I Was Waitlisted — What Do I Do Now?

Hearing back about your college admissions decisions will likely be one of the most stressful things you’ve yet experienced. You’ll probably feel some combination of excitement and dread while waiting to find out whether your first-choice college will extend a “Congratulations!” or a “We regret to inform you…” But what if, when you open that envelope or log into that application system, the answer is neither?

 

Each year, a certain number of college applicants are neither accepted nor rejected on that notification date in March or April. Instead, they’re waitlisted — placed on a list of applicants who may be reconsidered in the coming months, should there be gaps in the freshman class.

 

Obviously, the waitlist is not the acceptance for which you’ve been hoping, and getting waitlisted can be quite disappointing. However, you may still have a chance at being admitted to your choice school. In this post, we’ll go over the waitlist process, develop your action plan, and discuss how to make the best of this situation.

The Waitlist Process

If you are placed on a college’s waitlist, unfortunately you have not been accepted to that college. However, the college is telling you that if there ends up being space in the incoming freshman class, they may consider admitting you to fill that space.

 

Keeping a waitlist allows the school to fill any remaining spaces with qualified candidates, thus ensuring that they’ll have a full freshman class and making a handful of lucky students very happy in the process. In many ways, this is a win-win situation for colleges and college applicants, but in order for you to have the best possible chance at eventually being admitted, it’s important that you understand the waitlist process and that you use it to your advantage.

 

Why might there be space in the matriculating class for waitlist candidates? 

Each year, colleges aim to admit a certain number of students to compose their incoming class. It is relatively common that fewer accepted students choose to matriculate at the college than the admissions office anticipated, and this might occur for a number of reasons. For one, many students apply to a variety of schools and must choose among them based on factors such as financial aid awards or direct admission to special programs. In other cases, accepted students may have simply chosen to defer admission in order to take a gap year. In either case, colleges will often look to round out their incoming class before the academic year begins in the fall.

 

Because space for waitlisted candidates depends upon how many accepted applicants choose to attend, waitlist decisions can’t be made until the college hears back from this original batch of successful applicants. Since most colleges set their decision deadline on or around May 1st, waitlisted students won’t hear back about final decisions until at least May.

 

Different schools have different procedures for considering waitlisted applicants so timelines will vary. For some schools, the process can even stretch out over the summer. Fortunately, most schools will inform you once the waitlist acceptance process is over even if you weren’t accepted, so you won’t have to live with uncertainty for longer than necessary.

 

What are my chances of getting off the waitlist?

It’s hard to say what your chances will be of getting off the waitlist, as they largely depend on your profile as an applicant and the specific school. Generally, the waitlist admissions process considers all the same factors that were considered when you initially applied, though (as we’ll describe below) you’ll also have the opportunity to update the college about any new accomplishments.

 

Waitlist acceptance rates vary from school to school and even from year to year; it all depends upon how the regular admissions process goes that year. Some colleges have ranked waitlists, in which the college’s admissions office already knows who will be offered admission in what order if spaces open up, but many don’t.

 

With all this unpredictability, the waitlist process offers no guarantees, and it’s important that you keep this fact in mind. The number of spots that open up in the matriculating class is often quite low, and consequently, so are waitlist admissions rates. In some years, at highly competitive schools, no waitlisted applicants can be admitted at all.

 

Should I accept a spot on the waitlist?

The choice of whether or not to stay on the waitlist is completely yours. That said, should you give up your spot, you’ll be giving up your chance to be considered for admission later in the cycle. If you’re excited about an offer from another school, however, you might prefer to take that offer and begin making solid future plans rather than going through the waitlist process. There’s nothing wrong with taking that path.

 

Most of the time, someone is accepted off of the waitlist. So if you’re still strongly interested in attending that college, it may be worthwhile for you to stay on the waitlist and put in some additional work to make sure you’re as strong a candidate as you can be.

 

Choosing to remain on the waitlist should come with the understanding that you’ll have some work ahead of you in order to maximize your waitlist potential. Below, we’ll go over how to figure out the best approach for your particular college, what to do in order to secure your waitlist spot and update your application profile, and why it’s still essential that you have a strong backup plan.

Your Action Plan for Getting off the Waitlist

Confirm your spot. In order for you to get accepted off the waitlist, you first need to make sure that you’re on the waitlist. Many schools require students to indicate that they’re accepting a spot on the waitlist, either through an online form or by sending an email to a particular address.

 

Your waitlist notification will usually tell you exactly how to confirm (or turn down) your waitlist spot. If your school does not give specific instructions, you’ll need to write the admissions office a formal letter notifying them of your decision. If your school uses a specific procedure, use that procedure, and you’ll often be able to submit a more detailed letter as well — simply ask your admissions office for advice on how to do so.

 

Communicate your sustained interest and relevant new information. In your letter, you should explicitly state your intention to stay on the waitlist. You should also reiterate your strong interest in attending that college if you are eventually accepted. Keep your letter relatively succinct, though — the admissions office already has access to your application, so you don’t need to repeat information that they already know.

 

What you can include is information about any new accomplishments you’ve achieved since you submitted your initial application for admission, such as earning additional awards or honors. New accomplishments can also include ways in which you’ve significantly improved your original applicant profile.

 

If you’ve retaken a standardized test and achieved a substantially higher score, informing the college might help your application. The same is true if your grades have improved by more than one letter grade. Smaller improvements in grades or scores probably won’t make much of a difference.

 

Clarify what the college will accept. If you want to send in any other supplemental information at this point, first, call the college and ask if they’ll take that information into consideration. Some colleges won’t even look at supplemental materials, and it’s a waste of time to prepare any. Remember, the college already has your application and while you can make updates, you can’t rewrite the whole thing.

 

Don’t forget to do your research on the college’s website and even call the college’s admissions office if you’re at all uncertain about whether or not to include a particular achievement or piece of information in your letter. It’s also a good idea to have someone read your letter before you send it — this would not be a good time for typos or other silly errors.

 

Follow directions completely. Finally, in making and carrying out your waitlist action plan, you need to follow any specific instructions that you’re given by the college. As we’ve mentioned, some schools have more specific procedures than others regarding what to do when you’re waitlisted. If a school uses a particular online system to collect information, for example, make sure you use that system rather than just submitting a separate letter. 

 

Conversely, don’t do anything the college tells you not to do. If the college tells you that they don’t accept additional letters of recommendation for waitlisted students, don’t send one in. Not following directions can only hurt an admissions officer’s perception of you as a candidate, even if you’re breaking the rules in an attempt to portray yourself in a better light. Being perceived as rude also won’t help. As always, being polite and respectful to admissions representatives is essential — these are the people you’re trying to impress, after all.

 

Don’t stress. While you might be tempted to call the admissions office every day to find out if there’s been any change in your status, it’s best to stifle the impulse to check in too frequently. Once you’ve done your best to update your application, It’s best to move on with your life. In the next section, we’ll offer some advice about making backup plans while waiting to hear about your waitlist application.

Making Backup Plans

Making a backup plan involves confronting the reality that in the end, most waitlisted applicants will not be accepted. This doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on you — competitive colleges have to turn down many qualified applicants, and there’s always an element of chance. Still, it can be hard to give up on your dream school.

 

The good news is that, in many ways, college is what you make of it. Even if another college doesn’t initially seem perfect, it can still be a great fit for you. While you’re waiting for news about your waitlist status you should continue moving forward as if you’re not going to be accepted to your waitlist school, and think about how to make the most of life at another school.

 

Making the big decision

First, you’ll need to make a big decision: Which school’s offer of acceptance will you go with? Evaluating your choices and coming to a final decision is rarely easy, and its complexities deserve their own blog post: How to Deal With College Decisions and Make a Choice.

 

Once you’ve made your decision about where to attend, do whatever that school asks you to do in order to secure your spot in the matriculating class. Don’t worry about this decision impacting your chances of admission off the waitlist — it won’t, and the college that waitlisted you knows that making a backup plan is a wise and mature move.

 

Securing your spot

Many schools ask admitted applicants to submit some type of deposit in order to confirm their enrollment, and sometimes also to confirm on-campus housing. These deposits are often nonrefundable, meaning that if you get accepted off the waitlist at your first-choice college and withdraw from your backup college, you won’t get your money back.

 

Enrollment and housing deposits are not insignificant, especially if your family income is on the lower end. However, despite the potential monetary loss, this is the safest way to proceed if you want to remain on the waitlist. If you’re unsure about whether you can afford to do this, discuss the situation with your family and your guidance counselor for more advice.

 

Get excited!

Don’t just choose a backup school to attend — embrace that choice! Instead of dwelling on what might have been, throw yourself into learning about all the opportunities that await you at the school you do plan to attend. For more advice on how to deal with this situation, check out our blog post Envisioning a New Future: Preparing for Life at Your Second-Choice (Or Third, Or Fourth) School.

 

What if you do get that coveted acceptance letter over the summer? If you make plan well, it’ll be an exciting surprise rather than an agonizing wait. There’s even the chance that you’ll change your mind and decide to stick with your second-choice school. Either way, you can rest easy knowing that you handled the situation with maturity and foresight.

Additional Resources

Do you have more questions about the waitlist and how to manage your waitlist status?

 

Check out the CollegeVine blog for more posts about the waitlist experience:

 

How to Get Off the Waitlist

What Are My Chances of Getting In Off the Waitlist?

Envisioning a New Future: Preparing for Life at Your Second-Choice (or Third, or Fourth) School

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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.