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Handling the Waitlist

One of the most difficult situations you might face as a college applicant is how to handle a waitlist decision from a school you really want to attend. Should you bombard the school with additional material, hoping that something you send will convince the school to admit you? Or should you just sit tight, fearing that submitting additional, unsolicited material will annoy the admissions committee?

The Golden Rule is: Follow the instructions from the admissions committee. If the school says that you should not send in any additional material, then you should abide by their policy. Even though you're anxious to let them know how interested you are, disregarding their request will not play to your advantage.

While you want to remain in contact with a school while on the waitlist, you need to be careful not to overdo it. When I was interviewing for Harvard, we had an applicant submit 10 additional letters of recommendation, hoping to convince us that he would attend our school. I was convinced he would attend, but I was also concerned about the kind of student he would be once he arrived on campus!

We always encourage applicants to remain positive and thoughtful while on the waitlists. Many people who are placed on the waitlist (and aren't accepted) decide to apply to transfer to that school a year or two later. Candidates who are considerate during the application process one year will be thought of more positively the next. Conversely, someone who does not present him or herself well as a potential first-year student may well have a more difficult time in the transfer application process.

I've read many letters of continued interest that were generic and not very convincing. A better approach is to be specific regarding the reasons why you want to attend and how that specific school would be a good fit for you. And you'll want to highlight whatever is new and different since you completed your original application.

Many schools have large waitlists and only expect to admit a few, if any, from the list. In addition, waitlists are often used to craft the class later in the admissions cycle. In May and June, when schools look to their waitlist, the admissions staff has a good idea of what the class looks like. So, they often use the waitlist to balance or solidify certain aspects, gender balance, diversity numbers, geographic distribution, etc. – or to make sure the financial aid budget can be met.

Some schools review their waitlists starting in April or May after first deposits are due. Therefore some candidates on a waitlist may hear of their fate rather quickly. While the elite schools have a compact to eliminate waitlists by early to mid July, other schools may not admit waitlisted applicants until later, so you may not know until a few weeks before you start college. You should determine how long you're willing to wait. Set a date. If you haven't been admitted by then, ask to be removed from the waitlist. In any event, you will want to pay your deposit to enroll at a college to which you have been admitted by the May 1 Candidate's Reply Deadline, to be sure you have a spot. You'll be expected to forfeit that deposit if you are offered a spot off the waitlist at your first-choice school.

Being on a waitlist certainly causes anxiety, but try to be patient. The school obviously saw strengths in your application, and they want time to reevaluate it. Schools almost always accept people from the waitlist later in the process, so you are still in the game!

– Senior Consultant Dr. Cleo Leung evaluated undergraduate applications at Harvard University.

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