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Processing High School Admission News (No Matter What)

Soon, private high schools will send out their admissions decisions. I’ve helped hundreds of families through this process, and I am no longer surprised by the immense significance families often place on the outcomes of these decisions. Some truly believe that whether or not their student “gets in” to their first-choice private school will forever change the course of their children’s lives. Several families have shared recently that they believe the high school placement is a more important milestone than which college their child attends. (I’m waiting a few years to see if they still feel that way when college admissions roll around.)

True, school placement is important, but experience has also taught me again and again that life often unfolds in ways even better than we would have designed for ourselves. It is very important for each student to realize that an admissions decision is not an evaluation of their worth, or value, or even accomplishments. Many factors are considered in such a decision, including institutional priorities that have little to do with your student. Is a school hoping to grow its band program? Are they phasing out a STEM pathway? Is their swim team on an upswing?

Whatever the admissions results, our job is to support our students and help them to take full advantage of the many resources available to them. Here are some ways you can best support them in processing their admissions results.


A denial means that an applicant was not qualified for admissions to that particular school or that another factor made it impossible for the admissions office to admit or waitlist that student. Private school admissions are much more arbitrary than people realize. For example, an admissions officer at a very selective and prestigious local private school once told me that his school admitted a student based on his family’s ability to carpool with the family of another currently enrolled student. That was the deciding factor! Is it fair? Probably not, but there really isn’t any way to control for that. Take a look at your other options, including, of course, your local public school.

Waitlisted or Waitpooled?

Getting waitlisted is actually more common than outright rejection. Most private schools have to watch carefully as they build an incoming class and wait for students to accept their offers of admission. If an admitted student decides to attend a different school, the admissions office can offer that space to another waitlisted student. If you are waitlisted at a school you want to attend, immediately accept your spot on the waitlist and update admissions with any new information that has come up since you’ve applied.

There’s a common misconception about how most waitlists operate. When we hear the phrase “waitlist,” we imagine ourselves in line to buy tickets for a sold-out concert. If I was first on the waitlist and new spaces open up for the concert, I get first crack at purchasing one. Similarly, we think, a school might have placed me on the waitlist because I *just* missed the ‘accepted’ pile, so I might wonder if I am first or tenth or two hundredth on the waitlist.

In reality, it generally does not work like this, which is why some schools have shifted their language to calling this admissions decision the “waitpool.” This new term is a more accurate representation of what is really happening. Schools typically put all of the qualified waitlist applicants in one pile. Then, should a spot become available, that pull from that pile in an order that might appear random but actually is serving their own institutional needs. Perhaps they’ve noticed a gender imbalance in students who have accepted their offers. Or maybe a lot of athletes have said yes, but many of their applicants who are artists have gone elsewhere. Schools are trying to build a class and a community, so they’re looking at the big picture as well as at each individual application.

Depending on your current school, it may be possible for the administration or the counseling office to advocate for admission on your behalf. Ultimately, being offered a spot on the waitlist means you are a qualified candidate, but for now, something or someone is in your way. Once critical factor can be, “Do we think this student really wants to come here?” So make sure you’ve communicated your enthusiasm. It’s not over ‘til it’s over, so stay in regular communications with the school that is waitlisting your student.


Congrats – it’s time to celebrate! Your next step is to finish out the current academic year strongly, making use of the resources in our Navigations tip sheets, and getting a plan in place for freshman year. We’ll want students to put good habits in place now, so they can feel confident and strongly positioned later.

In any case, we’re here to help, whether you’re looking for the right school or responding to a waitlist offer. Remember, it’s not where the student attends that sets them up for success. It’s how. No matter where a student goes, creating a plan to fully embrace all that’s available to them will be an important next step for everyone.

Updated February 15, 2022. Jeff Knox contributed to an earlier version of this blog.

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