03/29/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Getting Off a College Wait list

Definition of a Wait List
In order for a college to ensure that it will have a full freshman class, the admissions office often creates a wait list; that is, a list of students to whom admittance might be offered should fewer students than predicted say yes to their admissions offers.

Being wait listed has the effect of saying to an applicant, "You're not admitted right now, but you might be later." The number of students admitted from wait lists varies from year to year and from school to school. Some years the number is zero, while other years it could be dozens or even hundreds.

There are very clear steps that students can take to get off a wait list. Whether they eventually gain acceptance is dependent on many factors, including a) how many people are on the list, b) what they have to offer the college, c) what the colleges are looking for to balance their freshman class, etc.

Nevertheless, to simply say that you want to remain on a college's list is not likely to bring you success. Here is what to do that will increase your chances for getting off a wait list and onto a college's acceptance list:

What to Do to Get Off a Wait List

1. No matter what, by May 1 send in a deposit to a school at which you have been accepted to make sure that you have a college to attend in the fall.

2. Immediately notify a school at which you have been wait listed that you want to remain on their list.
Each college usually gives students specific directions to follow, ranging from mailing in a reply postcard, to sending an email, to completing a questionnaire that updates their application and explains why he or she wants to go to their school. It is very important that you follow their directions, doing and not doing exactly as they say. If they want a one-page letter, write it. If they don't want any additional letters of recommendation, don't send them. Also, it is always better to act sooner rather than later. Remember, being on a wait list is no guarantee of admission.

3. If there are no wait list directions or vague ones, then call the admissions office (preferably the representative assigned to your high school) and tell an admissions officer how much you would like to attend their school.
Let them know that you will attend the college if you are taken off the wait list. Ask what additional information would be useful for them to have about you or your background. Most officers will suggest that you write a letter indicating your continued interest and updating your application with any new information.

4. Write a very positive, upbeat letter (not an email unless told to do so) to the college indicating your continued, strong interest, including:

  • Why you and the college are a perfect match. Identify what you have been looking for in a college, and then very specific examples of courses, professors, activities and programs at the college that meet those needs, wants and desires. Also, identify how you would contribute to the college community. If you have already done this or described the "perfect match" concept in your application, then do it again with new, more sophisticated material. Be as enthusiastic as you can be. Admissions officers like energetic applicants.
  • Update the college on your what you think your second semester grades will be (hopefully very good ones). At the end of the year, don't forget to have a final transcript sent to the college.
  • Update the admissions office on any awards, honors or successes you have achieved since you turned in your application. Also alert them to any accomplishments you have made in your academics, activities, work, volunteer efforts or sports. This can come in the form of a resume or a list. Also, consider sending them any special work you have done, whether a paper, research project, art portfolio or even a CD of a musical performance.
  • If meaningful or impressive, let them know about your summer plans.
5. Ask your high school counselor to go to bat for you with the college, remembering that it is best for you to make the first contact with the college. At the very least, the counselor should call the admissions office on your behalf to confirm that you really will attend the school and are a good match. Ask him/her to find out where you are on the wait list, and get any information about what you can do to enhance your chances of being admitted. A letter from the counselor saying these things and extolling your virtues is even a better move.

6. Ask someone who is very credible (the principal, a well-known alum of the college, a highly respected teacher or friend) who thinks very highly of you to write a letter of recommendation. This should be someone who did not write a previous letter. Unless told otherwise, it never hurts to have fan mail arrive at the admissions office.

7. If you and/or your parents know a professor, administrator or an alum from the college, see if one will call the admissions office on your behalf. If you have good college contacts, now is the time to use them.

8. If time and finances permit, make a special visit to the college to plead your case face to face. Before you drive/fly/take the train off to a college admissions office though, call them first to make sure they are open to and would welcome your visit.

Receiving a wait list letter is hard to take, but at least it's not a denial. Important Fact: Most students do very well at whatever college they end up attending, especially when they have taken the time to come up with a list of colleges that fit them and meet their needs.