After all the blood, sweat, and tears we put into our college applications, we can’t help but dream of that special moment when we receive our coveted letters of acceptance. But (record scratch!) there are more potential outcomes to our applications than either outright acceptances or rejections.
While all applications eventually end in one of these results, applicants are often either first deferred or waitlisted along the way. What does it mean to be deferred or waitlisted to college? And if you’ve been waitlisted to your dream college, what should you do?
Being deferred means that a school has not completed their review of your application. Admissions has placed your file on hold, and will make their decision regarding your candidacy at a future date. In some cases, your file has been put on hold because the school would like more information from you, such as additional grades or test scores—in which case they will contact you with this request. Once the school has reviewed this additional information, it will follow up with their final admissions decision.
Like being deferred, being waitlisted means that admissions has placed your file on hold. However, no new information is needed from you. You must wait to hear from the school about your eventual acceptance or rejection. Often, no further action from you will affect your chances of acceptance. But, that is not always the case. So, keep reading for steps you can take if you’ve landed on a school’s waitlist and want to increase your chances of acceptance.
Step #1: Congratulate yourself.
First things first, remember that you haven’t been rejected outright, and that being waitlisted to a college is a success in its own right. Plenty of applicants haven’t made it this far. So pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath, and then move on to step #2.
Step #2: Understand why you’ve been waitlisted.
You might be wondering: Why was I waitlisted in the first place?
College applicants are waitlisted for a number of reasons, from having gaps or weaknesses in their application (such as sub-par grades or lower participation in extracurricular activities), to being so strong of an applicant that a school questions your commitment to attending their institution.
While the specific reasoning behind placing applicants on a waitlist may be different for each school, in all cases applicants are waitlisted because there are simply too few spaces available in the incoming class to admit every applicant. It’s important to remember this.
The reality is that being waitlisted doesn’t reflect poorly on you as an applicant, but instead reflects highly on the institution that it had so many competitive applications.
Most importantly, it does no good to play guessing games, fretting over the exact reasoning as to why you landed on a waitlist, since this will get you nowhere. Instead, move on to step #3 for more practical, actionable moves you can make to increase your chances of receiving an acceptance letter.
Step #3: Research your chances of admission.
Your chances of making it off of the waitlist and earning admission can depend on a few things, including factors that are specific to the college, such as the number of spots the school needs to fill in its freshman class and who the school wants represented in their freshman class (e.g. your hometown, anticipated major, etc.). It can also depend on factors that are more personal to you, such as the perceived strength of your application and how highly you are ranked on the list (if a given school, in fact, ranks waitlisted applicants).
Generally speaking, both the number of college applicants waitlisted and the number of applicants admitted off of waitlists varies from year to year. However, according to a 2019 survey from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), 20 percent of students who had accepted a position on a four-year-college waitlist in 2018 were accepted.
This percentage is unique to each school annually, of course.
To get a sense of your chances of admissions at a particular college, reach out to the school with a few questions. Ask where you are located on the waitlist, how many applicants are typically waitlisted at their institution every year, what percentage of waitlisted applicants are typically offered admission, and when waitlisted applicants will be notified of their acceptance or rejection. Sometimes this information is included on waitlist letters. You can also reference CollegeData’s College Profiles, which includes college waitlist statistics (for those institutions that report them).
Now that you have a better understanding of your chances of admission, move on to step #4.
Step #4: Make a decision: Do you stay or do you go?
Next, make a decision about your status on the waitlist. Do you want to stay in the running as an applicant, and remain on the wait list? Or, do you want to pursue other opportunities?
How do you best make this decision? This will depend on a number of factors, and is ultimately personal. However, one important matter to consider is if you will require financial aid from the institution you attend. If the answer is yes, know that colleges send Early Decision and Early Action acceptances as soon as December. Waitlist acceptances are then typically sent throughout May, June, July, and sometimes even August of the following year. Given this timeline, the college to which you have been waitlisted will have potentially awarded most or all of its aid to applicants in its first round of acceptances, leaving none to spare by the time you receive your acceptance.
If receiving financial aid is crucial to your college experience, you should include a few questions about this when you reach out to the school by email for additional information. What percentage of waitlisted applicants who are offered admission receive financial aid? How much?
Either way, inform the college of your decision as soon as possible. If you fail to confirm your place on the waitlist by the deadline, you will lose your space on the list by default. The deadline (which is typically by May 1st) should be stated both on your wait list letter and online.
Whether you accept or decline your place on the wait list, move on to step #5.
Step #5: Have a backup plan.
Even if you hope to make it off of the wait list of and are taking actionable steps to improve your chances of acceptance, it is best to also have a Plan B. Move on to your next favorite school to which you’ve been accepted, accept that offer, and be sure to submit your deposit to them by the deadline (which is typically May 1st).
If the school to which you’ve ben waitlisted is your dream school, you may be tempted to take a year off and apply again during the next application cycle. While this may be the right course of action for some people, others will prefer not to put their education on hold. Again, this decision will depend on a number of factors, and is ultimately personal.
If your plan is to continue taking actionable steps to improve your chances of making it off of the wait list, move on to step #6.
Step #6: Don’t wait. Advocate!
Email the school to which you’ve been waitlisted to express your continued interest in and commitment to attending their institution. In your message, convey that, if admitted, you would 100% accept their offer. Beyond this, include any important updates or shining accomplishments you’ve added to your resume since submitting your application.
For advice on how to write a waitlist follow-up letter, see this article from Sara Harberson, former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.
It’s important to know, though, that colleges have differing perspectives on waitlisted applicants advocating for their candidacy. While some schools welcome such communication, other schools prefer that waitlisted applicants do not advocate for their candidacy, and admit that it will have no bearing on their acceptance or rejection.
Regardless, if you do reach out to a college to which you’ve been waitlisted, remember that your communication should be brief and respectful. And, unless the school reaches out to you, there should be no need to contact them more than once.
Still left with questions?
If you still have questions about being waitlisted to college, contact the admissions office of the school to which you’ve been waitlisted. For more general questions about applying to college, your Elite Prep Director and high school guidance counselor are excellent resources.