college students walking on campus
college students walking on campus

Waitlist… Now What?

“…Because of your outstanding achievements and promise…”

“After careful consideration and a thorough review of your candidacy…

”…We are offering you a place on our waitlist.”

Huh? Perhaps one of the most confusing and stressful admissions decisions students can receive is an offer to be on the waitlist. Essentially, instead of getting a final answer about whether or not you’re admitted, you’re put on a list of students who need to wait even longer to find out if they have a space in the freshman class. For some students, an answer of “maybe” can feel even harder than a flat-out rejection, and we get it. The application process is already long and arduous, and being put in limbo is not ideal. However, you shouldn’t lose hope. Colleges do utilize their waiting lists and we’ve worked with many students who have been offered admission after initially being waitlisted. Below, we’ve created a list of tips and advice for seniors who may be wondering, “What next?”

Stay Positive: First and foremost, you should stay positive knowing that you made it this far! Being on the waitlist means that the admissions committee saw promise in your application and, space permitting, wants you to be a part of their community. There is still a chance that you will end up enrolling at that particular college. And the waitlist decision is, by no means, personal.

Unfortunately, with application numbers hitting record highs at many institutions, there just are not enough seats for all of the qualified applicants. Colleges also have to consider their institutional priorities when making decisions, which means that they need to ensure that they don’t have too many admits from a particular region, or too few students in a specific major. There’s also the budget to consider and whether the college can balance students who need financial aid with families who will pay full-freight. They often use the waitlist to fill gaps in populations that might be lacking in a particular class. All of these factors can mean an amazing, hard-working, qualified applicant who would be supremely successful on campus ends up on the waitlist.

Follow the Directions: Colleges have varying instructions on how they want you to respond to their waitlist. Some colleges simply request that you complete a “reply form,” which indicates that you’d like to be considered for a waitlist spot. Others have more unique approaches:

  • Colleges will sometimes offer “priority” waiting lists and traditional waitlists. While there are no guarantees, your chances of coming off the priority waitlist are higher compared to those on the regular waitlist.

  • Some colleges ask you to indicate how long you’d like to remain on the waitlist. Essentially, they want to know if they can call you in August and invite you to attend. The longer you are willing to wait, the better your chance of coming off the waitlist (students who only want to remain on a waitlist until June will be removed from the pool without even being considered if the college goes to the waitlist in July or even August).

  • Occasionally, colleges will tell students not to send any additional materials. If a college says this, we encourage you to listen! It may seem tempting to share a letter of continued interest (LOCI) or an update to your application, but the college will not be impressed by a student disregarding their instructions. Only send items along if the college welcomes the additional information.

  • A few institutions have waitlist opportunities that include guaranteed admission. The College of William and Mary, for example, offers a guaranteed Spring Admission route for students placed on the waitlist. 

It may seem obvious, but you don’t have to stay on the waitlist. Maybe you’ve gotten into a college that you’d rather attend, or maybe you wouldn’t actually attend the college that waitlisted you. Some institutions do not guarantee housing or financial aid to waitlisted students, so be realistic about whether you’d attend without one or both of these options. Ask the admissions office about financial aid and housing for waitlist students (colleges often have FAQ pages for Waitlist students where this information might be covered).

Demonstrate Interest: Often, the waitlist is not a ranked list. Rather, colleges will select students from the waitlist who a) meet their institutional priorities and b) have a high chance of matriculating. Thus, it’s important to demonstrate interest authentically and often. A letter of continued interest is a great place to start. Colleges will sometimes also host webinars for waitlisted students to talk about next steps – we recommend you attend events like this and ask a question or two in the chat, or contact the admissions representative for your area with a follow-up email after the webinar. Don’t be afraid to communicate with your admissions counselor! This person advocates on your behalf, and the better they know you (and how badly you want to attend their school), the more likely they are to think of you if and when they go to the waitlist.

That being said, there’s a fine line between advocating for yourself and being a nuisance. We don’t recommend hounding the admissions office or emailing them frequently. However, a couple of touchpoints throughout the spring and fall with updates on your college plans and continued interest can be helpful.

Be Patient: There is no way to know whether a college will go to the waitlist and who they will choose if they do. If you’ve replied to the waitlist and demonstrated some interest, the only thing left to do is be patient. We’ve seen colleges go to their waitlist in mid-April, and we’ve also seen colleges wait until the beginning of August. Going to the waitlist depends on yield (how many admitted students decide to enroll). One college using their waitlist can cause a domino effect – as students decide to attend a school at which they were waitlisted, they have to withdraw from the other institution they had originally decided to attend. This is called “Summer Melt” and colleges never know for sure how large their melt will be.

Colleges typically will let students know if/when they close their waitlist, and this often happens around the beginning of August.

Make Other Plans: Colleges don’t always go to their waitlists, and waitlists often have thousands of students on them. While demonstrating interest puts you in a good position to be selected, it’s not a guarantee and, likely, you will not be offered admission. Therefore, it’s important to make other plans and enroll somewhere where you’ve been admitted. This advice can sound harsh – and we certainly don’t want you to give up! But it’s important to be realistic and plan for the scenario in which you do not get off the waitlist. Select a home for the fall and make the most of it! Attend events for admitted students, join the Facebook groups for your class, and start to get excited about the college you choose. Don’t spend too much time sitting around pining away for a school that may or may not have a space for you.

A Note: If you are chosen off the waitlist, you will likely have a very short amount of time to decide you’d like to attend (often 48-72 hours!). Be sure to consider what you will do if this happens.

Every institution utilizes its waitlist differently. Some colleges admit enough students that the hope is that they won’t have to use their waitlist at all. Other colleges are more conservative in how many students they admit so that they can go to the waitlist. We’ve even heard of waitlists that are 2-3 times larger than the school has space for. And in a year where the financial aid process has been so unpredictable, yield will likely be challenging to determine for many schools, so some colleges will ultimately over-enroll or under-enroll their class. All of this means there’s no way to know how many students will gain admission via a waitlist – or who those students will be. However, if you follow the advice above, you can rest assured that you’ve put your best foot forward and given yourself the best chance of admission.