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A mother and daughter nervously learning that they have been waitlisted at their top-choice private school.

Waitlisted for Private School: What You Should Know

March 1, 2023

You’ve made your way through the private school admission process. You’ve narrowed down your options to the best private schools for your child. You’ve applied to a few, but there’s one at the very top of your list. And then, after weeks of waiting for a response, you find out . . .

Your child is on the waitlist. 

How should you feel? What does being on the waitlist really mean? And, what are the next steps you should take as a family? 

First, don’t panic: being placed on the waitlist at your private school of choice is not the end of your journey. 

At most private schools, there are three different responses an applicant can receive: accepted, waitlisted (sometimes called the wait pool), or denied. 

When your child is accepted, they have a saved spot for the next school year — if you choose to accept it. Private schools have a finite amount of open spaces each year, which means there will inevitably be more good-fit students than seats. For schools with more applicants than spaces, the waitlist represents the group of applicants that could be a right fit if more seats open up. 

“Schools are very intentional about their waitlists,“ said Frankie Brown, director of admissions and financial aid at Sidwell Friends School, in an Admission Academy webinar. “These are students who we really thought would make a great impact on our school, and [if we had] unlimited spaces, we would have taken them immediately.”  

Families should understand that being waitlisted is not the same as being denied. Students aren’t waitlisted as a courtesy or to soften a “no.” Waitlisted students have met all of the admission criteria and would be a right fit if there were enough spaces. The school’s decision could have come down to multiple external factors, such as gender balance or interest in specific programs. 

What happens when your child is waitlisted? When will you get a definite answer? 

Unfortunately, said Brown, schools are rarely able to predict if and when they will tap into their waitlist. After initial decisions go out, accepted families usually have about two weeks to make their final decision. Accepted students often have questions or want to revisit, and the admissions department also has to do some rebalancing once they learn who is accepting their enrollment offers. 

“While we try to work as quickly as we possibly can to get back to families and continue to communicate, if you’re in the wait pool and want to wait, you may have to be a little patient,” Brown said. 

When your child is waitlisted at their dream school, you may go through many emotions. What should you do as a family? 

1: Talk to your child about the waitlist decision. 

As soon as you get the waitlist decision, it’s important to help your child understand what the waitlist means. Acknowledge their feelings and any conflicting emotions. Reiterate that being put on the waitlist doesn’t mean they did anything wrong. Instead, celebrate their willingness to participate in the private school admissions journey and be open to new opportunities. 

2: Understand each school’s admission timeline. 

To ease the feeling of being in limbo, make sure you know when the school expects accepted students to make their final decisions; when you need to let them know if you’re staying on the waitlist; and when, if eventually offered a space, you need to respond. It’s also important to know the timelines of any schools where your child was accepted so that you have additional options. 

3: Contact the admissions department. 

If you have any lingering questions, the school’s admissions department is there to help. You can ask them if their waitlist is a ranked list of potential students, or if it’s more like a wait pool where all candidates are grouped together. You can find out if they foresee any future openings, or how close they might be to tapping into the waitlist. Understanding what the waitlist looks like at each school is essential. 

4: Decide if you will stay on the waitlist. 

This is a family decision. If your child is accepted at another great-fit school, you may choose to enroll there. If you do, you should tell the waitlist school of your decision. If you instead decide to wait, you should prepare for number five on our list.

5: Be patient. 

As Brown noted, it is often difficult for a school to foresee if and when they will turn to their waitlist. Know that admissions professionals are working hard to create the perfect balance of right-fit students for the next school year. While you wait, write the school a letter to let them know your intentions and thank them for their help throughout the process — but don’t call too frequently. You will hear of their decision as soon as they can make one. 

While being waitlisted can be stressful and frustrating, just know that it is only one step in your child’s private school journey — and it could be one that makes all the difference in finding the absolute best fit for their education.

Let's Talk About Getting Waitlisted

#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.

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