The annual cycle of college applications and admissions is neatly set into a fixed routine and yet, it feels fresh with every passing year. Once applicants are done applying for their desired colleges, their wait for an admissions decision begins. Come early spring, and students start receiving replies from these institutions about their applications. Usually these letters/emails begin with “Congratulations!” or “After careful consideration, we are sorry to inform you.” Obviously, both types of replies have radical ramifications and thus, draw extreme reactions from the applicants and parents- either of joy or disappointment.

However, there is a third kind of reply, one which says that while the applicant hasn’t made the final cut, he hasn’t been out rightly rejected either- yet. That’s right, it’s the notification of being put on that agonizing list where you’re not quite sure whether to rejoice or be worried. We’re talking about the joy or the anxiety of the Waitlist.

For candidates who have admissions offer from other universities there’s another question to consider – ‘Should you patiently stand in line at the waitlist of your preferred college, or take up an offer from another school?’. This is particularly hard of other school(s) which may not have been your first choice, but you may have already been accepted and may be perfectly happy to attend.

The answers to this question vary depending on your situation and on the school to which you have applied. It’s also very important to find out the acceptance rate, yield and waitlist acceptance rate of the school you have been waitlisted for. Statistics from the previous year will give a fair indication of your chances for getting in. However the difficulty with the waitlist is that it can fluctuate unpredictably; for example at the undergraduate level Stanford has been known to accept anywhere from 0 to 125 students off the waitlist over the last few years.

So what should you do? Well, here are some things you should keep in mind and be sure to do; or not do- depending on how you plan to approach being waitlisted-

  1. Return the card: Once you are notified that you are on the wait-list, you need to formally accept the college wait list offer by returning the card or, in case of online acceptance, by clicking “I accept”. But before accepting, think once again whether this is the school you want to attend more than any other. So, only if you are certain that this and nowhere else will do for you, should you go ahead and wait the final list.
  2. Read the instructions well: Being wait-listed can be a frustrating experience and out of this frustration, sometimes students are known to rush in their response to the admission officials without cross checking the school’s policy & instructions. So, calmly re-read the letter, visit their website, understand the procedures and then take the next step. You should also resist the impulse to immediately call the admission officers and ask why you were waitlisted.
  3. Write a positive letter of response: Only once you have understood how the waitlist process for that particular college works, should you contact the admission officers with your response. A few, universities are quite strict about receiving communication from a waitlisted candidate; for example at the MBA level Wharton asks waitlisted candidates not to communicate with them or to send them any updates. If the university is open to receiving information from you, you can write a brief letter re-iterating why you dream to join that school and how you are the perfect candidate for the school; should a vacancy become open. Above all, stay positive at all times- say how you appreciate being considered to be named in the waitlisted candidates. The admission officers at this time want to gauge the applicant’s level of interest despite being waitlisted, so constantly keep that in mind. As you can imagine, an admissions officers doesn’t want to accept a candidate off the waitlist who may then turn down their offer.
  4. Update the authorities with new and significant information: Was there any data about awards, achievements or recognitions which may have slipped your mind earlier; seemed to be overkill for your application at that stage; or happened shortly after your initial application was submitted? Well, now is the time to include it.  However, you need to be sure it is really significant; for instance, being named as the ‘student of the week’ in the local newspaper last month may not be your strong suit, while sending new letters of recommendation by credible authorities/referees might go a long way. But again, before sending any additional documents or information, the school’s policy has to be kept in mind. Some schools, like Harvard Business School don’t consider any additional recommendations or submissions once your first application is made.
  5. Have a strong plan B: Planning is an integral part of management and most other educational disciplines. However, when faced with the possibility of personal failure, the best of us forget this basic fundamental. While being wait-listed is not the end of the world, hanging on to it in false hope may also mean losing out on an entire academic year. Looking at the statistics, chances of getting off the waitlist and into the admitted class are not very high either. However, if one were to only look at last year’s numbers; Yale offered spots to 98 of the 932 students on the wait-list in their freshman class for 2014 (Source: middletownpress.com) – that conversion rate of slightly over 10% is pretty healthy given Yale’s normal admit rate of 7.5 % . So make sure your eggs are carefully kept in various baskets, and the wait-list is not the biggest one of them either.

With that knowledge, we hope you would put your best foot forward and even if you end up in the waitlist of a top university, with some luck and some positive resolve you are able to sail through and secure a seat!