I was rejected from my top school and waitlisted at my second choice. How do I pick a backup?

Admissions Decisions

Our counselors answered:

I was rejected from my top school and waitlisted at my second choice. How do I pick a backup?

Robert Mansueto
Director of University Counselling Chinese International School in Hong Kong

When a “back up’ is not really an option...

Your question raises a very important point; how did you get in the position of applying to schools that you know nothing about? With approximately 3600 colleges and universities in the U.S., any student should be able to find more than one or two that you would be happy to attend. All schools on your final application list deserve the same scrutiny as any other, if for no other reason than you may be going to any one of them. A ‘back up’ should never be a school that you simply feel that you can get into; rather one that is perhaps less selective than some others, but meets your academic, social and extracurricular needs as well as your top choice.

Samia Ferraro
Independent College Counselor College Connection

The Dreaded Thin Envelope – Now What?...

You have spent months researching schools and telling your story on numerous applications only to be denied your dream choice.  What is an 18 year old to do? Take a deep breath and remember that there are schools on your list who do want you; who feel as though you are a good fit for them. Review your criteria of what you are looking for in a school: geography, size, programs, etc. and apply these to the schools to which you have been accepted. It will be a win – win for you and the college you decide to attend.

Sara Hernandez
Director of the Office of Diversity Programs in Engineering Cornell University

Accept the Waitlist Invite, But Secure Your Spot at Another School!...

Waitlist decisions can sometimes be harder on applicants than outright rejections. They provide the disappointment of a rejection but not the closure. If waitlisted, accept the invitation to be placed on the waitlist. Because this will not result in a guaranteed positive outcome, submit a deposit at another institution. However, before submitting a deposit, reflect on your priorities for your best-fit institutions and determine which among your “admit” schools most closely match these priorities. If possible, visit these schools. However, if you can’t visit, take advantage of the opportunity to interact with current students via the phone, web chats, Unigo.com, etc. so you have the opportunity to gain some peer insight before making a final decision.

Shelley Krause
Co-Director of College Counseling Rutgers Preparatory School

You’ve got a two-pronged mission...

First, congratulations! You’re going to college! Now, think about whether or not the possible “upside” of an offer of admission to your “waitlist” school outweighs the “downside” of prolonging your admissions process. If you decide to go for it, send back that card pronto and then reach out to your admission counselor. Meanwhile, research – with a passion – the schools where you’ve been accepted; you’ll need to deposit by May 1. Have you checked out the NCES’ Navigator site? The colleges’ faculty webpages? Their career centers? Can you attend that special event for admitted students? All questions are fair game now!

Susan Sykes
President SS Advisor

Don’t panic if you must select from “other options”...

First, sit down and compose a letter to your second-choice school. Tell them you remain interested in their college and hope they will admit you from the wait list. Include new information you might have such as third quarter grades (which you haven’t allowed to slip!) and recent accomplishments or awards that may have come your way. Then revisit the remaining options. Consider your initial ‘wish list’ and research each school in that context. Rank order these schools. Finally, visit as many schools as possible to help you decide. 

Wendy Andreen, PhD
College & Career Planning

There is a College (More Than One) for Every Student

1. Start your plan of action with your waitlisted school. Let them know they are your #1 choice. Follow through with whatever supplemental materials they will allow. Some colleges do not allow any additional materials. If a college accepts new rec letters, updated resume, and/or a new essay, then submit them! You need every edge possible since the number of students accepted off of waitlists is usually very small. 2. Next, review the colleges where you received acceptances. Where possible, make visits to your top choices. You will see these colleges with a new perspective. Review your notes from previous visits or conversations with the admissions reps. Double check the majors and be sure the back up colleges have the academic programs you are seeking. Are there social, community service, and/or athletic activities that impact your choice? Once you have matched your criteria with your options, rank the backups. 3. Identify the college that you are willing to attend, if you aren't accepted to your waitlisted school. Make the necessary deposits (admission & housing) and send back notification of your acceptance. 4. If, for some reason, you don't have any backups, run-don't walk to your guidance counselor. Talk with your counselor about other college options where the application deadlines have not passed. Colleges post 'space available' through NACAC.

Tyler Burton
President Burton College Tours

Revisit your list of options

Hopefully your list of schools were all good fits and you have some options. My advice is to do an overnight at some of the schools that you have been accepted to. Do write to the admissions representative of the school that you have been wait listed at and let them know that if admitted off the wait list that you plan to attend. Keep it short and sweet. Keep the wait list school apprised of significant developments in your academic profile such as bringing an AP class grade up from a B to an A.

Tam Warner Minton
Consultant College Adventures


Your list should always include colleges you know you can get into where you would be happy. I always suggest two reaches, two safeties, and 4-6 possibles. Your reach school is a reach because you probably won't get in. It does not matter if you are class valedictorian with perfect SATs because if you apply to a college with an acceptance rate of 6%, chances are you won't get in. Plan for this in advance. Have two reach schools you would like to go to if you got in, but at least 4 others you would be happy to be at. Go visit again, and make your choice. If you clear the waitlist, great. If not, you are still going to a college that is a great fit for you.

Bill Pruden
Head of Upper School, College Counselor Ravenscroft School

I was rejected from my top school and waitlisted at my second choice. How do I pick a backup?

If the decisions at those 2 schools have already been made it may be too late to find back ups. Ideally, students should develop and work from a list that includes a range of schools, and in general, every student's list should have at last one "safety" school, a place where admission is as certain as it can ever be in this process. All of that being said, there are schools whose final application deadline is not until literally just a few days before school starts in the fall, so there is stil time in some places. Too, NACAC, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling always has a list in late spring of places that still have space so you could go to your counselor who could consult that and offer some possibilities. Of course too, a year of working is not a bad thing and then you can apply again to a new set of schools.

Carita Del Valle
Founder Academic Decisions

I was rejected from my top school and waitlisted at my second choice. How do I pick a backup?

Hopefully you worked with a private admissions counselor who was able to develop a strong mix of colleges that match your academic profile. For my clients, this usually is 10-15 schools that match the academic achievements and desires of the student. With most applying to around 10 schools Spring time comes around and we look at all of the letters of acceptance and then reevaluate and revisit the campuses. Things often look different a second time around, especially when the "top school choice" has been taken off of the list and does not sway their opinion. Rest assured, many students come back and tell their families their 3rd choice (or more maybe) turned out to be the best.