To be clear, I applied to four Prep Schools. I was accepted to one. I was wait-listed at the three others. In this post, I will answer a question I hope that none of you will ever have to ask: what do I do if I have been wait-listed?
The answer, as in most cases, depends on a number of different factors. If you have been placed on the wait-list of schools that you were not keen to attend in the first place, and you have received acceptances from a school or schools that you did want to attend, then your wait-list status holds no significance. You can stop reading here.
Let me talk about my experience and then elaborate from there. As mentioned in my previous post, Admissions Timeline, I made a priority list before I applied to my four Prep Schools. It looked like this: Groton, St. Paul's, Andover, Middlesex. My parents knew the order of this list as did my secondary school counselor.
The St. Paul’s admissions decision was not scheduled to be released online until the afternoon about 5pm. But I woke up on March 10th around 7:30 in the morning to a Facebook post from a friend of mine who had also applied that decisions were online. I checked online and headed to school that morning with an acceptance which I was extremely excited about. That said, I was still anxiously awaiting the Groton decision. Over the course of the day, I logged into three different websites and read three similarly-worded wait-list letters, including one from Groton.
Now would be a great time to read my third post: Yield Rate. Although I was excited about St. Paul’s and loved my re-visit there, and indeed I had already made a number of friends at the school, I continued to prolong my commitment to St. Paul’s. My memory of the time is foggy, but I do remember this: one day, my secondary school counselor asked if I had committed to St. Paul’s, or if I was still interested in Groton? I asked him why. He told me that if I still wished to attend Groton, I would have a place there. In essence, I had been let off the wait-list. Personally, I believe that this happened because March was coming to an end and I had still not sent in a deposit to St. Paul’s. My secondary school counselor knew this and having passed that information on to Groton, Groton made the decision to offer me a place.
I re-visited Groton and loved it. I spoke with the Director of Admissions, the soccer coach, players on the soccer team, and went to a few classes. It was a beautiful day and when it came to a close, I was pretty certain that I wanted to attend Groton. As I was still undecided, my parents drove me the hour and a half up to St. Paul’s and by the end of the night I had reversed course entirely and the next day submitted my deposit to St. Paul’s. For context, that next day was April 10th, the decision deadline. For me, I felt as though I had already started my time at St. Paul’s. I had spent a month making friends there, reading about the school and its courses, and had made a number of friends in the incoming third form (freshman class) at St. Paul’s. Because my revisit at Groton had been organized especially for me, I was only able to meet current students rather than those who would begin in the fall with me. I don’t regret my decision as I loved my time at St. Paul’s but I also believe I would have had just as great a Prep School experience at Groton. I believed at the time (and told Groton’s admissions office) and still believe, however, that if I had been accepted to Groton on March 10th rather than off the wait-list at the end of March that I would have spent my four years of high-school at Groton rather than St. Paul’s. I would likely have spent those three weeks getting excited about and making friends at Groton rather than SPS.
This story tells us two things. First, schools care about their yields, so it may be that you were only wait-listed because a school was not positive about your likeliness to attend. More significantly, however, it tells us that school are more likely to admit students off their wait-list that they believe they have a realistic shot at. This, however, is an over-simplistic theory. Schools accept students off their wait-list that they were very excited about during the admissions process, could not quite accept due to the low number of available places, but now believe they could accept and they will attend.
I believe that a majority of the communication between Prep School admission offices and secondary school counselors take place between March 10th (notification day) and April 10th (decision day). Schools want to accept as few students as they can in order to maintain a low acceptance rate. They also want a high yield rate, but in the event that some students do not choose to attend, they want to fill those available places as quickly as possible with the most qualified students possible. If they reach out to your secondary school counselor who tells them that you have already sent a deposit to Philips Andover, then they will not waste their time offering you a place and setting up a visit for you. But if they reach out to your secondary school counselor who tells them that their school is your dream school and that you will attend (or strongly consider attending) if made an offer, then they will invest their time and resources into you.
So now that we think we know about what goes on behind the scenes of the admissions process, what can you do as a wait-listed applicant to gain admission? In short, you can express interest. How do you do this? Directly? No. Indirectly? Yes. First, you should speak with your secondary school counselor about which steps to take. This is an important point: if you are truly dedicated to getting off a school’s waitlist, your best chance is to commit to that school should you gain admission. After speaking to your secondary school counselor, they might recommend that you write a letter to the admissions office of the school at which you are waitlisted. If you felt you had a good interview and established a good relationship with your interviewer, it might be a nice touch to address the letter to him or her. Side note: a good way to create a good relationship with your interviewer is to send thank you notes to your interviewers a few days after interview: I did this for all of my interviews for both high-school and college.
In this letter, you should express your ongoing excitement at the prospect of attending this school, any updated accomplishments including grades, and a commitment that you will attend the school if you are fortunate to be offered a place. Important point: this is not a quasi-commitment. This is a commitment. If you do send a letter and say you will attend, then you must attend if admitted. If you change your mind and go elsewhere, you risk weakening the relationship between your counselor and that school and could harm future applicants from your middle school. You can write a letter saying you will ‘highly consider attending if admitted,’ but that is not as strong and won’t have as great an effect. If you do not want to send a letter (I did not), you can communicate through your counselor, who can be more political. I had actually forgot about my wait-list status, so the communication from Groton through my counselor came as quite a surprise. I will not, however, that you must be in touch with the school to keep your name on its wait-list, and Groton was the only school of the three at which I chose to do so.
Your parents and counselor can help you with the wording of the kind of letter mentioned above. With your secondary school counselor’s approval, you may send this letter to the address for the school’s admissions office. DO NOT send it to the home address of your interviewer. Also realize that the entire office may read your letter, not just your interviewer, so do not include too many specifics about your interview that others will not understand other than: ‘thank you again for our conversation this past November… I very much enjoyed discussing the poetry of Robert Frost and the current British Premier League table with you’ [or whatever it was you spoke about]. If you do not remember specifics, don’t be specific. Just write: ‘thank you again for our conversation.’
Once/(if) you have submitted this letter, you should do nothing more to communicate with the admissions office directly. At that point, you should communicate entirely through your secondary school counselor who hopefully will have a better relationship with the office than you will anyway. At this point, there is not much you can do other than check in with your counselor about what is going on every once in a while (they may not tell you much), and about whether or not the school will be going to its wait-list that year, which will be contingent on the yield rate of that particular admissions cycle. Do not overwhelm your counselor by asking them for updates every day. Remember that at this particular moment, he/she is your greatest ally. There are never any guarantees that you will be able to change a wait-list into an acceptance, but provided you follow these steps, you will have put yourself in the best possible position to succeed. And that is all you can really ask for.