How Counselors Can Help Students Handle Their Deferred-to-Waitlist Agony

Being put on a college waitlist after being deferred is a double whammy of indecision, and it can be crushing to the applicant. Unfortunately many counselors may be working with a deferred-to-waitlisted student right now. If you are, here's the best plan of action for you both.

Last year I wrote about the problem with deferrals and suggested that colleges use the “deferral” decision sparingly. I believe students who apply Early Action or Early Decision should receive an admit or deny decision whenever possible; they should only be deferred if the admission team is truly undecided and feels that waiting until the Regular Decision round will allow them to make a better, more informed choice. But unfortunately many colleges continue to routinely defer the majority of their early applicants, thereby providing no indication of whether a student has a fair chance of being accepted.

Then there’s the waitlist decision. Being placed on the waitlist can be even more disquieting than a deferral. Students are usually notified about their position on that dreaded list close to National College Decision Day on May 1. So while they make a deposit at one college, they may remain obsessed with their dream of being admitted to their “real first-choice” school.

It’s a known fact that the college admission process has become increasingly stressful for applicants, their parents, and both school and independent counselors. Students count the days, minutes, and seconds anxiously anticipating a decision, and a deferral or waitlist result is understandably frustrating for everyone involved. Colleges could certainly help alleviate some of this anxiety if they would make changes to their deferral and waitlist policies.

But there’s an even worse outcome of the college admission process: let’s discuss what happens to the already deferred students who, forced to wait several months to receive a final decision, log in to their portals on D-Day to discover that they have been…waitlisted. Ugh—in limbo once again. It’s a double whammy of indecision, and it’s crushing. Students know they now must commit to a college by May 1 while they continue to hope for good news from the school that waitlisted them.

In many cases, a waitlist result is akin to an “honorable mention.” Most students don’t ever get admitted from that list, and often the uncertainty eventually becomes too stressful; at that point many of these students remove themselves from the waitlist and focus on loving the college that loved them first.

I don’t dispute the fact that colleges need to put some students on the waitlist—after all, it’s hard to predict exactly how many admitted students will attend. But colleges could choose to limit the number of waitlisted candidates. Placing thousands on the “maybe, if some space opens” list simply gives these applicants false hope.

Too many universities—including Boston College, Harvard University, University of Notre Dame, University of Chicago, University of Virginia, Villanova University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and numerous others—employ this deferral-to-waitlist approach. When I asked one highly selective college why they waitlist previous deferred applicants, they said although the admission office knew it was painful for the applicant, they didn’t want to reject someone who might still have a chance, however small. To me, that’s not a good enough answer; these teens have waited long enough.

I believe the option of waitlisting students who have previously been deferred is one aspect of college admissions that needs to be eliminated; it simply prolongs an already seemingly endless wait. I strongly advocate that these colleges alter their defer-to-waitlist policies and make a final admit/deny decision so these students can move on with their lives.  

But, unfortunately many counselors may be working with a deferred-to-waitlisted student right now. If you are, here’s the best plan of action: 

  1. First, meet to discuss which colleges the student was accepted to and select the one he is most interested in attending next year. Make sure to emphasize that the deposit must be made on or before May 1.
  2. Next, try to determine how many students are typically waitlisted and then accepted at the other college. You can check the Common Data Set as well as previous press releases from the school.
  3. Then, if the data looks at least a bit promising, have the student e-mail their admission representative with a strong letter of interest, stating that the college remains his first choice and he is ready to commit upon acceptance. (Of course, don’t have him write that if he isn’t sure he’ll attend, but often deferred-to-waitlisted students are heavily invested in the school.) The letter should also include any impressive new developments (awards, a new position, a summer internship secured) and a brief description of how he will contribute to the campus. The tone should be upbeat and personable. After the letter is sent, the student can periodically check in with the admission officer, but mentally he needs to move on and focus on the other school to which he sent his deposit.
    If the numbers suggest his admittance chances are slim, it will be up to the student to decide whether he wants to accept or deny the waitlist option. However, counselors should matter-of-factly present the data and realistically explain that the odds are not in the student’s favor. They should advise the student to expect the worst but hope for the best. If he is eventually accepted from the waitlist, he can choose to attend, but make him aware his deposit at the other college will be forfeited, and if it's really late in the process, there may be fewer housing options and possibly less merit- and need-based aid available at this new school, depending on the college. 
  4. Finally, encourage your student to explore his deposited college’s website, perusing both academic and social opportunities that will be available to him upon matriculation. Perhaps he’ll want to visit the college bookstore site and buy some swag. If possible, he should plan to attend admitted student days; that’s always an exciting experience! In other words, urge him to enthusiastically throw himself headfirst into getting to know all the wonderful qualities of what will most likely be his new home. Help him embrace the college that has recognized him for his achievement and potential. That is a school that really wants him—and it’s always nice to feel appreciated and welcomed!

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choosing a college college decision counselors deferrals deferred to waitlist final college choice how to choose a college National College Decision Day waitlist

About Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten

Laurie Kopp Weingarten is a Certified Educational Planner as well as Co-founder and President of One-Stop College Counseling. She meets with students in her New Jersey office and virtually throughout the United States and Asia. She graduated from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and received an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Working with 8th­–12th graders, Laurie guides students through each stage of the college admission process. She’s passionate about helping students reach their full academic and extracurricular potential; there ‘s nothing more rewarding than their excitement upon acceptance to their top-choice schools!

Laurie is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and also a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling (NJACAC), and the Pennsylvania Association for College Admission Counseling (PACAC). She’s also a proud member of the Character Collaborative.

Follow One-Stop’s Facebook page for daily articles on the college admission process.


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