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College Waiting Lists: Does Maybe Just Mean No?

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Some high school students have had their heart set on attending a particular college since a very young age, so they fill out their college application and hope all goes well. The day the response envelope arrives in the mailbox is an exciting moment … did they get in? Yes? No?

Well … maybe.

If you’re placed on a college’s waiting list, you fall into that maybe category.

If you’re offered to be placed on the waiting list, you haven’t been totally rejected by the school, but you don’t know if you’ll officially be accepted, either. It’s technically somewhat of an honor to be placed on a prestigious school’s waiting list — after all, you haven’t been officially denied — but it’s almost a consolation for the people who end up deciding on another school. Waiting lists are frustrating because you can’t make definite plans for your immediate future. Should you stick it out and agree to wait, or should you just decide to go to a different school? You might have to do that anyway, since the waiting list is usually quite large.

Why Do Colleges Have Waiting Lists?

Schools know what size of freshman class they can accommodate, so they estimate actual attendance based on the figures from previous years. For example, if only half of the students that are accepted wind up attending in the fall, the school offers wait list positions to enough people to fill the empty spaces should they occur.

It sounds good in theory, but this doesn’t mean that everyone on the wait list gets accepted. Far from it, actually.

According to the New York Times, Duke University had 27,000 applications for its 2010-2011 freshman class. This was a record-breaking number, and Duke only sent letters of acceptance to 4000 of the students who applied. An additional 3,382 applicants were placed on the waiting list. The New York Times explains that this year Duke placed 856 more people on the waiting list than they did last year, citing an uncertain economy which may make it difficult to estimate how many of the 4000 accepted students will actually attend. Some high school seniors may have had dreams and hopes of attending a high-status school like Duke University, but they’ll eventually realize that they simply cannot afford the accompanying price tag.

Are College Waiting Lists Common?

I earned my degree and I decided to return to school later in life, so I’ve been accepted to attend a few different colleges but I’ve never placed on a waiting list— I’ve also never applied to a school with the notoriety of Duke University or one of its equivalents.

Waiting lists are actually fairly common. Statistics show that the Ivy League colleges all had a large jump in the number of applications they received this year compared to previous years. Stanford and Yale have each placed over 1000 students on waiting lists this year, and other prestigious schools reported similar information.

If you’re placed on a waiting list, you know that your grades and other credentials are good enough and high enough. Try not to be discouraged, but it’s important to realize that your chances of actually being accepted from the waiting list are fairly slim. Studies show that as few as 30% (or less) students from waiting lists get to attend the school.

What Should I Do if I’m Offered a Spot on a College Waiting List?

If you’ve been offered a spot on a waiting list for the college of your dreams, you need to decide if it’s still the college of your dreams even though you haven’t officially been accepted.

If you seriously want to attend the school and you know that it’s financially possible, go ahead and accept a position on the waiting list. It’s in your best interest to submit your acceptance to the school as soon as possible, because some schools will consider your response time when deciding who to accept from the waiting list.

If the school was a “maybe” in your book to begin with, and you didn’t care much one way or the other, turn down the spot on the waiting list. Notify the school that you do not want to remain on the waiting list, and it will help give other people a chance.

Writing the school a letter or even sending in new letters of recommendation can’t hurt. It’s also important to realize that your current high school grades are still important. Don’t begin to slack off at school because you’re almost ready to graduate. The college may just decide to look at your final grades before making their final decision.

You should also decide on a second (or third) choice college that you can attend. After all, your odds are slim and if you don’t get accepted from the waiting list, you will still need to go to school somewhere.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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