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Weighing Wait List Offers and Advice on Etiquette

With the May 1 commitment deadline past, college admissions offices are sorting through student responses and looking at how their class is shaping up. Many now will turn to their wait lists to round out their freshman class.

Just what should students expect? And what's the protocol for this awkward dance of invites and refusals?

Even if you are financially and emotionally committed to a college, it's fine to keep your name on the wait list, says Don Fraser, director of education and training for the National Association of College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Va. Staying on the list does not hurt the chances of other classmates from your high school who, perhaps, are more eager to get into a certain college than you.

Calls for wait list offers are usually made between mid-May and late June or even July. It's a fluid process, because as students accept offers and back out of their first commitments, openings then become available at those schools.

The process varies, but students are usually given a couple of weeks to decide, says Fraser. The offer might be made in two parts—first, a call to see if the student has an interest in attending and, then, a possible financial aid package. This late in the spring, financial aid may be harder to come by and NACAC surveys show some colleges do take into account ability to pay when taking students off the wait list.

Experts caution students not to put too much hope in getting into a college from a wait list, as colleges are putting increasing numbers of students on wait lists but actually accepting fewer off of them. In 2010, nearly 48 percent of NACAC colleges surveyed reported using wait lists. On average, they take 28 percent off their wait lists, but at selective colleges it's just 11 percent. (See last month's blog post on the topic.)

Students who decide to take a wait list offer should contact the college they committed to immediately and by phone to tell them, says Fraser. (By switching, the student is forfeiting their deposit—usually around $500.) Speak to someone in the admissions office, ideally the person to read your file. In the summer, staff are often traveling, and you don't want your email message to go unread for weeks. Once you change your mind, you are creating an opening that they need to fill with someone else, so timing is critical.

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