Waitlist? What To Do

By late March or early April, high school seniors who applied to college for admission this coming fall received acceptance or rejection notifications from the universities to which they applied. A third type of notification is placement on a waitlist.

College admissions offices have a target number of acceptances that they are trying to achieve each year, and strive to compose a class that achieves a balance of male and female students, maybe change to “a balance of gender” students from a wide range of states and countries, one that is diverse, and that represents students across a range of intended majors.

Few colleges achieve 100% acceptance from the students to which they offer admission. After all, if you applied to ten schools, and accepted admission and submitted a deposit at one school, nine other schools will then have an “open” position in their entering fall classes.

In response to this inevitable reality, colleges typically offer admissions to a larger pool of students than they expect will accept and subsequently attend. They also place a subset of students they consider highly-qualified on a waitlist that may be tapped after May 1, once they begin to get a clearer picture of which students have accepted their offer of admission.

The number of students placed on a waitlist varies from school to school, and the number of students who may “come off the waitlist” and be offered admissions varies from year-to-year at any given school.

The good news: the number that make it to a waitlist is a small fraction of the original applicants, so if you are on a waitlist, you are a member of a select group. The not-so-good news: a small fraction of students on a waitlist will be admitted. While most waitlist movement happens in May, there are cases of the occasional late-August acceptance.

So, if you find yourself on a waitlist, what should you do?

First, make sure to submit an acceptance to enroll and submit a deposit before May 1 at a school which offered you an acceptance.

Second, carefully consider whether, if admitted, you would still want to attend the university that placed you on the waitlist. If the answer is an enthusiastic yes, then log in to your applicant portal and confirm your interest in remaining on the waitlist. If the answer is no, remove yourself from the waitlist, so another on the waitlist has an opportunity for acceptance at the school.

If you do accept a position on a waitlist, consider reaching out to the admissions representative from the university for your school. In this case, a personal phone conversation is superior to an email or text exchange.

First, thank the admissions rep for advocating for your placement on the waitlist and further considering you for admissions. Ask if there is anything specific that you can clarify about your application or provide more detail on. If time allows, briefly describe your specific interest in the university and why it is absolutely your “first choice” school.

If you feel comfortable doing so, politely probe on whether there is anything you can do to improve your application and whether much waitlist movement is anticipated. In a small number of cases, a student on a waitlist may be offered admission for the following year. If this topic comes up and you would accept such an offer, say so.

Many university admissions offices provide an opportunity for you to provide an “update letter.” If this is the case, carefully read and follow the instructions provided by the university.

Begin the letter by thanking the admissions office for additional consideration via placement on the waitlist. State with conviction that if admitted, you would attend. Based on any feedback you received in the live conversation with the admissions officer, describe any actions you’ve taken to improve your perceived shortcomings as an applicant. Provide an update on your academics since you submitted your application, and highlight any new or noteworthy developments in your extracurriculars.

Next, emphasize your fit with the school. Describe why you’ve always wanted to attend, which specific classes you see yourself attending, and how you will fit with and proactively contribute to the class. Try to avoid repeating information that is already in your original application. Strive to keep it brief.

In some cases, an admissions office will accept additional recommendations, but make sure to follow the university’s instructions on this point. More is not always better. Likewise, do not persist in calling the admissions office frequently to find out the status of your position on the waitlist. In nearly every situation, this will not help your case.

Last and maybe most importantly, put it in perspective. While the probability of admission off of a wait list may be relatively low, you’ve done all you can to maximize your chances. In addition, you’ve already accepted a position as a member of next year’s incoming class at another great school. Welcome to the class of 2025!