It’s a known fact that the college admission process has become increasingly stressful for applicants, parents, and counselors—especially in a post-pandemic world. Unfortunately, many colleges routinely defer early applicants while providing no indication of whether a student has a fair chance of being accepted during the regular admission cycle. Then there’s the dreaded waitlist. Being placed on the waitlist can be even more disquieting than a deferral. Students are usually notified about their position on the list close to May 1. So while they’re about to make a deposit at one college, they may remain obsessed with their dream of being admitted to their “real first-choice” school.
Here’s a look into understanding and empathizing with your students about the college’s decision; colleges to keep an eye out for that prefer this type of admission method; as well as ways to help your students get through the waiting time.
Letting go of a dream school is hard
What happens to the already deferred student who is forced to wait several months to receive a final decision and logs into their portals to find themselves waitlisted? Students count the days, minutes, and seconds anxiously anticipating a decision, and a waitlist result can be devastating. 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 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 to something more reasonable. Placing thousands on the “maybe, if some space opens” list simply gives way too many applicants false hope.
Why schools utilize this approach
Too many universities—including Boston College, Harvard University, 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 previously 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. Waitlisting students who have previously been deferred is one aspect of college admission 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 and onto other equally as reputable schools.
How to help deferred-to-waitlisted students
Many counselors may be working with deferred-to-waitlisted students right now, and you may be feeling the frustration along with your students about the steps to take from here. If you are, here’s the best plan of action.
Setting up a meeting
Meet to discuss which colleges the student was accepted to, making sure to focus on what they like best about them and perhaps even what they offer that the waitlist school doesn’t. Have them select the one they’re most interested in attending next year. Make sure to emphasize that the deposit must be made on or before May 1. Then try to determine how many students are typically waitlisted and accepted at the other college they’re holding on to by doing a little research together—usually, you can find this information in downloadable reports on school websites.
Emailing a college decision appeal
If the data looks promising, have the student email their admission representative with a strong letter of interest, stating that the college remains their first choice. The letter should also include any impressive new developments—awards, a new leadership position, a summer internship, etc.—and a brief description of how they’re already imagining contributing to campus. The tone should be upbeat and personable. After the letter is sent, encourage them to refocus on their other school of interest while waiting for a reply.
Being practical about the chances and consequences
If the numbers suggest admittance is slim, it’ll be up to the student to decide whether they want to stay on the waitlist. However, you should matter-of-factly present the data and realistically explain that the odds are not in the student’s favor. Advise the student to expect the worst but hope for the best. If they are eventually accepted from the waitlist, they can choose to attend but may have to forfeit a deposit from another school they committed to in the meantime. If it's really late in the process, there may be fewer housing options and possibly less merit- and need-based aid available at either school they end up at the longer they wait.
Helping them get excited about the other school
Encourage your student to explore the website of the school they’re putting a deposit down on while they wait, perusing both academic and social opportunities that will be available upon matriculation. In other words, urge them to enthusiastically throw themselves headfirst into getting to know all the wonderful qualities of what will most likely be their new home. Help them embrace the college that has recognized their achievement and potential. That is a school that really wants them—and it’s always nice to feel appreciated and welcomed as a first choice!
Being waitlisted to a dream school isn’t easy, so it’s important to help students take practical and proactive steps in the college admission process once they’ve received their decision. Whether they’re on the waitlist or not, they can’t afford to wait and just hope for the best. Help them stay positive and create a backup plan for a successful college career wherever they end up.
Keep refining the skills in your professional and interpersonal tool belt with Our Best Advice for Counselors and Consultants to Help Their Students.