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5 Ways to Get Off the Wait List and into Your Top College

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Updated on Mar 31, 2011

After all those years of high school study and preparation— plus the application forms, essays, tests, and interviews—it’s come to this: your teen has been waitlisted at his dream college. For thousands of families every year, the months of waiting for college acceptance decisions conclude not with a “yes” or “no,” but with a maddening “maybe.”

Worried the uncertainty might kill you? In fact, it might make you stronger. “Acceptance at college is at best an art. It’s certainly not a science,” says Edward Fiske, author of the bestselling Fiske Guide to Colleges and former Education Editor of the New York Times. “You should see the fact that you’re on the wait list as an opportunity.”

It’s true that being put on the wait list can make a student feel helpless and a little confused. After all, didn’t he try his hardest on the personal statement, get glowing recommendations, and send in his test scores? What more could colleges want? But Fiske explains that, due to the unpredictable nature of the process, schools need to give themselves flexibility.

Because students nowadays hedge their bets by applying to potentially dozens of schools, they are also more likely to pass up on a spot in one school for another. That means that colleges need a pool of applicants that can be called upon to fill spots that others decline. It also means that students who can show that they really want to get in can have an advantage.

“When colleges go to the wait list, they want to make sure that whoever they call up first, comes,” says Fiske. “If you contact the school, whether by email, phone, or dropping out of a helicopter, you’re going to send a signal that you’re in that category.”

So what’s the best way to show your preferred school that you’re the one for them? Here are Fiske’s top five recommendations:

  1. Send a letter to the admissions director emphasizing your unyielding desire to attend. State specifically why you think the match is a good one and highlight new information.
  2. Call to see if you can arrange a campus interview, and bring along recent grades or new information.
  3. Send examples of impressive work. This is particularly relevant if you have an area of special talent, or if you have produced interesting new work.
  4. Ask a current teacher to write a recommendation highlighting your recent achievements. Ask teachers who wrote letters for you previously to send updates.
  5. Ask your guidance counselor to write or call and see that the admissions office is kept up to date with your grades and other achievements.

The bottom line? “If there’s a school that you’re on the wait list for and that you really want to get into, you need to work it.”

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