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Waiting, Waiting ... And Then Wait-Listed: Now What?

Just when high school seniors thought the waiting was over—in the form of an acceptance (or rejection) letter from their dream school—many got word of being wait-listed.

Do you move on with the sure thing or hold out hope? It's a conundrum.

Wait lists are growing in popularity as students apply to more colleges, making it difficult for schools to predict who will say yes to their offers, says Jim Miller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

According to a 2010 NACAC report on admission practices, 39 percent of schools use wait lists and nearly half reported increases in the number of students placed on them compared with the previous year. Institutions put about 10 percent of applicants on a wait list in the fall of 2009 admission cycle.

As for the student response, about 57 percent opted to stay on the list. Of those who held on, 34 percent were accepted into the school. About 51 percent of schools reported increases in the number of students admitted off a wait list.

Not surprisingly, selective colleges took in fewer students from their wait lists—just 12 percent, the NACAC report showed.

Just how do colleges prioritize their wait lists?

Most stratify based on academic characteristics (56 percent), followed by students' interest in attending the school (45 percent), commitment to attend if admitted (33 percent) and ability to pay (27 percent). The mix is somewhat different at smaller schools and those with lower yield rates, which place more emphasis on ability to pay and interest in attending.

So, for students who have multiple offers, including the offer to wait it out, what should they do?

Most put down a deposit (usually $200-$500) at the first choice school among those where they were accepted, said Miller. After May 1, once schools know if they are over- or under-subscribed, they can turn to their wait lists and begin extending offers.

When students accept wait-list offers, they then lose their deposit at their previous first-choice school. That opens up spaces for the school to fill, and the process continues.

"Some have their heart set on a particular dream school," says Miller. "From the student perspective, they are in limbo in the month of May. It goes all through the month and into June."

Miller suggests students do a real self-assessment of what's important to them and consider if the holdout school is the right match. If so, it might be worth visiting if the student hasn't done so yet. If the student had a good third quarter of grades or additional accomplishments, go ahead and forward them to the admissions office.

But Miller cautions against too much extra lobbying. "Students can't do much to manipulate the outcome at that step in the game," he says. "I'd advise them not to do a full-court press calling admissions too often. There is such a thing as overkill, and it might have a reverse effect."

If invited off a wait list, students will often be asked to make the decision quickly. Don't say yes immediately on the phone, suggests Miller. Students should take time to talk it over with their parents and understand the financial-aid package before agreeing to attend, he says.

It's understandable that the college wants to know soon, but this is likely the biggest decision the student has ever made, and it shouldn't be a knee-jerk one, says Miller.

Wait lists are an important enrollment management tool for competitive colleges, but Miller admits it does produce a lot of anxiety for students—drawing out what for many has already been a long process.

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