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6 ways to help your child (and you) survive the dreaded college waitlist

The last thing any high school senior wants to hear after a long fall of completing the college application process is the word "maybe."
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Any year, the college waitlist can be emotional torture for families hoping to know where their children will be going to college in just a few short months.

But this year in particular — after so much uncertainty due to COVID-19 and historically low college acceptance rates at the most selective universities — it's an especially challenging way for some students to end what was already a difficult senior year.

Is a spot on a college waitlist a real chance at snagging an acceptance this spring or summer? "It's even less real than it has been in any other year, which is kind of a fantasy," Jeff Selingo, author of bestseller "Who Gets In and Why," told TODAY Parents. "The waitlists at some colleges could be larger than the entire class they are waiting for."

Selingo pointed out that the term "waitlist" is a bit of a misnomer because "There's no priority order to it; it's just a bunch of people waiting," he noted. "It's not like a waitlist at a restaurant, where you could be next in line. Colleges are going to take students off the waitlist based on what they need to round out their classes."

Think of a college waitlist more like how airlines oversell their seats, Selingo suggested. Like airlines, colleges build the overflow into their business models, and "it's even more true this year, Selingo said.

"Given the huge surge in applications, colleges really don't know who is serious about coming to their campuses, and they have to have a ready group of students they can go to" if more students decline their offers of admission than they anticipate, he said.

So if your child finds themselves in college decision limbo, what do you do?

1. Process the news

The waitlist is not a rejection, but it's a long way from an acceptance. Give your child the time to be disappointed, both by the lack of an acceptance and by the uncertainty of the situation. It's not a fun place to be. Then, your child must decide if they really want to stay on the waitlist, or if they would prefer to let the option go and commit to another college where they have been accepted.

2. Give it one last (concise, respectful, thoughtful) shot

If your child does decide to stay on the waitlist, they need to make sure to follow the college's directions to claim the spot. Then, they can reach out to the college with an email reiterating their interest in attending and including any new information that was not previously on their application, such as recent academic achievements or awards or other accolades.

Two notes of caution: first, check if the college indicates students on the waitlist should NOT send additional materials before sending anything. Also, there is no need to repeat information that was on the original application, so only send new details that will add to the application.

Do not go overboard, warns the MIT admissions office in their waitlist FAQs. "Here are some things you should NOT do: Submit additional documents or a whole new application. Fly to campus to make the case in person (we aren't there!). Send us ridiculous things (or "things" in general). Bombard our office with way too much stuff. Be pushy. Be sketchy," they advise.

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3. Don't fall prey to "Senioritis"

One sure way not to make it off the waitlist is to let grades drop between Spring Break and graduation. Most colleges do not rank their waitlists and will be re-evaluating applications after May 1, so your child's application needs to remain as strong as it was when they saw it the first time, if not more so.

4. Make a deposit at a college by May 1

Students can't, and definitely should not, wait to hear from the college in question before committing somewhere.

"The only thing worse than getting rejected from a top choice school that has waitlisted you is getting rejected without having a backup plan," Stacey Brook, founder and chief advisor at College Essay Advisors, told TODAY Parents.

"Don’t dig your heels in and refuse to commit to a second choice or forget to send in that deposit to a school you would feel good about attending if your dream school says no. That deposit may not be refundable, but the security that, no matter how the chips fall, you will be able to receive an education, is worth it."

It's also a great idea for students to join the social media groups for newly admitted students at the college where they have been accepted. This gives them a chance to meet their new potential classmates and to get excited about the college that has enthusiastically welcomed them already.

RELATED: 8 things I wish I'd known about the college admissions waiting game

5. Enjoy what remains of high school

Once your family has done all it can by keeping in touch with the college on hold and making a deposit at another college, it's time to savor the end of high school with your child. This is it; prepare yourself for the emotional onslaught of all the "lasts." Try to stay in the present moment, because those last few months will go just as fast as you fear.

"My hope is you will not let being on a waitlist keep you from enjoying the last part of your senior year," wrote Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech, in a recent blog post. "It’s already been challenging enough with COVID-19, so don’t make it any more stressful or difficult for yourself. Spend time with your friends and family and do the things you love."

6. Realize it's all going to work out somehow

Waitlists vary from year to year and by college, and there is absolutely no way to predict if there will be a spot for your child after May 1. "Even though I've been doing this for years, I can't predict this one," noted Dean Jeannine C. Lalonde on the UVA blog. "If we don't have 3,800 admitted students accepting a spot, we move to the waiting list."

RELATED: 11 college admissions tips we learned from the editor of the Princeton Review

Know that no matter what happens, your child will find a college where they can be happy, whether it is now, this summer, or sometime beyond. And as Clark wrote in a post for Georgia Tech, "If you have the confidence to embrace uncertainty, and can be open to and excited about the adventure of not knowing, you will not only navigate the next few weeks well, you’re going to live a rich and content life."


This story was originally published in 2017 and has been updated.