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You've Been Wait-Listed. Here's What You Do Now.

By Jay Mathews
Monday, April 6, 2009

Are you stuck on a college waiting list? Frustrating, isn't it? You feel disrespected, unlucky. But you are not alone. Some selective schools send more wait-list letters than acceptance letters. This year's economic uncertainties might produce the largest number of wait-listed applicants ever.

What can you do about it? I have some ideas. There is only one job other than newspapering that I would be even remotely qualified for: college admissions consultant. I have written a lot on the subject, including a guidebook. My clients would be careerist, overinvolved parents just like me. In truth, I couldn't take the pressure, but for fun, let's pretend that you are paying me $300 an hour to get you off that waiting list. Here's the plan:

Winning the wait-list game, like getting to the Final Four, is all about commitment. You must decide if a college that wait-listed you is still your first choice. If so, then go after it. (Pick just one school. No others allowed. Otherwise, someone will tell on you, and you will be dead.)

Then tell your parents, your grandparents, your older siblings, your minister, your significant other and even me, your favorite consultant, to butt out. You don't want to be written off by the college as too dependent on hovering adults.

Return the card saying you want to remain on the waiting list. (At least half of the competition drops out at this point.) Then call the admissions office and ask for the admissions officer for your region. Be blissfully cheerful, no matter how heartsick you feel. Say you are delighted to have made the waiting list of their fine school. Tell them you will be putting down a deposit by the May 1 deadline on one of the schools that admitted you, but if they say yes, you will happily kiss that $200 goodbye.

Then write a letter, to be mailed and e-mailed. Be friendly. Be positive. Be smart. Don't grovel. Describe three qualities you have that you think would add value to that college. Describe three qualities of that college that you think would add value to your life. Tell them of recent successes that were not on your application. Throw in some self-deprecating humor, such as: "My friends told me long ago to please shut up about your great chemistry department, but I can't stop thinking about those amazing professors, and how they could help me explore my interest in Arctic desalination." You want them to know not only that you are committed, but also that you are the kind of person who would be fun to have on campus. Stalkers are committed, too. Don't sound like them.

I have given this advice to many people over the years. I know of at least two, Sarah Burgess and Will Havemann, who took it. Their parents are friends of mine. Burgess was wait-listed by Pomona in 2005, Havemann by Amherst in 2003. It was not a good feeling, they tell me, particularly for Havemann, who was wait-listed by three of his top four schools. But they decided to go after their first choices anyway.

Burgess sent me part of her letter to Pomona: "I often joke with my friends that applying to college is like dating five people at the same time. In each application, you have to express your love for the school, even though it might not be your favorite. However, the affection I expressed for Pomona in my application is strong and authentic."

The odds were still against them. Amherst last year admitted 25 of 1,100 students on the waiting list. That list was longer than the 1,088 students the college originally accepted. Pomona admitted about 30 of 300 wait-listed students. The long lists are not intended to torture you. Sometimes more admitted students than expected decline the offer. At selective schools, there are far more qualified applicants than spaces. Bruce Poch, Pomona's vice president and dean of admissions, and Tom Parker, Amherst's dean of admission and financial aid, said it is wrong to reject students who are as good as those they just accepted, even if some critics see that as creating false hope.

Wait-listed students who make their push in a thoughtful, friendly way have an advantage. Some college officials estimate only 10 percent of people on their lists try that hard.

Being admitted is a joy for those who were in limbo. Havemann ran around the block of his house in Northwest Washington in his pajamas when he got the news. Those let in from the waiting list have to deal with the feeling that they might not be as good as those let in during the first round, but the evidence shows otherwise. Wait-listees are often chosen because they have special talents -- the orchestra needs a flutist, the English department wants more poets. They are so committed to the school that they often turn out to be dynamos.

Havemann wrote and staged a play, was the elected student speaker at graduation and was Phi Beta Kappa. As a sophomore, Burgess directed a student play and won a regional award as a dramaturge, and as a junior she made Phi Beta Kappa. Parker and Poch said they have heard many such stories. Like me, they wonder what took so long to admit these people.

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