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On the Waiting List? Fuggedaboudit. Your Chances Are Slim.

Jacques Steinberg of the New York Times has an article yesterday in which he analyzes the phenomenon of the waiting list.

Due to high volumes of applications and admissions offices’ uncertainty about how the economy might affect their yield rate, colleges have placed more students in limbo than ever before.

Many college counselors will give their kids strategies about how they can demonstrate their true love for the college and help get themselves off the wait list.

As Mr. Steinberg explains,  however, there is virtually nothing you can do to get yourself off the wait list. You can accept the college’s offer to remain on the wait list.  And then you just wait.

Here is a snippet from Mr. Steinberg’s article to explain how the waiting list works.

Like its competitors, Duke does not rank students on its waiting list. Instead, decisions about who will rise to the top are often a function of what the admissions office perceives as deficiencies in the next freshman class. There might be, for example, a surplus of aspiring engineers and not enough potential English majors, or too few students from Florida. Or there might be an unexpected shortage of oboe players.

While Mr. Guttentag encourages students on the waiting list to send him a one-page letter — or a video of 60 seconds or less — letting him know how strongly they wish to attend, and why, they can do little to improve their chances.

“The student can’t know, ‘Gee, did all the violinists decide to turn us down?’ ” he said. “They can’t affect this very much at this point.”

You see, as with so much else with the college admissions process, a student’s individual chances of admission have much less to do with their academic performance, their scores on the SAT or ACT, or even how good a leader or oboe player you might be.

Your chances have more to do with whether the college NEEDS an oboe player this year. Of course, if you are the best oboe player in the applicant pool this year, you stand a better chance than the kid who switched over from clarinet as a junior and still squawks when he plays.  But if Duke accepted 14 oboe players last year, well, I’m sorry:   you may be better than all those 14 others, but we just don’t need you.

When my students end up on the waiting list, here’s what I do.

First I tell them that the college doesn’t know what it will be missing. Each applicant that I send toward a particular school fits that school well, I believe.  But sometimes it just doesn’t work out: too many oboes.  I urge the student not towards sour grapes, but toward embracing the disappointment–and then moving on.

Second, if the school is truly one of the student’s top choices, then I advise the student to stay on the waiting list, and then write a letter to admissions updating their resume and highlighting any new accomplishments that were not in the original application.

Third, I help the student understand that to come off the waiting list is really Plan B, and that we have to turn to Plan A–which is to figure out which of the student’s other choices are the best option to pursue.  This is where I spend the bulk of my energy as a counselor.  While the student has been excited and hopeful about this college that rejected her, she does have other excellent options and my role is to help her get equally excited and hopeful about her other options. (And frankly, if I’ve done my job right from the start, a student is excited and hopeful about all the possible options on her list–and is not absolutely crushed when her first choice school rejects her.  But I admit it doesn’t always work that way, unfortunately.)

To build this excitement, I encourage the family to visit one or more of the colleges that have sent acceptance letters.  I help the student do a bit more research about the colleges that have said yes, including contacting current students, professors.

And the colleges help me out in this, because the colleges that have accepted her actually do want her.  They need a great oboe player this year, and they  have decided that she is the one. So they are going to pull out the stops to ensure that she enrolls.  Colleges know that it feels good to be wanted, and admissions offices across the country have become darned good at showing the love to students they accept.  (For example, one of my student received a package in the mail containing personalized business cards with his name on it from a college, including his new email address.  Even though this school was not his first choice, my student looked at them and felt like he already belonged!  These college marketing folks are geniuses!).

The key from the beginning of this process to the very end is to focus on developing a strong list of schools, each of which the student desires, each of which meet the student’s educational, social, and personal criteria, each of which would provide her with excellent opportunities.  They we make the strongest case on the applications that these schools match the student.  Then we hope and pray that the schools agree that the fit is snug.

And if the college–for reasons of its own budgetary and enrollment management–puts the student on the wait list, we just turn to the next opportunity where the fit is just as good and the outcome just as happy.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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