Sink or Swim: Making Your Wait Pool Tolerable

Vol. 12 No. 6


As the economy improves and families rediscover the funds to invest in their children’s education, you may find that your private-independent school has more interest from prospective students than you have space to accommodate. Enter your wait pool!

The wait pool has become a powerful, vital tool for your Admission Office to create the best possible community of incoming students. Sometimes, though, it can seem intimidating for the families waiting for spaces to appear. How can you make your wait pool as painless as possible for these potential families? After all, some of those in the wait pool will attend your school one day. Here are a few points to keep in mind while sorting your applications this spring.

No Lists Here!

First of all, notice that we’ve called it a wait pool, not a wait list. The term “wait list” implies a hierarchy instead of a group of students who will best balance out the class as you’ve built it. We believe that “wait pool” better reflects the reality of the actual status—it’s not a “first come, first served” situation by any means. Which brings us to…

What Does Your School Need?

After reviewing all the applications and selecting those students who best fit your school’s mission, you’ve got an ideal class composition in mind when you send out acceptances. However, not everyone will accept their offered place. This unpredictable enrollment could tip the balance in favor of artistic students over those more academically inclined, for example, or more girls than boys. Your wait pool corrects these issues as other families decline your offers of acceptance.

This philosophy—as with all your school policies, goals, and values—should be clearly communicated to your families. The possible delayed acceptance can raise all sorts of worries (“Was our essay off-topic? Were our recommendations less than glowing? Why was my son/daughter not good enough for an automatic acceptance?”). These worries can be allayed, however, by being as transparent as possible with the school’s use of the wait pool.

Keeping Students for the Wrong Reasons

There are many reasons why one student may have an “edge” over another during the initial round of acceptances. Some students are specialists of some sort (e.g., a special talent, unique experiences or perspective, and socioeconomic status), bringing an element of mission-driven diversity to the class not available from other applicants. Others have that indefinable spark, an immediate connection to the school and its educational atmosphere, that makes an offer almost obligatory.

So, when assembling those applicants whom you’d like to keep around for a little while longer, consider what qualities they have that you couldn’t find in others. A student with a low probability of being offered a seat should not go into the wait pool, no matter how much the family may donate to the school or how many people they know.

“Polite Rejection”

Last year, The Daily Beast ran an article called “Stuck in New York City Private School Wait List Hell” (what a mouthful!) that discussed parents’ belief that a wait list or pool is a nice way of rejecting a student without hurting feelings.

Again, this idea stems from a lack of transparency in the process, so be sure to communicate what a place in the wait pool means to anxious families. One technique we advise in The Admission Funnel (which is also mentioned in the “Stuck” article) is to personalize such letters as much as possible, showing your investment of time and care in the selection of the wait pool.

One mother whose child was placed on five wait lists said that “some [schools] didn’t even mention my daughter’s name. Those schools just wanted us to be done with them,” adding that she’d “prefer closure” to indefinite lingering and uncertainty.

To prevent this anxiety, contact these families once a month either by phone or by mail to remind them that you haven’t forgotten them and ask if they would like to stay in your wait pool. In this way, you not only maintain up-to-date information should an opening appear—you also maintain positive word-of-mouth, even if the student is ultimately not enrolled at your school.

Pushy Parents

No matter what you do, you will inevitably have parents who will do anything and everything to get their child a place at your private-independent school. While it’s flattering that they think so highly of your school that they would go to such an extreme as hiring a $350-an-hour application consultant or asking a Supreme Court justice to write a recommendation without knowing the child in question, you know that excessive schmoozing won’t help as much as the families think. Even if your applicants aren’t quite as extravagant, some online resources advocate for parents to continue contacting the school to “bolster the seriousness of their application.” Much of this excess only adds to Admission Office headaches instead of bolstering a child’s chances.

These parents will insist on calling or writing to reiterate their interest, no matter what they read or what you say. Budget some time to personally reply to these inquiries as tactfully and openly as possible.

Wait pools can feel like a scary place for parents whose children’s education hangs in the balance, but with some forethought and transparency, the Admission Office can mitigate much of their anxiety.

Additional ISM resources:
ISM Monthly Update for Admission Officers Vol. 11 No. 4 Wait Pools: Not All About the First in Line
ISM Monthly Update for Admission Officers Vol. 9 No. 8 Filling Your Seats When Parents Don’t Promptly Re-enroll

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 33 No. 5 Parent Relations in the Pre-enrollment Period
I&P Vol. 38 No. 4 Waiting Pools: Base Enrollment on Class Needs and Mission

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