By Emily Schmitt
March 26, 2009 (Forbes) — In the spring of last year, Punit Shah was preparing to attend MIT. He had sent in his deposit and confirmed his acceptance to the top-tier school. But when fall came around, Shah didnt go to MIT; he went to Harvard. Shah, now a freshman, was admitted off the wait list.
As more students are wait listed each year, its crucial to understand why it happens and, most importantly, how to increase your chances of getting off the wait list and into the school.
So how does someone end up in this dreaded limbo? For one, colleges have worked to increase the number of applications they receive but have kept constant the same number of spots in the freshman class. So schools use the list as a way to hedge the offers of admission that students decline. For a college to accept too many students is disastrous; to accept too little means a loss in revenue.
And as colleges like Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia have eliminated their early-decision programs and increased the variability of their yield, they have relegated even more qualified applicants to the wait list as a safety netto ensure they can fill their freshmen classes.
In Depth: How To Get Off The Wait List
These circumstances mean a lot of qualified applicantsthose with high GPAs and SAT scoresare often wait listed. The admissions teams often use a holistic approach to admission, considering essays and extracurricular activities as well as straightforward academic credentials. Those students with good grades but lackluster applications are often wait listed.
We call them flat-apps, says Bari Norman, director of Expert Admissions, a New York-based college admissions counseling agency. Students sometimes obsess over the wrong points. Its like writing a book. You dont want just one chapter to be good. You want all the chapters to be good.
Norman says students who are wait listed should resist the urge to react immediately. They should call the admissions office and find out what their applications lack. Once they have figured this out, they can describe any improvements theyve made in the meantimelike higher grades or winning an awardin a letter and send it to the school.
Another reason why students are wait listed is because they are unremarkable, says Mike Moyer, author of How to Make Colleges Want You. He says many students earn high marks but arent well-rounded. Sometimes it takes mores than intellectual ability to tip the scale in a students favor.
There are close to 30,000 high schools in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of students saying the same thing, he says. Theyre all saying they played football, or were the prom king, or did class politics.
The key then, is to show the admissions officers that youve done something most other teenagers havent. Moyer calls this non-teenage activity, and gives examples from raising homing pigeons to owning real estate to swimming the English Channel. If students can prove they have pursued unique accomplishments since being wait listed, he says, their chances of getting accepted increases.
But not all college consultants believe the secret to getting off the list lies with the student. Rod Bugarin, a counselor and financial aid adviser at IvyWise, says the most important thing is actually not to overwhelm the admissions office.
When students receive notification of their wait-listed status, they should be given clear instructions on how to proceed. Bugarin suggests students have their guidance counselors contact the college. In other words, dont annoy the admissions officers.
In Depth: How To Get Off The Wait List
In fact, Bugarin can recall stories of students going so far that they adversely affected their shot at getting a spot in the freshman class. One student sent candy to an admissions office everyday; another sent e-mails. An admitted student even called a college to tell them that she wasnt going to attend, but that they should accept her wait-listed friend instead.
Another, dressed in the universitys colors, begged the admissions counselors to take him off the list. In the end, the university didnt.
It created an awkward dynamic for those who have been admitted, says Bugarin. This was during freshman weekand those events are for the incoming students and shouldnt be seen as a chance to get off the wait list.
But his advice does not always apply. When Shah found out he was wait-listed at Harvard his guidance counselor suggested he contact the admissions officer responsible for his area of the country. He was already heading to Cambridge for MITs pre-frosh weekend, so stopping off at Harvard was reasonable. He made an appointment to tell his advisor why he was a good fit for the school. In his case, the quick visit worked.
The important thing was just telling him that I was interested, Shah says. Beyond that theres not much an applicant can do.
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