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Dealing with Maybe: Suggestions for the Waitlisted

By the end of March, seniors will know the outcomes of all their college applications. However, besides the longed-for acceptance and the feared denial, there’s a third outcome that many students will soon receive—a spot in the gray area known as the waitlist. Instead of saying yes or no, the college tells you, maybe.

Being put on the waitlist can be incredibly disappointing, as well as confusing. Is there a chance that you might still be admitted? For this blog post, I spoke with two recent high school graduates about their experiences on the waitlists for various colleges, how they made their ultimate college decisions, and how you can best select a college you will enjoy, whether it was your initial first choice or not.

Consider how each school will help you grow

Lillyanne is currently taking a gap year before starting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Before committing to RISD, however, she was admitted from the waitlist at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), a college she was still very interested in attending.

— Check out this previous Capstone article for Lillyanne’s tips on writing college essays.

I asked Lillyanne if she used any particular strategy to get in from the waitlist.

“I ended up sending an email to their admissions office. Around that time, the first [COVID-19] lockdown was just beginning, and CalArts was implementing a bunch of innovative ways to stay connected with students, translating popular campus events into virtual galleries and exhibitions etc. It was incredibly inspiring to me!”

At the time, Lillyanne was doing something similar, working to move our school activities online after in-person classes ended for the year. For her email to CalArts admissions, she added, “I decided to highlight the similarities between myself and the school. It ended up being the perfect way to string together an update of what I had been doing, while also sharing my attentiveness towards CalArts' activities, and (subtly) hinting that our aligned values would make me a perfect candidate as an accepted student.” Lillyanne’s email probably helped: she was offered a spot at CalArts. However, she ultimately decided to commit to RISD.

Emailing the admissions office of a college you’re still interested in attending is a great idea. It’s important to reiterate your interest, update them about any changes or additions to your application, and remind the admissions officers about why you and the college would be a good fit for each other. Sending an email is usually allowed. In some cases, you may be asked to write a short essay explaining why you wish to be placed on the waitlist, affirming your interest in the college and providing details about new activities, honors, or awards. However, however, some colleges don’t encourage updates from waitlisted students. Make sure to check the guidelines for each individual school.

For students currently deciding whether or not to pursue a spot on a college’s waitlist, Lillyanne advises students to do more research on each college on their list. “I think it's important to consider how each school will help you grow. Every school provides amazing opportunities, but knowing (realistically and specifically) which ones you'll take advantage of and benefit the most from is so helpful.”

Look for outside opinions

Another student (who asked not to be identified) is currently a first-year at Caltech, where she was accepted from the waitlist. Caltech did not have strict rules about what additional information waitlisted students could submit, so she elected to send an essay and another letter of recommendation from a teacher.

“I wanted to figure out what in my initial application may have led to me not being accepted yet. Now, as many of us know, the reasons that lead to an acceptance or rejection are not clear cut. You won’t find a college admittance officer that has a specific list of what exact activities, exact grades, and exact essays a student needs to be admitted. So, trying to figure out the holes in my application was guesswork.”

If you’re still really interested in a college where you were waitlisted, looking for the parts of your application that may have been lackluster is a great idea. The Caltech student I spoke to said that she “looked for outside opinions by people who know a bit more about the college admissions process. I showed my complete application to some school counselors and others. This was a bit uncomfortable because the application felt so personal, but I was able to receive useful insight about which areas in my application were not contextualized enough.”

Talking to others led her to ask a teacher for another letter of recommendation. She also wrote an essay where she had discussed “activities I had done and awards I had won after submitting my initial application, my plans for the summer, and why I wanted to go to Caltech.”

She mentioned, however, that she still isn’t sure exactly what it was that got her admitted from the waitlist. “It could have been everything altogether. It could have been a single detail. Or, a spot in the class could have simply opened up.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the waitlist is every bit as unpredictable as applying to college in the first place. If you send a carefully crafted email but still aren’t admitted from their waitlist, don’t take it personally. At most institutions, the vast majority of waitlisted students don’t ultimately get in. Like so much of college admissions, getting admitted from the waitlist is almost always more about what the college has decided it needs to round out its class than about you as a student.

It’s certainly disappointing to feel a twinge of hope at being waitlisted, only for it to turn into another rejection. However, chances are high that you will find a great community and myriad opportunities at one of the colleges where you were admitted. We wish you the best of luck for an outstanding college experience. And if you have questions or would like help selecting a college from your options, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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