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?

Andrea Van Niekerk

Remember why backup schools seemed like good choices months earlier

Everyone has a dream school, but in reality that school may say no, or at best, maybe.  Stay on the waitlist then, sending a letter of continued commitment, but also focus on alternatives.  Hopefully you researched diligently and applied only to schools you could imagine attending.  Remind yourself now why a school was on your list - explore the course catalog, Facebook with current students, attend admitted student events to take the measure of prospective classmates.  College will be whatever you make of it, wherever you attend, and after a few months, you will hardly recall having had another dream!

Amy Foley

Crossing a name off your list is a good thing

Since finding the right college is about finding the right fit, you’ll need to “try on” many.  Schools you liked online or in your guidance office may not feel the same in person.   Do your homework, selecting schools with majors that interest you most.  Then, get out there and visit.  We all have classrooms, libraries, residence halls, dining halls, gyms, and more.  What is most important is how you feel about the place.  Do you like the size? location? vibe?  If not, cross that school off your list and move on.

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.

Laura O'Brien Gatzionis
Founder Educational Advisory Services

How to choose?

If possible, take the time to visit the colleges to which you were accepted before the May 1st deadline. Many schools have special programs in the Spring for accepted students. At least try to visit on your own before deciding where to give your deposit. After visiting the schools and getting a feel for the campus cultures, you will probably feel that one of these "back-up" choices is actually a great fit!

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.

王文君 June Scortino
President IVY Counselors Network

what is your top five list schools?

you should have more than one top school to consider. you should have five on the list from one to five. if you have a successful or winning admissions strategy, you shall enjoy options not limitations.

Rana Slosberg
Owner Slosberg College Solutions LLC

Selecting a backup

Hopefully all the colleges you applied to are ones you would be happy attending. If you are not sure what your third choice college is, you may want to: - Sit down and make a list of the important features of college and how your potential colleges compare to that list. - List the academic, social and finacial pros and cons of the potential colleges. - (Re-)visit the potential colleges.

Helen H. Choi
Owner Admissions Mavens

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

When you started this process, you probably applied to three types of schools: reach schools, realistic schools, and safety schools. Being rejected/waitlisted from just 2 schools -- is really not a problem in the bigger scheme of things because you still have lots of options among your realistic targets and safety schools. Ultimately, it's not about the specific school or brand name that makes an education. It's the student! It's the student who can make the most (or the least) of an experience. If you tackle the opportunities that you have with diligence. vigor, and hard work -- you will succeed in whatever you choose. It's YOU that will make the difference - not your specific choice of school. When you are looking at your remaining options -- think about selecting a school where you can truly flourish. Make the most of your individual talents and you will definitely make the most of whichever school you attend!

Elizabeth PhD
Educational Consultant The Education Planner

What every student (and parent) needs to hear when a college says "no thanks"

Once upon a time, high school students would hang out by the mailbox hoping for the the delivery of the big fat envelope. If the envelope was small and slim, they might walk around the block a few times before reluctanctly opening it and realizing a vanished college dream. The days of reckoning are now upon us, but the news no longer comes wrapped in paper. By the end of March, high school students will have heard from colleges with either a short, brief email of "admissions denied" or a flashing computer screen, shouting "YOU'RE IN." There's no need to contemplate the joys of many acceptance letters. The only concern for these students is which of many offers to accept and what school to visit during Spring break when colleges host events for admitted students. But for the student who is receiving multiple letters of admissions denial, or even one letter from a particularly revered institution, the effect can be heartbreaking. Last year, a,student learned of a denial from UC San Diego with a brief and impersonal email message, "Thank you for logging in to the UC San Diego application status site for Fall Quarter undergraduate applicants. We have carefully reviewed your application and regret that we are unable to offer you admission to the University of California, San Diego. The selection process was very difficult this year due to a record number of highly competitive applicants." News sources have consistently reported record college applications during this year's filing period. The colleges haven't grown in size, and many have downsized due to budget cuts and limitations in financial aid. Appeals are not accepted at either Stanford or at Occidental College in Southern California. At Occidental, James Tranquada, Director of Communications, said that they try to help the student understand the difficulty with which decisions are made. "Because we are delivering what can be disappointing news, we try to strike a balance between appreciation for their decision to apply and a sense of the competitiveness of our process. We also try to convey how much effort we put into our reading process and that every application is carefully reviewed before any decision is made," said Tranquada. How students deal with the rejection from one school, and remain confident and positive while they await word from others, has a lot to do with students' prior experiences with struggles and obstacles. In an interview with prominent San Francisco child and adolescent therapist Julie Robbins LCSW, she discussed the coping mechanisms, anger, and denial experienced by the families she has counseled over her thirty years of practice. Robbins explained that the responses of students are as varied as the population itself. Students' reactions to letters of denial are influenced by three factors. First, their response will be influenced by any pre-existing mental health issues a student may be dealing with. If a child already has fears, paranoia, depression, or a host of other social or emotional difficulties, then the rejection may be experienced with heightened anxiety. Conversely, a teen whose predisposition is relaxed and confident may be able to deal with denials without a lot of emotion and drama. Second, a student's reaction will be greatly dependent on how the college process has been presented to him or her by the parents. If parents have expressed a value and philosophy that an acceptance into any college will be applauded, then students won't experience the devastation of their disappointed parents on top of their own sadness. If parents have good communication with their child and have reveled in all their accomplishments thus far, then rejections will be tempered with a lot of parental support. Additionally, if students have experienced other disappointments and struggles, they are likely to handle a college denial with the same strategies that have been successful for them in the past. Their experiences of not being cast in a school play, not making the sports team, or getting average grades while putting in a lot of effort, have provided them with prior models of coping and moving on. But for students who have a history of high parental expectations, entitlement, and pressure to succeed beginning in early childhood, a coveted school's denial can have deep and tragic ramifications. For parents who believe that their student should belong within the 6% of acceptances at Stanford, the fact that 94% percent aren't admitted is irrelevant. These parents communicate to the child that he or she has personally failed and disapproves of any acceptance that doesn't put their student into a highly selective school. Parents who model rejection with personal blame and failure will have students who experience the most pain in this process. For students with an inherent personality that predisposes them to acceptance of life's disappontments, this character trait may not be strong enough tp be a buffer from the unrealistic expectations of parents who accept nothing less than what they perceive as "the best." Students who feel immense disappointment that leads to profound sadness and an inability to continue focusing on school and other activities, should seek counseling provided by their school or within their community. They should remember, as should their parents, that success comes in many forms. While the door to a highly selective college may be opened to some, it doesn't mean that a future of great accomplishment and satisfaction is closed to everyone else. With over four thousand colleges in the United States and an unrivaled history of excellence in higher education, students who are motivated to study, to be engaged, to be adventurous, and to persevere against obstacles with strength and resiliency, will do just fine. Hopefully, their parents will too.