National News

Hopeful students' purgatory: the dreaded college wait list

Posted May 17, 2018 2:22 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- Students headed to college this coming fall have plunked down several hundred dollars -- or at least their parent have -- to hold a spot in a college that has accepted them for the fall semester.

Some of that money is going to be forfeited.

That's because many students apply to multiple colleges and get accepted by one or more, but some students also get put on the dreaded wait list by their dream college, whether that is the University of Georgia or Harvard.

The wait-list acceptance letter from the school tells students you qualify to come here, and we'll be glad to accept you. Kind of. You'll get in, but only if the right number of people we've already accepted decide to go somewhere else, which could open up a seat for you.

So the incoming freshmen promise their B-list college that they'll show up come fall, but pin thin hopes on making it through the wait list and going to a school they perceive to be better in academics, sports, prestige, exclusiveness or some ephemeral measurement.

Pamela Donnelly, the CEO of the GATE College System, a company that helps teenagers prepare for and compete to get into the best college they can, compares wait lists to purgatory, the Catholic concept of an after-death state of waiting and being purified before being sent off to a final destination.

"You're hoping to get into heaven but it might be a long wait. It's a nerve-racking time."

And it is also a dangerous time. There are prices that wait-listed students might pay in financial aid or housing by being wait-listed.

Donnelly has some advice for the wait-listed.

"The first thing you need to understand ... the odds are not in your favor," she said. The acceptance rates for wait-listed students is low, and the better and more exclusive the school, the lower the chances you'll get a call-back.

Also, know that wait-listed students get put at the very back of the line for housing availability and for financial aid from the school. They may be all out of money by the time you get a call-up.

"If finances are important, it may be preferable to look at schools where you were already accepted," Donnelly said.

There are things you can do while you are waiting to help you make a decision.

"If you are higher on your (wait-listed) ranking, you have a greater chance of being accepted," she said. So if students don't know where they rank, it could be OK to call the school and ask if the wait-list is ranked and then ask where they rank on the list.

Show some maturity during the call. Tell them you are trying to make an informed decision about your future, and that you know the college is also trying to do the same thing, so it could help both parties if they share the info. And then be polite, if you decide to move on. Let the college know as soon as possible that it can take you off the wait list.

There are a couple of other things you could do to help your chances, if you remain on the wait list. Donnelly says if you never got the chance to do an interview with an admissions officer, call proactively and let them know you never got to interview. "I would love to make a trip there. Will someone be in the office on ..." and give them a few days range for an interview.

Donnelly, who has written books on the subject, also recommends getting another letter of recommendation from a prominent politician, businessman or notable person in the community. "Not just your English teacher," she says.

"And I think the other strategy is to get creative about your communication," she said.

She recalled one young woman several years ago who took a college brochure and turned it into a little pop-up card with the young woman's picture in it. "She said, 'I've been picturing myself on your campus,'" Donnelly said. It helped send the message how much going there would mean.

But the real advantage you can give yourself is realizing that not getting into a dream college is not going to stunt your development or chances in life. Think about what you are going to give to the world, rather than just want you are getting from it.

"Remember to celebrate. Remember ... the path for excellence is embracing opportunities as they are made available to you."

Christopher Quinn writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: cquinn(at)

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service