Parents Share The Ugly Truth of College Waitlists—And How To Handle It

Young man standing with his arms crossed in front of him signifying rejection

Parents Share The Ugly Truth of College Waitlists—And How To Handle It

Published March 16, 2024

Young man standing with his arms crossed in front of him signifying rejection

Ugh, the dreaded waitlist. If there’s one thing that drives students and parents crazy, it’s ending up on a college’s waitlist. Sure, there’s still a chance that you may get accepted — but the odds are often slim, and being in limbo makes it hard to move forward with other schools, which creates its own set of consequences.

Recently a parent in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group, Greg S., summed up what schools mean when they put you on the waitlist this way:

“I have currently scheduled a bunch of hangouts with other people. I saw that you wanted to hang out but I already scheduled time to hang out with these other people. I might have some time to hang out between May 1st and July, but there are still a lot of people I’m going to be hanging out with. If one of them doesn’t show up, I might text you. If I text you, you’re gonna have to cancel on whomever you’re hanging out with right then. I’ll give you like 24 hours to decide. I’ll be in touch, or not, we will see. Does that sound good to you?”

Ouch! It may hurt to hear, but he’s not necessarily wrong. He ended with this advice: “Love the school that loves you back.”

Love Has Nothing To Do With It

This popular adage received some major backlash in our Facebook Group as it relates to waitlists, especially from parents like Stefanie W-T. “I wish we could get away from the ‘love the school that loves you’ thinking. Many of these schools don’t ‘love’ anyone. It’s a school. It’s a numbers game with no rhyme or reason half the time. If a kid gets waitlisted and wants to opt in, they aren’t necessarily thinking less of themselves because the school didn’t ‘love them enough.’ Maybe they really want to go to that school.”

Jhana W. agrees. “It’s a business. No school loves anyone. A rejection isn’t personal and neither is an acceptance. I don’t think I’ve used that term once this whole year. Love the school that has your program and the best cost and fit. Who cares if they love you? You’re paying, not them.”

It’s Not Personal, It’s Business

With so many great colleges out there, there’s no reason to sit around waiting. Instead, go find a school that checks many of the same boxes and has already professed its commitment to you.

After all, waitlists may be hard for many students to accept, but they’re just the school’s way of managing enrollment in the way that best serves it, says Greg S. “Kids don’t see it that way and there is no way to explain that reality to them so that they will see it that way. They think, ‘I’ve got a shot,’ and sometimes they hold on to the possibility that they have a shot for far too long in ways that are not in their best interest.”

Here’s what the stats show about waitlists: An average of 10 percent of applicants are placed on a waitlist. Colleges eventually admit about 20 percent of waitlisted students. The numbers are even lower for selective schools, where only 7 percent of waitlisted students are eventually admitted.

That’s not very promising, but it’s important for students to understand these odds.

How to Handle Getting Waitlisted

So, how do families deal with getting waitlisted? “When my son got his first waitlist decision (of three), I congratulated him on his low-key rejection,” says Aimee B.M. “When he got rejected outright I said, ‘Cool, at least it isn’t the waitlist. This is a school that isn’t afraid to say what’s on its mind!’” 

Leigh S. says if you find being on a waitlist stressful, decline the waitlist. “You have to accept being put on it, otherwise take the waitlisting offer as a decline, and move on.”

To tame expectations, some parents have specific language picked out in case their child gets waitlisted. “I plan on telling my student when the time comes that being deferred = ‘not yet, maybe, I’m not sure’ and being waitlisted = ‘a soft no,’” says Shari H.

Another parent took this approach: “I told my kid the waitlist is the college’s way of saying ‘you are good enough to get in, we just don’t have space.’ Then we look up the Common Data Set to see how many of the waitlisted students for that school actually got a spot last year and when it says ‘seven’ she treats that as a ‘no’ and moves on,” says Kaleo B. “She did, however, tell me that she preferred the waitlist to a hard no because she felt like it was the college’s way of saying ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’”

However you handle it, it’s important to not get caught up in attending just one school, and instead, build a college list that includes multiple schools your student would be happy to attend.

To join this and other conversations like it with parents just like you, join our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group.

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Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

The Truth about Your College Acceptance Odds: What Every Student Should Know Before Stressing Out

5 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Rejection from Their Top School

How to Handle College Rejections: A Teacher Shares Advice

JOIN ONE OF OUR FACEBOOK GROUPS & CONNECT WITH OTHER PARENTS: 

PAYING FOR COLLEGE 101

HOW TO FIND MERIT SCHOLARSHIPS

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