The Washington Post

How to get off that college wait list

Prospective students and their parents tour the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

I didn’t come up with the right approach myself, of course. Some smart high school counselors gave me the secret. I don't really approve of fretting over a wait list letter. The colleges you got into are likely to turn out to be just as good. But if you really really want to go to that one school — and I emphasize you can only do this ethically if you have only one college in mind — then here are the four simple steps:

1. Tell your parents to butt out. If they get involved in communicating with the college you desire, you are sunk. Once you tell them what you plan to do in steps two, three and four, they will probably calm down and go do the dishes or some other useful chore. That's what I did when I became too excited during my own children’s college journeys.

2. Get out a plain sheet of paper and write a letter. It is best to do this in longhand, but if that freaks you out, typing on the computer and printing it out is fine. Just make sure you send it to the college snail mail. E-mail is too informal for this appeal.

3. In the letter, make two points, each with three parts. Tell the college of three very specific opportunities it offers that fit with your interests and dreams and plans for the future. Then tell the college of three very specific qualities that you possess that fit with the college’s traditions and values, and why you will be a good asset if they let you in.

4. Somewhere in this letter, say something that is gently self-deprecating. If you are telling them how much you could help their championship debating team, and how much their skills would add to your own in your favorite activity, you could say something like: “I admit I have a tendency to go over the time limit, leading my teammates to call me ‘Just One More Second Jones,’ but that’s better than running out of ideas too soon, right?”

Does this make sense to you? How did you manage to get off the wait list at your college? Share. There are many people struggling with the wait list issue this month. They need your help.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.


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