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If you have been wait-listed at your dream college, it may be time to cut bait

Key Points
  • May 1 is known as National College Decision Day, the deadline for students to commit to a school.
  • In 2017, the most selective colleges admitted 14% of waitlisted students, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found.
  • Aside from considering the odds of making it off the waitlist, think about what this might mean for financial aid and housing availability.
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If your child's dream college has put her on the waitlist, be aware that she's running out of time to commit to a school.

High school seniors hoping to start college in the fall should have found out whether they were accepted or not by this spring.

Generally, they have until May 1 to select a school that has accepted them and submit a deposit, signaling their decision to attend.

Waitlisted applicants have neither been outright rejected by a college nor have they been extended a formal offer of admission.

Instead, they may be considered for a seat, depending on whether there's sufficient space for them in the entering class, as well as other factors.

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Here's the problem: There's no guarantee that your child will make the leap from the wait list to being successfully admitted.

For instance, typically fewer than 10% of applicants to Dartmouth College are offered a spot on the waitlist. From there, the number admitted to the school varies year to year — from zero to dozens of applicants.

During the fall 2017 admission cycle, selective colleges granted spots to only 14% of wait-listed applicants, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Time is running out to accept an offer of admission elsewhere.

"A lot of families are really optimistic that something will come in off the waitlist," said Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a consultancy in New York. "They worry more about that versus the schools their kid got into."

Stay or go

High School graduates in Portland, Maine.
Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

Students who've been wait-listed face a tough choice: See if they'll be extended a formal offer after May 1 passes — and the school has a better sense of how many incoming freshmen it will accept — or commit to a different college that's accepted them.

By now, seniors who were wait-listed in the spring should have submitted a compelling "letter of enthusiasm" to the college to let them know why they want to attend, said Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach.

"Many students make the mistake of presenting themselves as well-rounded," he said.

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Instead, wait-listed applicants should aim for specificity. "You have to say how you'll contribute to that school and what do they stand to gain by having you," Taylor said.

Students can also share the letter with their high school counselor and ask him or her to make an advocacy call to the college.

Avoid being too pushy.

"Applicants will send family photos, they'll camp outside of the admissions office — this hurts your chances when you're wait-listed," Taylor said.

Don't wait too long

Hero Images | Hero Images | Getty Images

"People are so mesmerized by being wait-listed, but it's important to figure out where you will put a deposit by May 1," said Greenberg.

One thing to consider is whether you'll get the full package of grants and loans if your waitlisted school allows you to enter.

"You'd have to engage the school on whether there would be a financial aid package for someone who gets in from the wait list," said Joe DePaulo, CEO of College Avenue Student Loans.

That's because students who were admitted in the first round tend to have first dibs on grants and other forms of aid.

Further, incoming freshmen who were accepted earlier also get the first shot at on-campus housing. Wait-listed students who eventually gain entry might have to wait for space to open up at the dorms.

"Consider putting a deposit somewhere and treat the waitlist as something that might happen, but don't count on it," said Greenberg.

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