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What to Do If You've Been Waitlisted

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By Sam Joustra on March, 15 2024 | 13 minute read

Some college decisions are easy to understand. But what does it mean when a student has been waitlisted, and what should they do next?

Each March, a new wave of admissions decisions are released by colleges and universities across the world. Students may receive one of many types of decisions. Some are more straightforward, like an “admit” or “deny.” (Though many of us at Collegewise like to use the term “redirection”)! With either of those decisions, you have a definitive outcome, and you may feel that you’ve reached the “end” of this long process you’ve dedicated yourself to for the last year (or longer). But many students receive a “waitlist” decision, which is not as easy to understand.  

As Collegewise counselors, we counsel students through each admissions decision they receive as they strive to make the best choice for which school will be lucky enough to be their next home. Part of that work is helping understand the waitlist- what the decision means, and the next steps in the process.

In this blog post, we’ll dive deeper into the waitlist process and help demystify why colleges use waitlists and what to do if you've been waitlisted by a school. 

What Does Being Waitlisted Mean?

When a school places a student on the waitlist, it’s a signal that they are not ready to make a final decision on the applicant.

While they may not have been able to offer you immediate admission, they want to continue considering your application within the larger pool. They may need more time to see how many admitted students accept their offer of admission to know how many spots they can continue to fill. It’s not a hard “no,” but that can sometimes make it feel more difficult. 

Why Do Colleges Use Waitlists?

Teams of institutional researchers and college administrators work very hard each year to identify a target enrollment for their institution, and they must get as close to that number as possible each fall. If a school enrolls too many students, then students may find themselves in forced triples or sleeping in residence hall lounges that have been converted into extra dorm rooms. And if a college enrolls too few students, then they run the risk of not being able to keep the lights on. The bills still need to be paid!

The college administrators build mathematical models to try to account for the many factors that impact their yield—the percentage of admitted students who enroll—and try to get as close to their target number as possible. Still, in some years, that yield can be less predictable. The waitlist then becomes one the most effective ways a college can balance a class and make sure they end up with the precise number of students they need.  

The waitlist is also another way a college can “shape the class.” Colleges and universities are looking to enroll diverse campus communities, meaning they seek student representation across a vast array of backgrounds and perspectives. Toward the end of the application review process, admissions representatives cast a keen eye toward the makeup of their first-year class to see if they have met their institutional priorities. Using the waitlist allows colleges to select students to admit which helps the college or university balance their many priorities as they shape a diverse and inclusive student body. 

What to Do If You've Been Waitlisted

Say you're a student who's been waitlisted, or perhaps you're thinking ahead and want to stay prepared if you receive this outcome. Let's take a look at what a student can do to increase their chances of acceptance.

Respond to the College Representative

Some colleges will automatically place a student on the waitlist, while others will ask the student if they wish to be placed on it. If the college asks, and you are genuinely still interested in being considered, then make sure to promptly accept your spot on the waitlist! Make sure you check your applicant portal and follow the instructions that a college lays out. You don’t want to accidentally forfeit your chances of being considered just because you did not follow the proper steps to be added to the waitlist.

Not every student who is offered a spot on the waitlist will take the college up on it. Some students may decide that, based on their other offers of admission, they are more interested in other schools, and they will remove themselves from the waitlist and thus from further consideration by that school.  

Express Your Continued Interest

Just as many students who may have been deferred to Regular Decision when they received their Early Action decisions earlier this year, a waitlisted student can express their continued interest in a school.

Colleges want to admit students they believe will enroll, and so it is important to let a school know that you are still interested. You may be invited to submit a Letter of Continued Interest through your applicant portal, or you can email your admission counselor directly with a brief email letting them know of your continued interest.

Be sure to express your level of interest in and enthusiasm for the school, as well as any updates or achievements the school would not have been aware of since you initially submitted your application. If you have any recent awards or achievements that you have not yet shared with a college, now is the time to do it. Some colleges care deeply about demonstrated interest, especially when it comes to waitlisted students. (Check out this website to see which colleges consider demonstrated interest.) 

Related: The Truth about Demonstrated Interest 

Keep Engaging with the College

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the college yet, and you feel that seeing it in person will really help you decide if you want to remain on the waitlist, you may want to try to visit the school. While visiting a campus in person is a great way to demonstrate interest, you don’t necessarily have to book a plane ticket or take time off school to let a college know you’re still interested.

Take advantage of virtual resources like virtual information sessions, student panels, and even virtual campus tours. And make sure you’re still opening and reading emails a college sends you!  


How Likely Is It to Get Off a College Waitlist?

How likely is a student to be accepted off the waitlist? The answer, as with many answers in this process, is that it depends.

It depends on the number of admitted students who accept their offer of admission. If most admitted students say “yes” to a college, then the school will have fewer available spots to admit additional students from the waitlist. And while colleges build models to make their best estimate of what that number might look like, it can change from year to year and can be impacted by many different factors. Some universities, like UNC-Chapel Hill, share transparent data of the number of students invited to the waitlist, and the subsequent number that was admitted. Similarly, UVA shares its waitlist data from the last several years, as well as Frequently Asked Questions.  

The most important thing with respect to getting off the waitlist is that it is entirely out of your control. We tell students at Collegewise that they've often done everything they've needed to - you students have worked hard on submitting a great application, following up with midyear reports or additional information, and expressing continued interest to the admissions office. Remember, waitlists work in favor of the college or university so that they can finalize their classes and hit their target enrollment numbers exactly - a lot of those decisions are out of your control based on numerous factors. Don't dwell on it too much, and make sure you remain excited about your existing options for where you might end up this Fall! 


When Will Students Know if They've Been Admitted?

Being placed on the waitlist is a bit of a waiting game because most colleges will not have a full picture of how many spots are available in the class until students have paid their enrollment deposits. Traditionally, the National Candidate Reply Date has been May 1. This year, many colleges have extended their enrollment deadlines past May 1 due to the FAFSA’s processing timeline. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also maintains an updated directory of colleges’ enrollment deadlines. This can often mean that you may not find out if you’ve been admitted off the waitlist until much later in the summer, even into July.  

For this reason, we always encourage students to pay their enrollment deposit for a school they’ve been admitted to so they can get excited about that option. If you are admitted off the waitlist and choose to enroll, that does not mean that you will be refunded the enrollment deposit- so you must know that you will “lose” that deposit. And if you don’t end up being admitted off the waitlist, then you know you have an option next year and you can start preparing for that next chapter.  

The mental gymnastics of being on the waitlist are such that you need to be able to answer “yes” to the following two questions: 

  1. If you are not admitted off the waitlist, do you have another college option you are excited about? 
  1. If you are admitted off the waitlist, will you be ready to lose an enrollment deposit at the school you already committed to? 

Often, when a college admits a student off the waitlist, they don’t give the student much time to contemplate and usually require them to decide on a short time frame—it could just be 48 or 72 hours.

Remember, this could be happening in June, only a couple of months out from move-in day! So, you need to be in a place where you can make a quick decision. And if you are admitted off the waitlist at a school but decide you don’t want to attend, that’s ok, too! You may have changed your mind, and you are not obligated to enroll. There is no right or wrong decision to make, as long as you make the decision that makes the most sense and feels the best for you.  

Just as with any other admission outcomes you may receive throughout this process, remember that you are not defined by any admission decision. If a school needs a little more time to decide on your application, it is not a negative reflection of your talents, abilities, or contributions. Many colleges do not have room to admit all the students they know would be wonderful additions to their campus. So, if you receive a waitlist decision this spring, make sure to express continued interest in that school while also getting excited about other offers you have on the table. As long as you remain committed to choosing the school that is the best fit for you, you’re going to have a positive and successful experience!  

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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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