We Were Waitlisted–Now What?

Just before we shifted into chill mode for spring break, we got the news: blah, blah, blah, WAITLISTED, blah, blah. Of course, that’s not exactly what the letter said, but that’s what I read. Like many parents who start the search process as early as September, not having a definitive yes or no can feel like one’s been sentenced to purgatory to tread water thick with uncertainty. 

This blog is for those of you who after opening admissions letters find yourselves saying, "Okay, we were waitlisted. Now what?" 

Being waitlisted is about math.

The number of available seats at higher performing schools across the country doesn’t come close to meeting the demand. In the public school space, this means once the number of seats allocated (building capacity - projected number of zoned kids attending = number of magnet seats available) are filled, everyone else goes onto the waitlist. In the private school space it’s similar math, although not everyone gets put on the waitlist. Only the candidates who “fit” are added to the list, those students who would have been admitted if it weren't for such limited supply. 

What happens now?

Being waitlisted is like being in a holding pattern at the airport–sometimes there are simply too many planes trying to land at the same time, and it’s not until the traffic thins and the dust settles that you touch ground at your final destination. Between the time letters go out and the common reply date (first/second week in April) is what I call “dusty season.” Parents are trying to decide between their options, schools are fielding calls from accepted parents who have lingering questions and calls from others who want to understand why their child didn’t get in, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do next. There’s a lot going on, and waitlisted parents should use the time to gain some clarity about your next move until the dust settles.

First, take a few breaths and determine how much emotional energy, if any, you want to leave tied to the possibility of coming off of the waitlist. How much hope are you willing to hold on to? You know your emotional bandwidth. Don’t set yourself up for devastation should things just not work out. If you’re in the private school runnings, feel free to email the admissions director a short email letting them know your position. Remember to keep it short. It’s dusty season, and matriculating their admits is priority number one. Something like this should do the trick:

Dear {insert name},

{Insert child's name} and I were both happy and sad to learn {he'd/she'd} been waitlisted at {insert school}. Happy because we know being waitlisted means you think {insert name} would do well at the school, but sad because as of now, there isn't enough space for {him/her}. 

We wholeheartedly believe that {insert school} is the right fit for {him/her} because {insert the number 1 reason you applied to this school}. So we are more than happy to wait it out and hope for the best. When can/should I circle back for an update?

Fingers crossed,

{insert signature}

Second, think about what you do have. Maybe you got in to one of your other choices that you liked but didn’t love. Give some thought to the reasons you applied to that school in the first place. Maybe it has 3 out of the 4 things on your wish list. Remind yourself of the positives and start planning how you’ll supplement if that becomes your child's final destination. Maybe you applied to a private school during a non-entry year, take a few breaths, put your feelings aside (tough, I know) and ask yourself: Is there a better time? Am I still convinced that this is the best school for my child? If the answer to both questions is ‘yes,’ schedule a conversation with the admissions director to get their insights and decide if reapplying next year makes sense.  

Help your older child process the news. Don't forget that they were the ones taking these tests and filling out applications. They'll see this as a judgement of their ability unless you help them see otherwise. Talk them through the math, and then help them decide how much emotional energy they want to continue to invest. Help them come of with a plan for how they can be happy at option B if option A doesn’t pan out. There’s no better time to teach your kids how to respond when what you want isn’t immediately available to you.

How long do we wait?

In most cases, the earliest you'll come off a waitlist is a few days after the common reply date. That gives admissions directors time to see how many seats weren't filled by their first-round admits that are open to students from the waitlist. For private schools, this process is finalized by the end of the month. For public schools, however, this can extend through the first week in August. See why you have to determine your emotional bandwidth first? This process can go on for some time.  

Congrats to those who found and got into their top choice schools. For those who did not find their fit, resist the urge to think you or your kid is not good enough. Fit matters, and you’d much rather be in a place that’s a good fit for your child academically and personally than to be in a place that’s not. (Reread #2 above.) And for those hanging out with me in purgatory, I’ll tell you what I told my husband, “now we sit back and let the dust settle."


Edit: An earlier version of this blog listed these two scenarios explaining how one might come off of the waitlist.

  1. Private: You were waitlisted for kinder at Preschool-8 School X. Some parents who currently attend that school also applied to other private schools, but they also had to “hold” their seat at School X. They got into their top choice school and will forfeit the seat they were holding (and the deposit), which creates an unexpected opening for your child. 
  2. HISD: You got into your second choice school and were waitlisted at your first. Because you don’t want your child out in the cold, you accepted the seat at your second choice and decided to save a sliver of hope that lightening might strike. On June 12, you get a call from your first choice saying lightening struck and they have an opening for your child if you want it. You shimmy in your seat, say yes, and now your second choice seat is open for someone else. Of course, you could say no thank you, and the school moves on to the next person on the waitlist.