Preparing for College

Tips for Getting Off the Yale Waitlist

Question: Our son is waitlisted at Yale. What can he do to improve his chance to get admitted?

Below are some generic tips for students who are in waitlist limbo. Note, however, that the more sought-after the school, the less likely that waitlisted students will get good news. And those who do often fill enrollment "niches" based on race, residence, special talents, etc.


Yale, of course is one of those places where the odds of acceptance from the waitlist are very slim. So, as your son forges ahead with his waitlist campaign, he should also try to get excited about a college that has already said yes.

But here are some thoughts for your son as he proceeds:

First of all, be aware that, from year to year, there can be huge discrepancies in the number of students who are taken off a waitlist. This can range from 0 to a couple hundred. Sometimes colleges begin to take students from the waitlist even before the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date. More commonly, waitlist activity heats up at the end of the first week of May and continues for the rest of that month and into early June. Usually, colleges release the majority of their waitlisted students somewhere around the end of June but will allow others to linger through the summer, just in case there are unexpected last-minute vacancies in the class.

Typically, colleges do not rank their waitlisted candidates and then pluck them off the list one at a time, starting at the top. Instead, they are likely to use the waitlist to meet “institutional needs” –i.e., to make up for deficiencies in the class that has enrolled so far. In other words, if the class seems short on males or females, on members of particular minority groups, on students from the Northwest or Southeast, on science majors, swimmers or soccer goalies, etc., then those students may be the first to be selected from the waitlist. Priority may also be given to children of prominent alumni or other VIP’s (who have been creating a stir with friends in high places since the decision letters went out). So, if you’re on a waitlist but don’t think you fill a particular niche (i.e., if you’re a middle or upper-middle-class white kid from an overrepresented part of the country with a common choice of major and no unique talents), then you may not be one of the first selected. But if you’re not applying for financial aid, that can be a plus … especially at colleges that are not as “rich” as the Ivies and other “elite” schools. Conversely, if you need a lot of financial aid, that might hurt you. (Even colleges that that claim to be "need blind" may not be when it's time to choose from the waitlist.)

Keep in mind that some colleges put more than 1,000 students on their waitlists, so don’t get your hopes too high.

Also be aware that, although admission folks may insist otherwise, some practice what is known as "Courtesy Waitlisting." This is when students who ordinarily would be denied are added to the waitlist instead for a variety of reasons. Typically, these are the children of alumni and VIP's. Sometimes they are applicants who have overcome great obstacles in life, and admission officials want to soften the blow of a denial. Courtesy Waitlisting may also be used to show respect for a high school counselor who has advocated vigorously for a particular candidate who, nonetheless, never made the final cut. So ask yourself if you might be a courtesy kid. If so, you’re not entirely out of luck, but your odds of success may be even steeper.

If you decide you do want to stay on a college’s waitlist, you should ...

-Notify the college (or colleges) ASAP that you plan to wait. Pay attention to the way they’ve asked you to this (via return postcard, online response form, etc.) and respond accordingly.

- Write a letter to the office of admission explaining why it's the right place for you. Be as specific as possible. Avoid generic phrases like, "From the moment I stepped onto the campus, I knew it was a perfect school for me" or "You have a history major." (Duh ... who doesn't?) Your letter can include details about new awards, activities or achievements, but only if they’re fairly significant. If your grades are the best they've ever been, or you're particularly pleased with your success in a hard class, you can mention that, too.

-Also include the ways that you will contribute to the campus community. One boy I knew of, for instance, pointed out that he is a trained First Responder who has already saved lives.

-It's a plus if you can get the name of the admissions rep who oversees your high school and write directly to him or her, but that's not an imperative. If you already have a “relationship” with a different staff member (e.g., the person who interviewed you), you can write to that individual instead.

-If you are CERTAIN that you will enroll if admitted from the waitlist, be sure to mention this clearly in your letter. Once admission officials determine that they will need to use the waitlist to fill their class, then obviously, they want the process to be as swift and painless as possible. Thus, to avoid doing some waiting on their own end, it can make sense to admit a sure-thing student rather than one who may respond two weeks later with "Sorry, never mind."

- Ask your school counselor to contact admission officials and lobby on your behalf. Phone calls can be most effective, but some colleges won't accept them. Letters and e-mail are okay, too, but push for the phone call first. Ideally, your counselor will call to check in once every week or so, but busy counselors may not have the time or inclination to do this.

-Do NOT ask your parents to call or write. This could work against you. (Exception: Alum parents who have maintained some ties to the college can rattle some cages in the alum office and even phone or write the admission office rep who serves as alumni liaison.)

- Consider something "cute." (But don't necessarily do it.) Once in a (very) great while an appropriate “gimmick” might help. For instance, I once had an advisee whose application touted his talents as a photographer. He took a photo of himself standing in front of the sign for the competitor college that had admitted him, and made it into a postcard with a funny caption. He was admitted off the waitlist at his first-choice school. Was it the postcard? I’ll never know. Similarly, budding poets might write a verse about the college in question; an artist could paint a picture of a campus landmark to demonstrate enthusiasm. A singer might compose a little song. (“Ode to Oberlin”? “The Ballad of Bard”?) Again, don't push this gimmick thing unless you're really inspired, because it's a long shot. At the elite-college level, these cutesy things will have less impact than they might elsewhere because few students are likely to come off those lists and those who do will often be special cases cited above. But, at this stage of the game, it can never hurt.

GOOD LUCK! (And, indeed, luck can play a starring role here.)

(posted 4/6/2011)