Admission decisions have gone out. Some students are celebrating the good news. Others are managing disappointment and preparing to move forward with a new plan. Some students are left in the middle— they have been offered a place on the waitlist so still hold out hope, but need to balance waitlist possibility with the reality that they are likely going to attend one of the schools that has already made an offer of admission.

Background

If you are not the parent of a graduating senior and haven’t heard the term “waitlist”, let me explain. Students who applied for admission on time should receive a decision from each school by April 1 of their senior year. Most decisions are either acceptances or rejections, but some students may be offered a place on the waitlist.

A waitlist allows the college to better manage the size of its entering class. If fewer students than expected accept offers of admission, the school, seeking to enroll a certain number of students, can offer admission to someone from the wait list.

Steps for Waitlisted Students

If you find yourself on the waitlist for one of your top schools there are things you need to do NOW. Here is my advice for students on the admissions waitlist.

1. Re-evaluate your college preferences.

Is the waitlist school still your number one choice? Have other options moved up (or down) on your list?

If your top school today is one to which you were admitted, celebrate and accept the offer of admission. It is ok to turn down wait list opportunities at highly ranked schools if those schools are no longer at the top of YOUR list. The most common example of this that I see is a student who is waitlisted at one of the highly competitive schools (Ivy League type schools), but has decided to accept the offer from their state’s flagship university instead. Whether you decide based on geography, cost, proximity to family and friends, available majors, or any other factor, your ranking is the only one that matters.

If your top school has waitlisted you, follow the rest of the steps in this article. Remember, quality work is better than a rushed job, but act quickly and adhere to all deadlines.

2. Accept the waitlist offer.

In most cases this is little more than an electronic response, but it is essential that you let the college know you are still interested and would eagerly accept an offer of admission.

3. Accept the offer of admission from your next choice school.

While you can hold out hope based on your waitlist position, you need to make plans in case. This means accepting the offer of admission, paying your deposit, and completing any financial aid or housing requirements. The goal here is to have your next best option securely in place as you wait.

4. Send an update to your waitlist school.

The goal is to express your continued interest and provide NEW information they might consider. You might write a short letter and include a list of your new achievements, grades, etc. You want to include anything new that might help your case.

This update serves a couple purposes:

  • Clarifies your continuing interest— some universities waitlist applicants they view as unlikely prospects (I’ve seen this with out-of-state universities and private colleges where you have little personal or geographic connection.) In these cases, a clear message that if admitted you will attend can help.
  • Provides additional reasons to admit— maybe you had some concerning grades on your mid-year report and can show clear improvement. Maybe you have continued to excel in your academic and extracurricular endeavors. Make sure you convey any new information.

The ultra-hard-to-get-in schools that are in high demand are unlikely to take you off the waitlist based on this type of submission alone. (Harvard already knows you would love to get in!) But all the other waitlist applicants are likely putting in the effort to submit a quick update, so you can too.

5. Research the history of the waitlist at that particular college.

At some schools the waitlist is active and each year students come off it to join the entering class. At other colleges the wait list is more of an honorable mention list— a way to acknowledge students who were strong applicants, but were not admitted. Sadly, at these schools few, if any, students ever move off the waitlist.

You may be a able to find some of this information on the school’s website. Sometimes the data is hard to find.

This is one of the very rare times I’ve had success browsing the school specific comments on College Confidential (look under the specific school for a “waitlist” thread from previous years.) Keep in mind everything on that site is self-reported, so look for trends and keep in mind some posters may be attention seekers.

The idea here is to see if there is a reasonable expectation that students from a particular school are admitted off the waitlist. This will help you manage expectations going forward.

6. Wait.

Start getting happy about the school you’ve selected. Move forward with plans for housing, course selection, orientation, move in, etc. This will likely be your university for the next four years. It has a lot to offer or your wouldn’t have applied there in the first place.

As you move forward with your new plans, be prepared to wait. Understand that wait list offers sometimes come as late as August. If at any point you change your mind and don’t want to remain on the waitlist, let them know.

Conclusion

COVID and changing rules regarding recruiting students past May 1 have made it very difficult to predict what will happen with waitlists this year. A lot depends on the decisions of the students who were admitted. Are they accepting the offer of admission or choosing to take gap years or go elsewhere? Colleges have reliable data from previous admissions cycles, but don’t know how the pandemic will affect yield rates this year.

The high ranking colleges continue to be in high demand, so don’t expect it will be easier to get into schools like Yale, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, etc. Many other schools have seen changes over this past year that may impact their admissions numbers and possibly the waitlists. We will just have to wait and see.