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  • Writer's pictureJulie Simon

The Secret to College Waitlists

Updated: Apr 4


You’ve waited for a decision since submitting your application back in October and just received one. It isn’t a yes or no. It’s a maybe (known as Limbo Land in the admissions world). Click here for the basics on what to do when waitlisted. Read on for a deep dive into college waitlists, why they exist, and how they work.


What is waitlisting? 

College is a business – a big business. A recent estimate puts it at 2.9 billion dollars. In most cases, that budget hinges on enrollment dollars. Colleges need to hit their enrollment target, and this is where the waitlist comes in. Like other businesses, colleges have a projected annual budget dependent on bringing in a specific number of enrolled students and tuition dollars. The waitlist ensures that the admissions staff hit their enrollment target and budget for the following year.


How does a waitlist work?

This will vary by university, but generally, there will be many enrollment targets for a university. At the University of Michigan, where I used to work, we had 14 undergraduate schools and colleges. Because it’s also a public university, we had an in-state and out-of-state enrollment target for each school. So, 28 different enrollment targets. On top of that, specialized schools like the School of Music and the School of Kinesiology had additional targets by major. When you add enrollment targets for international students, recruited athletes, first-generation college students, etc., there are dozens of different enrollment targets or priorities. Frequently, I would receive an email from a student asking for their place on the waitlist, and I didn’t have an answer because there was no such thing as one ranked list.


How likely is it that I’ll be admitted from a waitlist?


Since we’re keeping it real, the chances aren’t fantastic. The number of students admitted from the waitlist will vary by college and year. For Fall 2022, only 15% of students nationally who accepted an offer to be on a waitlist were admitted. Colleges may offer thousands of students the waitlist, only to accept a hundred or fewer students from the list. And they’ll admit in very strategic ways.


When I was at U-M, there was a year when the only enrollment target we missed was for in-state students for the School of Nursing. So, we admitted about 20 Michigan residents who had applied for nursing and accepted the waitlist offer. No other students were selected that year, but in 2023, they admitted 955 students from the waitlist–a much better year for waitlisted students.


Here’s my advice for knowing your likelihood of being accepted. Colleges have to report their waitlist numbers in a report called the Common Data Set. To learn how many students were on the waitlist last year and the number admitted, google “School Name, Common Data Set, 2022-23”. It’s a huge report. What you want to look at is section C2. Here’s a sampling from last year’s waitlist, but remember, every year is different because colleges haven’t learned to predict the behavior of 17 and 18-year-olds! 


College

# of Waitlisted Students

# Accepting a Spot on the Waitlist

# of Waitlisted Students Admitted

% of Waitlisted Students Admitted

Boston University

9,643

5,899

3

.05%

Cornell 

8,282

6,166

362

5.9%

Dartmouth College

2,352

1,606

0

0%

Emory

6,448

3,388

107

3.2%

Tufts

2,664

1,328

183

13.8%

University of California-Berkeley

8,456

4,655

44

0.9%

UCLA

16,979

11,169

367

3.2%

UNC-Chapel Hill

7,258

5,392

383

7.1%

University of Michigan

26,898

18,321

955

5.2%

University of Wisconsin

6,449

4,006

11

0.3%

Virginia Tech

13,311

7,587

2,458

32.4%

Yale

1,000

780

9

1.2%


What should I do now?

Determine whether you are still interested in attending the school. If “yes,” accept your waitlist offer and follow the steps below. If “no,” decline your waitlist offer and get pumped about your other terrific options! Commit to a school that has offered you admission by May 1st* and pay any enrollment deposit fees. 

*Due to the FAFSA delays this year, many colleges have extended this deadline.


How do I accept the waitlist offer?

  • Follow directions! Some schools require students to “accept” their waitlist offer to be considered for acceptance if a seat becomes available. You should have received instructions on accepting the offer with your waitlist notice. Your prompt reply tells colleges that you remain interested. Typically, this is done in the student’s applicant portal. Here, the student may also be able to provide an “update” or statement of continued interest. 


  • Craft an email to the admissions officer reviewing your application (this can often be found on the admissions website or by calling the admissions office and asking). At this point in the admissions process, demonstrated interest really counts. 


In the email message:

• Use proper salutations and titles 

• Thank the admissions officer for carefully reviewing your application

• If you would definitively attend if admitted—emphasize this! 

• Speak about why the school is a strong fit and how you would contribute 


  • Ensure that you don’t over-contact your admissions officer. While sending one or two emails in April or May with new and compelling information or updates is fine, the last thing you want to do is annoy your reader.


After you’ve done all of the above, let it go. Push this school to the back of your mind and spend time visiting the colleges that selected you! Treat an admit offer from a waitlist like finding a $20 bill in those jeans you haven’t worn since last fall—an unlikely, unexpected (yet happy) surprise. 


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