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Let’s Talk About Getting Waitlisted

Daren Worcester
Mar 15, 2024
27 minutes
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#admissionchat episode 9 welcomes Cammie Bertram, founder and president of Campus Direction, an educational consulting firm in Fairfield, Connecticut. Cammie sheds light on the various waitlist scenarios families may encounter when applying to private schools and the options available to them.

Questions discussed include:

  • What is the difference between a ranked waitlist and a wait pool?
  • How can parents talk to their kids about getting waitlisted?
  • What can families do if they are waitlisted at their top-choice school but accepted at another?
  • What can a family do that has been waitlisted or denied at all the schools they applied to?
  • How can families plan for the possibility of getting waitlisted?

Listen to the episode above, ask your smart speaker to play #admissionchat, or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform: Amazon MusicApple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsPandoraSpotifyStitcher.


Daren Worcester: Welcome to #admissionchat. Let's talk about the waitlist.

Greetings. I'm Daren Worcester, and in this episode of #admissionchat, I am thankful to be joined by Cammie Bertram. She's the founder and president of Campus Direction, a top-class educational consulting firm. Cammie, thank you so much for being here with me today.

Cammie Bertram: Well, thank you, Daren. Great to see you again. I'll introduce myself. I'm Cammie Bertram, and lived and worked in Fairfield, Connecticut for the last 40-plus years. But my career as an educational consultant came rather naturally as I was born and raised on a boarding school campus, and my father taught the classics, became admissions director, and eventually associate headmaster of the school. So an admissions office was rather my childhood playground. And in a nutshell, independent schools, and particularly boarding schools, are in my bones and in my blood. It is just the most gratifying career I could ever imagine.

I began my career in 1994 after our own four kids had gone off to secondary school, and I was blessed to have a really phenomenal mentor by the name of Don Dunbar. Don invited me to become his boarding school advisor and learn also about college placement at Dunbar Educational Consultants nearby here in New Canaan, Connecticut. I remained with Don for eight years, and he had started his educational consulting business after teaching at Andover and at St. Paul's schools, and he also was the college placement advisor there. So he had a great deal of personal and professional experience. And I always use one of Don's mantras to this day for parents and students who are concerned about college acceptances. And this mantra holds true. It goes, it's not where you go to school, it's how well you do where you are when you're preparing for college.

So I became a certified educational planner in 1997 as a member of IECA, Independent Educational Consultants Association. And then I broke away from Dunbar in 2003 to become a sole practitioner, and my firm was named Camille M Bertram Educational Consultants, and I was a sole practitioner for nine years and then launched what we call the Bertram Group and built the firm, including five specialists and five professional affiliates.

But after 10 years of managing 10 advisors and a few employees, it was time for me to return to being a sole practitioner. I wanted to focus on really what I love most in my life, which is advising families to find the right fit for their child. So, Campus Direction has enabled me to launch my last hurrah, and probably the last chapter of my educational career. So I'm very, very happy to be able to share whatever knowledge I have with my audience.

Daren Worcester: Thank you, Cammie, and congratulations. I couldn't be more appreciative to have you in this discussion with me today, and I'm sure our audience will as well because this is a really important topic. Digging into the waitlist, I think a lot of families have some anxiety and stress obviously over decisions, and when they get the waitlist notification, there's probably a lot of confusion on what to do. So this certainly is going to be very helpful for folks. So for anyone who may be unfamiliar, can you just at a basic level, explain to us what is the waitlist?

Cammie Bertram: Okay, so when a student is placed on a waitlist, it means they are admissible and is someone whom the school would really like to invite to enroll, if there is sufficient space at that school. The candidate is not an admit just yet, but the potential of receiving an offer remains.

Daren Worcester: So the irony, and it's good news to one degree. The candidate has met the admission requirements, the school sees them as being a candidate that they would love to have at the school, but what are some of the reasons that the school may have put that candidate on the waitlist?

Cammie Bertram: Well, schools always have a set number of spaces per class, and very often they attract more compelling and qualified candidates than spaces available. So admissions offices don't know exactly how many of those students who are offered a place in the first round, they don't know how many will actually enroll. The percentage of students who say, yes I'm coming is called yield. Typically, the most selective schools yield upwards of 60 to 70% of the students who've been accepted. But in February, when the admissions offices are crafting their classes and making decisions, they actually don't know for sure what the exact yield number will be. Therefore, schools often put very qualified and deserving students on a waiting list just in case their initial yield is lower than anticipated, which paves the way for additional openings. Does that make sense?

Daren Worcester: Yeah. So if I understand that correctly, the school has X amount of openings, and they assume a percentage of students that they invite to their school are going to accept, which that's a number they probably know historically, and it's probably pretty consistent, I would imagine. So they invite candidates plus a percentage higher than what they could actually fill to attend their school, knowing that not everyone's going to accept. But for them, the waitlist is a safety net, should more students not accept that they initially accept that they can then go back to those candidates and say, great news, we have an opening, we would love your child to attend. Am I understanding that correctly?

Cammie Bertram: You have it perfectly. Thanks, Daren.

Daren Worcester: Good, good. The interesting thing to me in this is that there's no, well, I guess, there are a few standard ways, but how one school manages a waitlist or utilizes a waitlist may not be the same as another. Can you explain for us what's the difference between a ranked waitlist and a wait pool?

Cammie Bertram: Good question, Daren, and I do have the answer. It's really pretty simple. A school that ranks their waitlist, assigns each student designation, so that both the family and the school know where that student ranks should there be an opening. For instance, my daughter is ranked number two on the waitlist for 10th grade girls at X school when there's an opening, the admissions office will call families in that ranking order and offer the spot until a candidate accepts. But most schools today have what they call a waiting pool or a wait pool process, where students are not ranked at all. Unfortunately, families don't know where their child stands if they are waitlisted. They could be number two or number 22, and they will never know.

But this process makes it easier on the school, because they may need or want a student with a certain talent or to replace a student who has a similar profile. So this flexibility makes it easier for the admissions office to create a well-rounded class. Every school wants a balanced incoming class. But on the flip side, it can make it harder on the family as it's not perfectly clear what the candidate's chances are when moving off that, or if they're going to move off the waitlist. It's a waiting game.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, so if I understand that correctly, with the waiting pool, they're getting the flexibility so the school has a cello player that left and then now they need another cello player and fortunately there's a cello player in the waitlist or wait pool—

Cammie Bertram: Exactly.

Daren Worcester: So that person gets admitted. There's no real hierarchy. It's based on needs. As a parent, I could completely see how that's probably more frustrating for parents, because if they get on the waitlist, they want to call up and say, am I number 2, are we number 10? What's our odds of getting in? And in that situation, the school just can't really tell them, because the school doesn't know what they don't know at that stage of the process. Is that a fair assessment?

Cammie Bertram: It is indeed. And it's at that March 10th time that I get inundated with calls and I beg the families, please don't bother the admissions directors. Be patient. That's the mantra, be patient.

Daren Worcester: Let's change tact a little bit here to a subject I'm sure you've had to consult parents on a lot. The students go through a lot to apply for schools, from writing their essay, to going to the tours, to doing the interviews. And some kids love that part of it. Some kids get super nervous, but their hopes are to get into these schools as well. And there's probably a lot of disappointment that comes with getting on the waitlist or uncertainty. How do you help parents, or encourage parents to explain the waitlist to their children?

Cammie Bertram: It's really difficult, Daren, but I always try to emphasize that being waitlisted is not a death sentence. It's not a denial. They have a chance and it should be interpreted very positively, because the school wants you, they believe in your abilities and they are, you're qualified and you are admissible, but there is a likelihood if more spaces open, you'll be plucked from that waitlist and admitted. So be patient and trust the process is what I try to teach my families.

Daren Worcester: It is the ultimate irony to some degree in that the school is saying, we'd love to have you, but unfortunately, there's just not space at the moment. So let's talk about that space thing a little bit because I've learned from talking to you and others that in the peak of the pandemic, applications skyrocketed for various reasons, especially at boarding schools where the families needed to move to different areas, or put their children in safe educational environments, the applications rose. And because of which, students that were put on waitlists, the number of those rose as well, because the schools, they couldn't grow any bigger. The brick and mortar is only so big, so we're out of the pandemic for the most part. What's happened? Have we gone back to pre-pandemic application numbers and waitlist numbers, or is it still above and beyond what you would've seen before the pandemic?

Cammie Bertram: You nailed it when you said the applications have skyrocketed and they continue to do so. In my 30 years of consulting, I've never seen schools, with some of them three times as many applications as they were receiving. And public schools didn't share the success of the in-person learning that independent schools did during the pandemic. Fortunately for these independent schools, especially boarding schools, parents are seeing the value added like never before, and they have now applied in droves to boarding school. And one other factor is the safety of boarding schools in that COVID world. The bubble that can be created in a residential community allows for students and faculty and staff to operate in as close to a normal environment as possible.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. So unfortunately, what this means is we probably have a greater audience listening to this podcast and needing this advice. So let's go through a couple of possible scenarios, because I think each family and their waitlist options are likely different, but I think there are a couple common scenarios that probably stump families the most in their decision making. Scenario number one, my family, my child, we applied to a school, we're unfortunately waitlisted at our top choice school, but we got into another one of the schools on our list. Should we take our bird in hand and accept the admission offers that we received, or should we hold out as long as we should with our fingers crossed that we get into our first choice? What do you typically advise families to do in that situation?

Cammie Bertram: Well, different families have different ways of viewing that dilemma, but I generally suggest that the family indicate immediately after being notified, getting that decision, and that they've been waitlisted, they need to indicate right away that their child wants to remain on the waitlist. The sooner they do that, the better. And even some schools are suggesting that the candidate make a commitment right then and there that if X school will take me, I'm coming and I will pledge to that. But in other words, if I'm accepted, I will come. Pledging is extremely important to the admission office, because the school is always thinking about the yield. They want as many admitted students to choose them as they can possibly get.

Now the waitlist process moves quickly. So assuring the school you would accept a place at a moment's notice is critical. If there's a delay in your response, the school will move on to the next candidate. It's really just like a race. And next, and very important, the parents, if there is a school to which their child has been admitted, and they're waitlisted at other schools, put down a deposit at the school where their child has been accepted, you want to secure that spot.

Daren Worcester: Is there a fine line between inquiring about your child's waitlist status, providing additional information to help your child's candidacy, and overdoing it?

Cammie Bertram: Oh boy. There's a very fine line between persistent and being a pest, but the important thing is to let your child drive the process from here on in. The schools that they're applying to want them to be proactive, but not overly so. But I can't emphasize enough that the student needs to act swiftly after being notified of a waitlist. And I mentioned that before and I need to mention it again. In addition to submitting the form that comes with that notification, which is just usually a link, the candidate should write to their interviewer at their top choice school to reiterate their desire to remain on that waitlist. They need to commit to attending, if admitted. More and more schools are looking for that pledge when going to their waitlist. The interviewer is their advocate, so stick with that one person, not the entire admissions office.

Stay in touch with your interviewer, but don't go overboard. Inform them of pertinent updates, improved grades, a distinction, a special achievement, but one or two emails after your decision is made, that's more than enough. When speaking to three or four dozen admissions directors every year at this time, they all say the same thing. Be patient, admissions offices really don't want to hear from waitlisted candidates or their parents until the first week of April. Most directors suggest waiting until at least April 5th to inquire or check in about availability. In the meanwhile, I suggest that parents and their child focus on the current school options they already have, and consider them seriously.

Daren Worcester: So I don't want to put words in your mouth, but if I'm interpreting what you're saying and I am a bird in hand type of person, so this is sinking in with me, that basically with our scenario number one, the advice is best bet is to take the sure thing, don't mess around. Let the school that's interested in that you would love to attend and take that step to put a deposit down. If your dream school ends up accepting, you can always switch and back out of, there may be some financial repercussions there unfortunately, but if it means that much to you, you can switch. If there wasn't that big of a difference in your mind between the schools, you can keep going with where you were at, but don't risk jeopardizing the opportunity you do have, is the advice.

Cammie Bertram: Exactly. That's really the wisest move of all.

Daren Worcester: All right, that makes complete sense to me. Thank you. Thank you for that. So let's move to another possible scenario, and hopefully it's one that not many of our listeners are in, but it is a possibility. What advice do we have for a family, let's say my child, we applied to 3, 5, 8 schools and unfortunately we're waitlisted at a few, didn't get accepted at a few, and we're sitting here after the March 10th notification time, and we don't have a school, we don't have a bird in hand. What can we do in that scenario?

Cammie Bertram: My advice would be to call an educational consultant. But seriously, the admissions process isn't over by a long shot if there isn't an initial offering. A number of families experience this every year, and it's primarily because the list they compiled was really not a balanced list. I always suggest that my candidates have two dream schools, then what I call three likelies, that I'm about 90% certain that they will be admitted to. And then I have one that I never call a safety school. There is no safety school. It's a sure bet. It's another school that you visited that you love, that if all else fails, you'd love to go there. And inevitably, these kids, if they've got a balanced list, are going to be accepted at the majority of their schools.

There are plenty of outstanding schools. They're looking for great kids after April 10th and for very some very fine schools, this is a very important time in that enrollment process. And one of the advantages post April 10th, is that boarding schools assume a rolling admissions process. So there's no huge waiting time. You have your interview, your tour, and you go home and get your application completed, submit it, and you'll know within two weeks, whether or not you've been admitted to this school. So there are people that wait till after April 10th for the ease of the process, and even some of them with selective schools, the really highly competitive ones, are still tweaking their enrollment into the summer months. And I always have said some of our finest gems come along in June and July, so don't despair. There's a fine school out there for every student and you got to trust the process and trust your consultant.

Daren Worcester: Cammie, I'm really glad that you bring up rolling admissions. My perception, and I'd love to hear if you think this is true or not, but just my casual observation is, there seems to be more and more schools either doing rolling admissions, or essentially a second admissions period where they go through the process again for a second time in late spring, early summer. Is my perception accurate? Do you think there are more schools doing that?

Cammie Bertram: Yes. I think more are finding it a great way to attract students, and it's a wonderful safety net for those kids that may have maybe overreached a bit in the first round. But many families wait until after that first round, or some families are not even aware that there is a specific period of time. The application period generally starts in early September and then runs through February 1st when applications are due and the announcements are made on March 10th and the kids have to make their decisions by April 10th. A lot of folks come into this boarding school world or independent school world, don't realize that there's actually, there's a step-by-step process. So rolling admissions just relieves everybody of that.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. And you mentioned a minute or two ago, about one of the things that families certainly should do when applying to schools is vary the range of schools they're applying to and get a couple that they're confident that their child would get into. Doesn't necessarily mean they will, but to shoot for that. Do you have any other advice? Hopefully we have some people listening to this, before they go through the application process fully and not just after they've been waitlisted. What other advice can we give to families ahead of applying, to help minimize the risk of being without a school, or keep themselves off of too many waitlists?

Cammie Bertram: I've learned from the many, many admissions directors with whom I have spoken, that demonstration of interest is key. And I feel that if a student has visited say 5, 6, 8, 10 schools and they whittle down their list to their favorite five or six, five is usually my magic number I use with my candidates. If they start demonstrating interests from the get go with their interviewer, with their coach that they met, or with a music teacher, the head of the dance department, and no matter what, if you've made a connection with them, maintain a relationship with them throughout the application process.

And another thing is to really have a strategic plan, discuss as a family what might happen on March 10th, and what decisions you might make in each case, being aware it's more competitive than ever at the most selective schools. I think it makes a lot of sense to discuss with your child if there's a potential waitlist, what are we going to do? Well, many folks think that decision is either admit or deny, and it really isn't, as we're talking today. waitlists are really more common than ever before because of the increase in the applicant pools. I've mentioned before that some applicant pools have tripled since the pandemic. So discussing and reviewing scenarios helps both the parents and the candidate develop a smart plan, and instills confidence in their path moving forward. So I believe this instills a sense of control as well in a process where someone else is making a decision on your future academic journey.

Daren Worcester: That's great. Thank you. Letting the school know, the one that you're really most interested in, can I interpret that, or should I interpret that as you're an advocate of them writing first-choice letters?

Cammie Bertram: The candidates may definitely write a first-choice letter. Whether or not they make a commitment to attend the school, is entirely up to them. And I think for a 13, 14, or 15-year-old child or teenager that is applying to schools, they could easily change their mind. And if you make a commitment, you need to keep that commitment. I've learned that a lot of the admissions directors are finding that more and more kids make a commitment and don't follow through, and that's very, very disappointing to hear. But it's a fact. So if I'm working with a family, I make sure that doesn't happen, because you can burn your bridges.

Daren Worcester: There is a fine line—or not a fine line—there's a very big line that should not be crossed between writing a first-choice letter and writing a thank-you letter. So it's one thing to write and thank them for their time and say what you liked about the school and how you were impressed and appreciate the opportunity without saying, but I'm coming there if you choose me. But if they do feel that strongly and the parent knows the child and how well they stick to their guns, if you will, on their choices, then it's okay to make that declaration so long as you're extremely confident that you will stick to it.

Cammie Bertram: Yes, that is true, but there are no guarantees. A lot of admissions directors are saying, I just don't buy it, because we've been burned too many times. It's not going to guarantee anything.

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. And I can't blame the admissions directors for having had the sour experience from the other side of that, unfortunately. Cammie, I want to thank you one more time for joining me today. I think this is going to be super beneficial for so many people. Before we part, do you have any final words of advice for families that are weighing their options when they're waitlisted?

Cammie Bertram: I think the word of the day, or the word of the hour, is patience. Patience, patience, and more patience. Gracious, timely, demonstration of interest is always key. I guess, remind yourself that things can change from day to day and have faith, be hopeful. There are still many schools fine-tuning their enrollment right into the summer, so if you can wait long enough, knowing that you have a good outcome at another great school, and have that right in your pocket, you might have a chance of attending that dream school after all.

Daren Worcester: That's great. Thank you. I do want to thank everybody who's listened to this podcast. It's much appreciated. If you are in this situation where your family has been waitlisted, and you're dipping back into the rolling admissions pool, just know that EMA and Admission.org do have a resource available for you, typically in mid to late April. If you go to our school search, which you can link to off of admission.org and ssat.org, we have a filter for schools that are still looking and still have spaces available. So there are options available to you. We can help you find those schools that are still out there and still seeking great candidates. So there's hope, there are still avenues for you, and you can go that route. Cammie, again, thank you very much for your time today. This is super appreciative.

Cammie Bertram: Well, thank you, Daren, and it was a true pleasure.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Have a great day, everyone.

Announcer: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the #admissionchat podcast. #admissionchat is a production of the Enrollment Management Association. For more EMA resources to help families throughout the private school application process, visit admission.org.

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