You’re on the Waiting List. Now What?

By JACQUES STEINBERG
The New York Times
The Choice

When some of the nation’s most selective colleges announced their decisions last week, thousands of applicants found themselves neither accepted nor rejected. Like passengers bumped from an overbooked flight — as one commenter on The Choice put it this weekend — they were instructed to sit tight in a crowded, virtual lounge, and wait to see if an opening presented itself over the next few weeks.

Officials at Stanford and Yale, for example, told me they had each offered nearly a thousand applicants spots on the waiting list. At Duke, the figure was more than 3,000.

For those new to the admissions process, let me begin by explaining a somewhat harsh truth of the waiting list: it sometimes exists to enable the college to fill holes, as it identifies them, in its incoming freshman class. In other words, if one too many quarterbacks or viola players or kids from Nebraska decline a particular college’s offer of admission, that college might go to its waiting list in search of a spare.

But the process isn’t necessarily cynical, or cookie-cutter. Often, colleges use their waiting lists the way we hope they would: to fill their final slots with some of the many talented applicants whom they liked but who, for a variety of reasons, may have just missed the cut for acceptance — someone who, if offered another bite of the apple, would almost surely say yes.

And in a year in which more applicants submitted more applications to top colleges — colleges that, in the current economy, they may not necessarily have the means to attend — some admissions offices are anticipating that they will be rescuing applicants from waiting lists in greater numbers than in the past.

At the most competitive colleges, these are human beings making these decisions, not computers. And at this particular juncture in the process, wait-listed applicants may well be able to improve their chances of winning a favorable verdict, even if it means throwing themselves on the mercy of the court.

To that end, The Choice sought some advice for readers from a veteran college counselor, Ted de Villefranca of the Peddie School in New Jersey.

First, Mr. de Villefranca asked if he could speak bluntly to those readers of The Choice who are currently holding multiple acceptances to top colleges. His plea, adapted from what he tells his own students, was as follows:

If you have been offered a spot at a college/university you know you aren’t going to, the right thing to do is to let them know that as swiftly as possible. If you do, then maybe spaces will open up early and colleges may know about yield and the wait list sooner.

If you are on the waiting list, you know you want others to do that because it might impact your future — so, bottom line, let places know you aren’t coming — again, it’s the right thing to do.

Next, Mr. de Villefranca turned his attention to those of you whose heads might be a bit woolly from being placed in waiting-list limbo. Again drawing from what he advises his own students, he suggested:

First, respond swiftly to the waiting list. Some places look at response time.

With that response to the waiting list (sometimes by mail and sometimes electronically) also comes an opportunity to write a follow-up letter about why said college is a great fit and why you want to be there.

If a coach was involved, or perhaps a faculty member at that college or a special interest alum — let them know that status, too, and ask for advice.

If the place is your top choice, tell them that. But don’t make false promises. “I’ll go if I get in” is fine — if you mean it! It’s called lying if you don’t.

One last reminder from Mr. de Villafranca, reinforcing a point I made above: “It is still a human process with people picking a variety of personalities and talents to create a community.”

To register a comment of your own about the waiting list, please use the box below.

And for more advice about the endgame of the admissions process, click here to see a reader Q&A conducted last year by Mr. de Villefranca and another private school counselor, Lolli Lucas Clark of the Brentwood School in California.