What to do if you’re waitlisted from your dream college

Don't take it personally.

Harvard accepted between 60 and 70 students off its waitlist last year.
Harvard accepted between 60 and 70 students off its waitlist last year. –Lisa Poole / Associated Press

When it comes to college admissions, there’s the “yes,” the answer that’s filled with congratulatory, “we can’t wait to have you” Snapchats and big packets overflowing with information for the upcoming school year. Then there’s the “no,” which comes in the form of a short email and a thin, “sorry” letter.

But, perhaps even worse than rejection is the “maybe,” the answer that comes when students are relegated to the purgatory of college admissions—the waitlist.

Last year, 81 percent of students admitted to Harvard planned to attend the school, which meant the college had room to pull names from its waitlist. But the odds of winning the waitlist lottery are even slimmer. Harvard accepted between 60 and 70 of the several hundred students on the list.

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Other area schools, including Boston College, MIT, Northeastern, Boston University and Tufts, use waitlists. Boston.com spoke to Sheila Akbar, Director of Education at Signet Education, a Boston-based full-service tutoring company that does admissions counseling, about what, if anything, waitlisted students can do to improve their odds of getting in.

Confirm a spot on the list.

Even if students are overcome with emotion after reading the waitlist email, they need to take action, Akbar said. Some schools give students a small window of time—often hours—to confirm their spots, and prospective students don’t want to miss the window because they didn’t fully read the email.

Don’t take it personally.

There are a number of reasons colleges put students on the waitlist, and, as difficult as it might be, students shouldn’t read too much into it.

“Students might see classmates get into the school and think, ‘I’ve got better grades,’ or ‘I do more activities,'” she said. “But they take the rejection to be a judgment on their character. There are a limited number of spaces. Some people get selected, some don’t.”

Consider whether the school is really worth it.

Akbar said students should think long and hard about why they want to go to the school they’re waitlisted from. Are the degree programs that much better? Would the financial aid be significantly more? Is it worth losing the deposit a student put down at another school while they wait to get off the waitlist?

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“Students are not always going to get their way,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to make due with something that might seem disappointing at first, but, at any college you go to, if you invest yourself, you’re going to get a lot out of it.”

Write a letter.

After students reflect on whether the waitlisted school is the best option for them, they should write a short letter to the admissions office. In no more than half to three-quarters of a page, they should not only express why they love the school, but confirm that they will attend if admitted.

“They can say that they that they love the school because of ‘this program’ or ‘that professor,’ or that they would love to be doing something they mentioned in their application,” she said. “And by reminding them that you’re committed to attending, it’s a kind of promise. There’s nothing legal, but it can make school feel more confident.”

Have a back-up.

Even if a student is admitted to her waitlisted school, it won’t be until after May 1, which is the notification deadline. That means students will need to put a non-refundable deposit down at another school.

“You’re not going to get money back if you don’t go to that school,” Akbar said. “That’s why writing that letter should be helpful. If you’re struggling to say why you want to attend, it’s probably not really your first choice.”

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