What should I do if my top-choice college put me on an admissions waiting list, but another college offered me admission and a scholarship?

Question:

My top-choice college has put me on an admissions waiting list. Another college has offered me admission in the freshman class with a merit-based scholarship. What should I do?

Answer:

Accept the offer of admission from the college with the merit-based scholarship and pay the deposit by the May 1 deadline. If you ultimately enroll at the wait-listing college, you will lose the deposit, but the odds of admission off of the waiting list are slim to none. You won't know whether you are admitted off of the waiting list until after May 1, so you have to choose one of the colleges that admitted you now.

There are no guarantees of admission off of a waiting list. Some colleges take a few students off of the waiting list, while others take none. While the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) once estimated that 10% of applicants are put on a wait list and about a quarter to a third of them are admitted, there is considerable variation among colleges. The most selective colleges are the least likely to admit students off of the wait list, typically admitting less than 10% of students who choose to remain on the waiting list.

The College Board includes wait list statistics in its profiles of many colleges. Search for the name of the college on the CollegeBoard.org web site and select the Applying link within the college's profile. This may help clarify whether the wait list is merely a consolation prize for many students who would otherwise have been rejected. Note that there may be significant variation in these statistics from year-to-year.

You can also ask your guidance counselor to call the college admissions office for a "read" of their chances of being admitted off of the waiting list. Most colleges will not tell a student his or her odds directly, but sometimes the high school guidance counselor can get a sense of whether the student is near the top or bottom of the list.

If a student is admitted off of the wait list, the financial aid offer from the wait-listing college is unlikely to be as generous. There won't be a merit scholarship, as merit scholarships are usually used as recruiting tools. Even need-based aid may be more limited, as most colleges are need-sensitive when admitting students off of the waiting list, when the financial aid budget may have been exhausted. Housing choices may also be more limited.

So, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate your academic priorities. Which do you prefer: a college that clearly wants you, or a college that is unsure about you?

If you still prefer the wait-listing college, let the admissions office know that you will definitely enroll if admitted. Write them a letter giving three reasons why the college remains your top choice and three reasons why they should admit you. Tell the wait-listing college about any significant, new accomplishments since you first applied for admission.

Don't send any goodies with the letter. While college admissions staff do appreciate homemade chocolate chip cookies, it won't make any difference in whether they admit you off of the wait list.

Then, the waiting game begins. Some students may hear from the wait-listing college soon after May 1, while others might not receive an offer until later in the summer, sometimes as late as July 31.