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Watchful Wait-listers

By David Epstein

Aug 23, 2008 (U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT) -- Widener University used a wait list for the first time this year. SUNY New Paltz had 480 students wait-listed, up from 350 a year ago, and only about a dozen spots. Emory University had about 800 students on its active wait list for what turned out to be no spots at all.

In a year of record applications, thousands of students landed on wait lists--sometimes more than one. Is a particular college worth the wait? Maybe not; you need to bear in mind that colleges usually dole out all their financial aid before the last few spots open up. But if the answer is yes, it's time to write a follow-up letter that explains any weaknesses in your original application and stresses why you and your intended college are such a great fit.

Focus on failures.

In a competitive year, many qualified students are wait-listed because of a minor weakness that catches an admissions officer's eye. It could be something as simple as a grade in an AP class that isn't as good as the rest of their transcript.

Whatever it is--and many institutions will tell a student who calls to ask--it's time to address it directly. "Students and parents think they have to be perfect and only focus on strengths," says Bari Meltzer Norman, director of and a former admissions officer. "But when there's a clear deficiency, admissions officers need information to give you the benefit of the doubt."

The letter shouldn't make excuses ("This will never happen again" just doesn't sound genuine), but sometimes there's a good explanation.

“Colleges want to know if, say, there was a teacher switch in the middle of the year,” Norman says.  “That makes a difference.”

Several admissions directors said that students have successfully explained a grade simply by sharing what was going on in their life at the time. Colleges don't want long sob stories, but they do want to know if family circumstances or outside commitments played a part in a particular grade. The letter is a chance to describe an after-school job, volunteer work, or research that was very time consuming--and to make the most of it if you think the results will impress the college.

If you're simply not as strong in math, for example, as in English, all is not lost. Colleges know that students have different talents. A college that already has strong math students might be looking to bolster other areas. "I know most students are attracted to your math and science," Norman said a student might write to a college, "but I'm attracted to your writing program."

Show them you care.

So many wait-listed students look similar on paper that the difference often comes down to which students can express genuine enthusiasm while explaining that they fit the particular college well.

In your letter, the best way to convey sincere interest is to show that you made the effort to speak with people, particularly current students, to find out about the college. If you talked to students and alumni on campus or at an off-campus event, that's even better.

Thomas Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College, said that a good letter might begin: "When I visited Amherst and sat in on a neuroscience class, I was very impressed by ...."

One of the least helpful things you can do in a letter is to recite cliches about the institution's academic reputation. Admissions officers say they can tell when a student simply goes to the college website and paraphrases general information. Referring to a particular course of study, a professor who intrigues you, or an unusual opportunity for volunteer work is OK; regurgitating a college's own hype is not.

Of course, colleges want students who will attend if admitted off the wait list, so if you're wait-listed at your first choice you should be sure to point out that you'll jump at enrolling if accepted.

That said, each student has only one first choice, which raises the ethical question of what happens if you tell multiple colleges they're your top choice. There's no penalty for a student who does this, but Parker says it's "pretty creepy. That kid would be learning a bad lesson."

Experts say any student should realize that there are many colleges where he or she could be happy, so there's no need to feel bad about giving up on wait lists if an acceptance comes through.

Adam Holtzman, a high school senior from Florida, got offers for four wait lists but was accepted at Northwestern University and decided to skip the lists. "I like the size and location," Holtzman said of Northwestern. "And I just didn't want to wait anymore."


Don't waste time soliciting a recommendation letter from a distant connection like a faculty member your family barely knows. Admissions officers are rarely impressed.

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