So you were wait-listed at your dream college. What now?
If it's still your top choice, accept a spot on the wait list. You have to take action, it won't happen automatically. Then send an email letting the school know that it is your first choice and why. Telling the school you will attend if accepted is important as colleges care about their “yield” and don’t want to waste a bullet.
Include a sentence or two to remind the college how you will add to their classroom and community. Make it specific about a particular department, program, research opportunity or activity. No cookie cutter platitudes here please.
Keep the college updated on any new developments such as grades, awards or achievements. But keep it to meaningful developments, don't overdo it, and keep it short. Admissions officers don't want to read more essays or letters of recommendation.
Recognize that many selective schools end up offering admission to fewer than 10% of the wait list, sometimes closer to 0. Some students don't want to deal with the uncertainty -- especially after the long and nerve-wracking admissions process they've already been through -- so they choose to decline the wait list and go with a sure thing.
Also recognize that the college may have used up its financial aid on students already accepted, and there may not be any left for those admitted off the wait list. This will vary by college but it's something to keep in mind.
If you want to research the statistics, most colleges publish a report called the Common Data Set each year which contains admissions data including the number of students who were put on the wait list and how many were ultimately offered admission. Check the stats over the past several years since wait list results can vary each year based on a number of factors.
Reality check: the wait list is an enrollment management tool to fill spots not taken by other admitted students. What the college needs to balance the class -- by gender, geography, academic major or other factor -- will determine how those spots are filled. Let's acknowledge that the wait list is also used to soften the blow for an applicant with legacy or other connections, to avoid an outright rejection.
If you decide the wait list is for you, do what you can then put that school out of your mind. Focus on choosing from among the acceptances you received. Attend accepted student events. Evaluate financial aid offers. Pick a college, put the deposit down, buy the sweatshirt and assume that’s where you’re going. Get excited about that school as your first choice, don’t look at it as a consolation prize and don’t look over your shoulder. If in May or June you get an acceptance from your wait list school, hooray. If not, you’ve already moved on and you're ready for a great college experience!