How to Get Off a Wait List

The Do's and Don'ts for Dealing with Admissions Limbo

People waiting in line
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Finding yourself on a college wait list is frustrating. If you’ve been accepted or rejected, at least you know where you stand. Not so with the wait list.

First of all, be realistic. The majority of students never get off the list. Most years less than a third of wait-listed students eventually get accepted. In some cases, especially at elite colleges, no students actually get off the list. You should definitely move forward with a backup college.

But not all hope is lost, and you can do a few things to improve your chances of getting off a wait list.

Do: Contact the Admissions Office to Learn More

Unless the school says not to, contact the admissions office to find out why your application wasn’t accepted. Were your test scores low? Were your extracurricular activities weak? Did the college already accept ten students who excel at playing the tuba? If you are able to identify the reasons your application didn’t make it to the top of the pile, you’ll be better able to address the issue.

Also, try to learn how the wait list is managed. Are students ranked? Where do you fall on the list? Are your chances of getting off the list fair or slim?

Realize that many colleges do not want wait-listed students contacting the admissions office because it can be a strain on personnel and because they aren't always willing to be specific about the reasons for an admissions decision.

Do: Write a Letter Restating Your Interest

Write a letter of continued interest to the school to reaffirm your sincere interest in attending (and if you aren’t sincerely interested in attending, you shouldn’t put yourself on the wait list to begin with). Your letter should be polite and specific. Show that you have good reasons for wanting to attend — what exactly is it about this college that has made it your top choice? What is it that the college offers that you won’t find elsewhere? 

Do: Send the College Any New and Significant Information

Send along any new and significant information that might make your application stronger. Did you retake the SAT and get higher scores? Did you win a significant award? Did you make the All-State team? If you’re still on the list in the summer, did you get good AP scores? New academic accomplishments are particularly important. You can present this information in your letter of continued interest.

Don't: Have Alumni Write to the School for You

It's rarely effective to scrounge around to find alumni who are willing to write letters recommending you. Such letters tend to be shallow and they make you look like you’re grasping. Ask yourself if such letters will really change your credentials. Chances are, they won’t.

That said, if a close relative happens to be a major donor or member of the Board of Trustees, such a letter has a slight chance of helping. In general, however, admissions and fundraising work quite separately from one another.

Don't: Pester the Admissions Counselors

Harassing your admissions counselor won't help your situation. Calling frequently and showing up at the admissions office isn’t going to improve your chances, but it may annoy the extremely busy admissions employees.

Don't: Rely on a Clever Gimmick

Trying to be clever or cute often backfires. While it may sound like a good idea to send postcards or chocolate or flowers to your admissions counselor every day until you are accepted, it’s not wise. You may hear of the rare case where such a gimmick works, but in general, you’re going to freak out the counselor and appear like a stalker.

That said, if you have some new and meaningful information that highlights your creativity (a poetry award, completion of a major art project), it can't hurt to share that information with the school.

Don't: Send Trivial or Off-Target Materials

If you’re applying to an engineering program, your latest watercolor or limerick probably doesn’t add much to your application (unless it won an award or got published). If you received a new SAT score that’s only 10 points higher than the old one, it’s probably not going to change the school’s decision. And a letter of recommendation from the congressman who doesn’t really know you — that too won’t help.

Don't: Let Your Parents Argue with the Admissions Folks

Parents should be part of your college planning and application process, but the college wants to see you advocating for yourself. You, not Mom or Dad, should be calling and writing to the admissions office. If it looks like your parents are more eager for you to attend the school than you are, the admissions folks won't be impressed.

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Grove, Allen. "How to Get Off a Wait List." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, September 8). How to Get Off a Wait List. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "How to Get Off a Wait List." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).