How Do I Choose From My Backup Colleges?

US News & World Report

By Unigo
April 13, 2011

It’s as competitive as it’s ever been in college admissions. With reports of schools receiving record numbers of applications – and dishing out a record number of rejections – knowing best strategies for picking from second-choice schools is key. This week’s question from Lauren B. in Houston tackles the issue of how to choose the right college from your wait-list and backup options.

Q: I was rejected from my top choice school and wait-listed at my second choice. What do I do? How do I choose from my backup schools?

A: The regular round can be particularly brutal, but don’t lose hope!
Michele Hernandez, president and founder, &

Regarding the wait list, you do want to fill in the card and be an “active” candidate – send an update letter with your most recent grades and awards and show why you want to go to their school; why you are a good match. Ask a teacher or your principal to call or write in support. Passive applicants who don’t write or call rarely get in.

At this late date, focus on individual departments within each college and see which have strengths in your areas of interest. Compare financial aid packages to see which option is most feasible, realizing that sometimes it’s worth it to take out loans in order to attend a competitive college.

A: Focus on what you do know.
James Montoya, vice president of higher education, The College Board

Take advantage of any opportunity the college gives wait-listed applicants to submit updated information. Make sure the information is compelling, yet accurate. Let the college know that you’ll definitely enroll if taken off the wait list, if that’s indeed the case.

Focus on the options you have in hand. While you may know nothing about your backups, remember that you do know what makes you happy and qualities that are important to you in a college. Simply stated, learn what you can in the time you have and look at your options based on what you do know.

A: Write your wait-list school and deposit at your next choice by May 1.
Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO, IvyWise

Write today to the college that wait-listed you, reaffirming your interest in attending: state how you’ll make an impact on campus; highlight academics, test scores, and activities post-application; and include a recommendation letter from a current teacher showing scholastic growth and achievement.

Meanwhile, go online and research the schools you got into. If college started tomorrow, what courses would you take? What activities would you participate in? There are many good fit colleges where you can be successful and happy. Deposit at your next-choice school by May 1 (nonrefundable). Keep up senior year grades, as your wait-list school considers those.

A: Don’t be too desperate.
Steve Loflin, founder and CEO, National Society of Collegiate Scholars

Make sure you are managing the process – not your parents calling on your behalf. Call your admissions officer and ask what was missing from your application, learn how many students in the past have been accepted from the wait list, and try to get an answer about your chances for getting off the list. Update them about major accomplishments you’ve had since applying.

Consider visiting again to show you’re committed. Don’t send gifts, additional recommendation letters, or video stunts to show your enthusiasm. It seems desperate with no real substance. I’ve heard that desperate times call for desperate measures – but in the college admissions game seeming desperate is a pretty good way to not make the cut.

A: Relax, review your options, and be confident wherever you go.
Stacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign

First, review the wait-list information and follow the instructions. Some schools will ask you to accept their offer. Do this immediately if you want to remain on the wait list. Don’t send any additional information if it isn’t requested. It won’t be reviewed. Otherwise, inform them that you are interested and it’s your first choice, if it truly is.

Take some time to compare the other schools to which you were admitted: academic program, location, and cost (after scholarships and aid). Read the blogs, follow the Facebook pages, and schedule a visit to campus. You may find an even better fit.