaps of the incoming freshman class, so think about what sets you apart from the pack. It can be geographic, an unusual field of study, or excelling at an extracurricular activity. “Maybe you’re a first-generation college student,” says Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser at College Confidential. “If so, highlight this in your update letter.”

7. Money Talks
It’s the dirty secret no one wants to talk about: “When colleges are taking students off the waitlist, money can be front and center,” says Rubenstone of College Confidential. “If you have any money hidden under the mattress, this is the time to declare it. In a matter of speaking, they [colleges] can be bought.” So if a long lost grandparent decides to pony up some cash, say so in your update letter. Explain what your current financial aid award is and how much more money you can come up with. This tactic isn’t going to work everywhere, but you never know.

8. Resist Overselling Yourself
Self-promotion works to a degree, but making the admissions office feel like they’ve ended up on a hundred junk-mail lists will get you nowhere. “Students sometimes feel like they need to wage a marketing campaign to stand out, but it’s less about hysteria and more about maturity,” says Henry Broaddus, dean of admissions at William and Mary. “I had a student send a hand-written letter every day she was on the waitlist.” She wasn’t admitted. So you don’t want to look desperate, but that being said, Rickard from Bryn Mawr notes that if you can include something that gives more information about who you are, it just might work. “A student created a video that provided extra insight into her sense of humor,” says Rickard, noting that it captured the attention of the admissions staff and upped the woman’s chances; she eventually got in.

Kristina Dell is an editor at Newsweek.com and runs the education website. Previously, she wrote for Time magazine. Her stories have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Reader's Digest.