03/29/2012 05:36 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

The Dangerous Limbo of College Waitlists

More and more high school seniors are not receiving a definitive decision from many colleges they applied to this year. Instead, they are being placed on waitlists. This means the waiting game continues for many students beyond the national college acceptance day of May 1, as students and families hold onto hopes of getting into a waitlisted college. Even major public universities such as UCLA are now using waitlists.

Yet, students and families just don't understand that many colleges are increasingly placing more students on waitlists, despite the fact that very few spots, if any, will open up.

For many kids, however, being waitlisted is worse than a rejection as it delays the inevitable and prevents them from bonding with the college they will actually attend.

Waitlists Serve Universities

This is not to say that waitlists do not serve a college for many other reasons. These waitlists help offset potential acceptance shortfalls. More kids are applying to multiple colleges and get multiple acceptances. Since they can only attend one college that leaves the other colleges with potential vacancies. Moreover, during these tough turbulent economic times many families can't afford the steep costs of many colleges, so their children must say no to top expensive college choices. Finally, colleges use waitlists to appease alumni and other people with connections.

That is not to say that kids can't get off waitlists. They do, but the odds are significantly low. Students need to understand that often take kids off waitlists often who can afford to pay outright, have special connections, fulfill regional needs, or make a spectacular case.

Some Strategies to Get Off a List

Students should also do what they can to get off a waitlist. They must avoid senioritis and keep their spring grades up high as possible. Along with sending in second semester grades, they should send in an additional statement of interest that also updates the college with key events from their senior year. They should write a letter or email updating their interest, ask a senior year teacher to write a letter of recommendation, and ask their counselor to contact the college. They should also revisit the campus and connect with alumni or campus contacts. They should not confuse updating their application materials with being a pest.

Students and their families must not confuse this effort of updating a waitlisted college with the ultimate priority of selecting a college to attend. High school senors must devote the same energy to selecting a college from the list of colleges that has already accepted them. Most are better matches than colleges that have waitlisted them.

Difficult Consequences and Decisions

Acceptances off of waitlists can occur as late as July or August, which means that families must make quick decisions and risk losing key deposits at other colleges. The late acceptances also mean kids get lowest priority with housing and course enrollment.

Some lucky students get off a list, but there are some consequences. My sister, for example, got off the waitlist of her dream college, but it asked her to begin in January of her freshman year. My sister opted to accept the offer, but did lose the opportunity of participating in freshmen orientation and other bonding opportunities that greatly affected her initial social life. She never regretted, however, her decision to attend that college as she found her dream major and ultimate career.

Therefore, even if students' dreams of getting off waitlists comes true, they still have difficult decisions to make.

So, please help students enter this world of waitlists with their eyes wide open. Otherwise, they can wind up in a tragic limbo that prevents their true connection with the college they will ultimately attend next fall.