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College Waitlists and Playing Your Hand

If you're a senior, you may be in the thick of hearing from colleges. From now until the first week of April, the remainder of colleges will be releasing admission notifications. It's a little like playing poker and waiting to see what cards you've been dealt so that you know how to play your hand. Sure, in poker, some hands are better than others, but in the college journey, if you've built your list of colleges based on the combination of your strengths and aspirations with realistic expectations, you may be looking at a whole lot of ways to play your hand – and a handful of colleges to choose from. As has been the case for the past few years, waitlists will hold your attention like waiting for the elusive "Ace" in the deck. For some students, opting into a waitlist and "waiting it out" will be factored into decision-making. Everyone is trying to hedge their bets this year. With so many unknowns, students may have felt that applying broadly was the best play, but "more" is not always "better." Instead, "more" may end up being more waitlists, more disappointment, and possibly more acceptances, depending on the list of schools. Applications were up with more students applying to colleges this year, potentially making it more difficult for colleges to know who would enroll if accepted. With that in mind, many colleges may be playing their hand through the waitlist. A waitlist offer can feel like a door is still open, which it is. It also might slow down your decision-making process, stifling your ability to move forward. The news about the size of waitlists may trickle out in the weeks ahead, providing some data to help students know how to play their hand, but every application cycle will be unique, and prior data about how many colleges have moved students off a waitlist in a particular year may be entirely unreliable this year.

The waitlist might be moot for highly selective schools if a college leveraged its admits solely through ED and EA (read chapter four in Jeff Selingo's new book, "Who Gets in and Why,") with little room for students applying during RD. Other colleges may have adjusted their percentages, knowing they would draw from a large waitlist pool. In the past, opting into a waitlist may have been as easy as checking a box. Don't be surprised if you see a mix of what colleges ask for, which could be a supplemental essay addressing why they should accept you, what else you have been doing checking a box to opt in, or colleges boldly stating - "Please Don't Send Anything Else." If you have new information or updates not included in your application, and a school offers you the opportunity to send that or a Letter of Continuing Interest (LOCI), take advantage of that and do that quickly. Providing a college with additional information may strengthen your application and help them assess your seriousness about their college and whether you will enroll if offered a spot. What does this mean, and what should your next steps look like? Here are a few recommendations:

Go back to your list of acceptances (and waitlist schools) and do a deep dive to find out what you need to know, which will include some of the following to help you see which school is floating to the top of your list:

•Costs for each school.

•Location - Do you still like the cold, heat, city, or rolling hills?

•More information about curriculum and program requirements.

•Process for declaring majors and flexibility to change.

•Opportunities to cross-enroll across colleges or campuses.

•College vibe

•Campus resources – health, academic support, internships or career placement, etc.


If you're on a waitlist for a school that you are serious about, opt in, especially if it's as easy as checking a box. This gives you time to continue your deep dive into your accepted schools and your waitlist schools.


If there's an additional essay, start brainstorming and writing. You want to submit new information that wasn't included in your application, and this submission should be thoughtful and polished. If the idea of a supplemental essay is giving you grief, and you're not so excited to write another essay, think about what that means for you. Consider if a waitlist school, compared to your accepted schools, has a different draw than it did when you first built your college list. Having real-time options to make real-time comparisons can be telling, and you can use that information to decide to "hold" or move on.


Think about where you want to focus your energy over the next few months. It can be as simple as knowing whether you can "wait out the waitlist" or are ready to sign up for housing and meet your future roommates.


The reality is you will be successful wherever you go, and you get to decide where that will be. That may take some reflection, a little "homework," and the ability to "let go" and move forward, so give yourself the time to do that.



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