Five Keys to Cracking the College Waitlist

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A statue of former Princeton University president John Witherspoon, on campus in Princeton, N.J.

It's past Memorial Day, and while some high school seniors are sporting new college sweatshirts, others are still in purgatory on a waitlist. The bad news? The more time that passes, the lower the odds of getting off the list. But the good news is, if a student is on a waitlist, he or she is still in the game. Here are five things to know about this particularly mysterious aspect of college admissions.

1. Waitlists do move
There are more students applying to colleges these days, but if you're on a waitlist, those are not the numbers that matter to you. Instead, what's working in your favor are the students who apply to many schools — and can, obviously, attend only one. The increasingly popular Common Application, which allows students to apply to multiple schools without too much extra paperwork, only adds to the fluidity. These dynamics make waitlists more active than they used to be. In fact, while in the past waiting lists were a second chance for students, these days they function as much as a second chance for schools to achieve the right number of students they need to build their incoming freshman class. Some schools even adopt a strategy of making fewer offers initially and then going to the waitlist as a way to guard against overenrollment.

2. Waitlists are not ranked
Waitlists do not move mechanically, so there is no magic number of offers that will determine whether or not you get in. "Once a college has a solid sense of the students who are on their waitlist, they re-evaluate the applications based on many factors," says one former admissions official. Admissions experts suggest that applicants treat the waitlist like the second admissions process it basically is and advocate for themselves, making the best case they can.

3. Showing interest is key
Schools need a high "yield" from the waitlist — the number of students who are accepted and enroll — so making sure a school knows that you absolutely will attend if you get an offer can provide an important edge. Send in additional materials and recommendations as well as any new awards, recognitions or accomplishments you have achieved since the initial application process. One caveat: experts say that if a school has a formal policy about sending in new material, it's best to observe it unless you've done something really spectacular that admissions officials should be aware of.

4. Senior grades matter
Senior slumps are real, and this is when they can hurt. To aid their decisionmaking, admissions officials will often ask for last-semester senior-year grades, and a drop-off can mean the difference between getting an offer from the waitlist or not. So if you really want to get off a waitlist, study for your final exams and, as they say in road racing, "run through the tape" as you finish your high school career.

5. Money matters more
Waitlists complicate the picture for students who need financial aid. In many instances, colleges — even ones that are "need-blind" during the normal admissions process — have to consider a student's financial circumstances when deciding who to take from the waitlist. And by this point, the most generous aid packages are usually long gone. If financial aid is a deal breaker for you, think hard about your choices and whether other schools that made offers might be a better bargain. After all, research shows that where you go to school matters less than you might think, so don't saddle yourself with unnecessary debt.

Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.