Thursday, April 7, 2011

How to Help Students Deal With College Waitlists

By: Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

Photo by Lars Leetaru-WSJ Online
The last big round of college admissions decisions have been released, and counselors are very busy helping students and parents understand what it all means. Adding to the confusion this year was a significant increase in the number of colleges putting students on a waitlist—and with good reason.

It’s hard to be a waitlisted student.  On the one hand, you have to plan to attend a college where you’ve been admitted; on the other hand, you have to keep looking at your e-mail to see if another college still wants you. This waiting game can sometimes go on into the summer, and just like the last three months have been hard on all college-bound students, the next two months can be real agony for those students on a wait list.

Counselors can help waitlisted students by asking these simple questions:

If you were called off the waitlist today, would you still want to go to that college?  Since the student applied to the college, you’d think this would be an easy question to answer—but it isn’t.  If a college says “maybe”, the student may think twice about how good of a fit this college is after all, or the student may simply look at the two or three colleges that have said “yes” and decide that’s good enough.  Asking this question can help the student focus on what matters to them now, and that can only help.

What are you willing to do to still show interest in the college?  Colleges sometimes tell waitlisted students to send back a postcard or an e-mail to indicate an interest in staying on the mailing list.  In most cases, this is an unspoken invitation for the student to make another brief contact expressing their interest in the college (check with the college).  A two or three-paragraph update of the student’s achievements and accomplishments since they applied is a great way to show continued enthusiasm, and some students even ask another teacher for an additional letter of recommendation.

These are great communication tools, but they also take time.  With AP and IB tests coming up, not to mention prom and other social events, waitlisted students simply may not have the time or interest in putting this update together.  If all they want to do is return the postcard, that’s great, but it’s fair for them to know other students may not be going quietly when it comes to the waitlist.

Is financial aid a factor?  It’s hard to tell what will happen in this very unusual college admission season, but waitlisted students in past years often found little or no financial aid waiting for them for their first year.  It could be that the student’s interest in the college is so strong they would go anyway, and of course the student may get much more aid in their second year, but students and families should know that a waitlist admit can decrease their chances of getting of getting complete aid.  If this is an issue for the student, have them call the college and ask.

Do they have a Plan A?  This last question is also simple, but important.  A student MUST have a college to commit to come May 1st—without one, they may have nowhere to go come fall.  Be sure to find out.

Waitlisted students have a lot to think about, but these guiding questions can be a huge help in getting students to focus on what matters most as March Madness threatens to extend into May.

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