The Waiting Game: Navigating the College Waitlist
Getting waitlisted by a college can be tricky—you’re neither denied nor accepted, and you may, or may not, eventually be admitted. This “limbo land” can be confusing and stressful. Luckily, there are many things you can do to improve your chances of acceptance. Here we’ll cover how the college waitlist works, what steps to take if you're waitlisted, and how to improve your waitlist chances.
WHAT IS WAITLISTING?
The college waitlist is a list of applicants to whom a school might or might not offer admission. These applicants are essentially put on hold by a college. A waitlisted student will be considered for acceptance if, and only if, a space in the class becomes available.
HOW LIKELY IS IT THAT I WILL BE ADMITTED?
The number of applicants offered a place on the college waitlist can vary significantly by school and year. Colleges may offer thousands of students the waitlist, only to accept a handful of students, and sometimes, none at all. You’ll find waitlist stats for several selective colleges from last year’s admissions cycle in the table below.
Source: Common Data Set 2021-2022
If you’re curious to know more waitlist stats from previous years, check out this article or the Common Data Set for the college by Googling “School Name, Common Data Set, 2021”. Waitlist information is contained in section C2 of this report.
Additionally, a small number of colleges rank their waitlist candidates. So if you're ranked highly, you're more likely to be accepted. However, most colleges don't rank waitlist applicants and instead make their admissions decisions based on other factors—intended major, personal characteristics, ability to pay, interests, institutional priorities, etc.—and which applicants will be most likely to attend if admitted.
Ultimately, how likely it is you'll be admitted from a waitlist depends on the particular school you've been waitlisted at. Highly selective schools get applications from tens of thousands of qualified students each year—many of whom end up on the waitlist—making it super difficult to determine how good your odds are of being admitted.
Finally, the year you apply can have a significant effect on how many waitlisted applicants a college decides to admit. Each year the quality and number of applicants changes. For example, last year, most highly selective colleges saw a dramatic increase in applications due to test optional admissions policies and other factors related to the pandemic. As evidenced by the chart above, these application increases meant that most selective colleges waitlisted more students and took fewer from the waitlist.
WHEN WILL I HEAR?
Applicants are typically admitted from a waitlist starting after May 1, or the date when admitted students must submit their decisions to attend the college of their choice along with a non-refundable enrollment deposit. Once the May 1 deadline has passed, if not enough applicants have decided to attend, the school will start to admit applicants off the waitlist until they fill their freshmen class. Waitlist acceptances often roll out gradually throughout May and June, and sometimes, into July and August.
WHAT SHOULD I DO NOW?
Step 1: Commit to a school who has offered you admission
No matter if you decline or accept a waitlist offer, you MUST commit to a school that has offered you admission by May 1st by paying the enrollment deposit. You should never “bank” on getting off a waitlist. If you are admitted to a school that initially waitlisted you, and choose to attend, you will lose any deposit/enrollment fees paid elsewhere.
Step 2: Officially decline or accept your waitlist offer
Determine whether or not you are still interested in attending the school. If “yes”, accept your waitlist offer and take the next steps detailed below. If “no”, decline your waitlist offer to ensure that should a seat in the incoming class become available, it will be offered to an interested student.
Step 3: What to do if you decide to stay on a waitlist
Follow directions! Some schools require students to “accept” their waitlist offer to be considered for acceptance, should a seat become available. You should have received instructions with your waitlist notice on how to accept the waitlist offer. Your prompt reply tells colleges that you remain interested. Typically, this is done in the student’s applicant portal. Here, the student may also have an opportunity to provide an “update” or statement of continued interest.
Keep up your grades. This is no time to slack off. If you're waitlisted, you may be reevaluated based on your third or fourth quarter/trimester and final grades.
Craft an email to the admissions officer in charge of reviewing your application (this can often be found on the admissions website or by calling the admissions office and asking). This is a point in the admissions process that demonstrated interest really counts!
In the email, include:
Use proper salutations and titles
Thank the admissions officer for carefully reviewing your application
Briefly speak to why the school is a strong fit and how you would contribute to the campus community
If you have new updates regarding your academic record or extracurricular activities, ensure you include them
If you would definitely attend, if admitted, emphasize this!
Ensure that you don’t over-contact your admissions officer. 1-2 emails in March through June are ok with new and compelling information or updates, but the last thing you want to do is annoy your reader.
Answer your phone and check your voicemail and email regularly. Often admissions officers will reach out to you via phone to inquire about your receptiveness to accept a waitlist offer before sending the official admission offer. Ensure you answer your phone and check your voicemail and email regularly to avoid missing this important contact.