What to Do When You’ve Been Waitlisted

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Winter, such as it was, is ending. We have leapt forward and are staring at the prospect of a new spring. Along with the budding flowers and the inconsistent weather, school admissions decisions have also arrived. Hopefully, several schools have extended a letter of acceptance. You probably also received at least one notice that you have been put on a waitlist of potential admits, and perhaps you are wondering what that means and what you do with this information. The following will give you some clarity.

What does “Waitlisted” really mean anyway?

Does being put on a waitlist actually consign you to admissions limbo, destined to wander among the unaccepted and unrejected, forever questioning your place? Or is it actually just a polite way the admissions team has of rejecting you without actually hurting your feelings? It turns out to be neither of these uncomfortable scenarios.

Waitlists are a real tool employed by the admissions teams at secondary schools. The students on these lists are actually eligible, admissible, and desirable students. Waitlist means the school wants you! It also means that they truly do not have the space to admit all qualified applicants or that they are trying to meet other institutional goals and cannot admit you until those are met. As discussed in an earlier blog, these institutional goals may include reserving spaces for students in alumni families, athletes, students who meet one of many diversity goals (e.g., socioeconomic, geographic, gender), or, at the instruction of the board, may be students from families that are connected with the administration in some way, to which we will never be privy.

So, don’t overthink your being on the waitlist. The school would like to admit you, and schools do truly use their waitlists to complete the class. There are simply other admissions targets that are being considered in addition to the ones that they like about you. Admissions would reject your application outright if it expected that you would never be a proper fit for the school – and this can happen – but that isn’t true if you are waitlisted.

New Year, New Class

Every year is different. What is important to a school one year may change the next. As the school considers applicants, they are crafting a class of incoming students. At private 9-12 high schools, that means there is an entirely new class that will enter ninth grade. At K-12 schools, admissions may be working with just one or two dozen spots.

Every year presents a new set of challenges and options for schools, which means that admissions officers find themselves assembling a new puzzle each spring. The number of qualified applicants will fluctuate from year to year. Depending on the admissions goals, such as those mentioned above, what the school needs is different annually. How they move their waitlist will also depend on many factors that cannot be predicted year to year. The main thing for you to take away from this situation is to not lean too heavily on what schools have done in recent years as a way to predict what might happen in your situation. Every class is determined by a set of factors unique to that year.

Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

When waiting for longer than you planned at a doctor’s waiting room, it doesn’t hurt to make eye contact or to clear your throat to let the gatekeepers know you are very interested in not losing your spot, and moving up if possible. In the same way, there are several factors to be aware of if you want to try to see your way out of the admissions waiting room.

One of the most important items for admissions offices is the likeliness of a candidate to actually enroll if granted acceptance. If you and your family are certain you would like to attend a school where you are waitlisted, convey that commitment to attend directly to admissions. You should write a letter explaining why you are so committed to that school. Your parents can follow up with their own letter that supports your message. It is important to do this at only one school, as admissions officers do talk to each other. Additionally, only do this if you truly want to attend this school over one where you have already been accepted.

Should you decide to contact the school to show your commitment, offer to provide any additional information the school may find useful. Perhaps you can secure another recommendation from an adult who can share a perspective that the school has not considered. It is also a good idea to send your most recent grades to show you have continued to work hard even after making a good first impression with test scores, interviews, and your application.

“Home” School Advantage

With so many attractive private options in the region, it is easy to forget that there are also excellent public high schools in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. These schools have achieved national ranking or recognition for their academic programs or other opportunities for their students. The decisions are not final until the acceptance or denial letters arrive, and a waitlist may provide a good reminder to consider the guaranteed option: your public high school. Another factor, of course, may be the tuition you could save for college or potentially even for graduate studies by attending your districted public school.

Moving Onward

Waitlists do move, but there is no way to predict how much each school’s list will change, or how many spots will open up at each school. Whatever you decide once you learn of a waitlist verdict, discuss your plan with your family, carry it out, and then focus on the options that you already have.

Jeff Knox

Counselor & Educational Planning Services Director

With more than a decade of experience in education and admissions counseling, Jeff Knox is a trusted adviser for students and families, both in the DC Metro Area and around the globe. As Director of Educational Planning Services, he manages the pedagogy, curricula, logistics, and quality of PrepMatters’ Educational Planning Department range of services, including application and essay assista...

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