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Wait Lists Grow In Use; How Should Students Take the News?

Along with recent news of college acceptance and rejection is the dreaded limbo of being put on a wait list. The status has been described by counseling professionals like being asked out on a date - kind of, offering a glimmer of hope that will not likely transpire, and just plain "mean."

A wait list is an alternative roster of students who might be given a slot, depending on how many students with offers turn the college down. The length of the list and the order is not always known, leaving students wondering how much to pin their hopes on an opening come up.

Colleges are increasingly relying on wait lists as an enrollment management tool. The percentage of schools that use wait lists was 48 percent in 2010, up from 39 in 2009 and 35 percent in 2008, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. How many got admitted from the list? Just 28 percent of students in 2010, down from 34 percent the previous year. At more selective colleges, the chance of being admitted off the wait list was only 11 percent. (For instance, last year, Yale University put 996 on its wait list and eventually accepted 103 of them.)

NACAC surveys have found that colleges typically rank their wait lists by academic characteristics, followed by students' interest in attending the school, commitment to attend if admitted, and ability to pay.

If you are a waitlisted student, some advise doing nothing. "Stop thinking about it and look at who wants you," says Sarah McGinty, an independent educational consultant in Boston and author of The College Application Essay published by the College Board. Better for students to pick among the offers on the table rather than to perpetuate the pain until June when word might come about getting off the wait list. It's not like numbers at a bakery where your status is clear, she adds.

On the other hand, if you are on a wait list of your dream school, some lobbying might be worthwhile, says Judi Robinovitz, a certified education planner in Palm Beach and Broward counties in Florida with Score At The Top Learning Centers & Schools. "Share with the school anything new that has happened, such as third quarter grades," she says. And, if possible, show up on campus to reaffirm your commitment. In the meantime, chose another school. Parents can help by keeping students' spirits up and reminding them that they will likely be happy no matter where they go, says Robinovitz.

Megan Dorsey, founder of College Prep LLC in Sugarland, Texas, says to treat word of being on the wait list as an "honorable mention." The school recognized you had good potential. Go ahead with other plans. Just because a school took a certain percentage off its wait list last year is no guarantee it will do the same with this year's class. "Many kids decide the uncertainty is not worth it. It prolongs the agony," she says. "It's holding out false hope."

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