I Was Waitlisted — What Do I Do Now?

Hearing back about your college admissions decisions may 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 be sending 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?


As you probably know, 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, being put on 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 chosen school. In this post, we’ll go over the waitlist process, your waitlist action plan, and how to make the best of this situation.


The Waitlist Process

If you are placed on a college’s waitlist, 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.


Why might there be space in the matriculating class for waitlist candidates? Often, it’s because fewer accepted applicants chose to actually attend the college than the admissions office anticipated; in other words, their yield was lower than they expected. It might also be because some accepted students chose to defer admission for a year and take a gap year.


Having a waitlist allows the school to fill any remaining spaces with qualified candidates, thus both ensuring they’ll have a complete class and making a handful of lucky students very happy. 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 use it to good advantage.


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 applicants. Since most colleges have response deadlines of around May 1st, this means that you won’t hear back about your waitlist application until at least May.


Different schools have different procedures for considering waitlisted applicants. For some schools, the process can 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.


It’s hard to say what your chances will be of getting off the waitlist. A great deal of that depends on your profile as an applicant. 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 some competitive schools, no waitlisted applicants can be admitted at all.


You can choose not to stay on the waitlist if you wish, meaning that you’re giving up your chance to be considered for later admission. If you’re excited about another school that has offered you admission, it may be preferable to you to take that offer and begin making solid future plans rather than waiting around. There’s nothing wrong with taking that path.


Still, most of the time, someone is accepted off of the waitlist. If you’re still strongly interested in attending that college, and you’re willing to accept not knowing your status for a while longer, 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.


If you do choose to remain on the waitlist, 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.


Get your waitlist letter reviewed

Your Action Plan for Getting off the Waitlist

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 that you do something specific to indicate that you’re accepting a spot on the waitlist, such as filling out an online form or sending an email to a particular address.


As we discussed above, 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 — ask your admissions office for advice.


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. 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 — for example, a change of more than 150 points in your SAT 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.


Depending on the nature of these updates, some of them may require you to submit additional information. For example, if you have a higher SAT score to report, you must also remember to order an official score report to be sent to the college by the College Board.


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; you can make updates, but 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.


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. If the college tells you that you can’t arrange for an additional interview or admissions meeting, don’t show up unannounced and demand to see the Dean of Admissions. (Yes, things like this do occasionally happen.)


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.


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, you can be hopeful while still moving 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 or your mental plans for your college career.


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, for your own safety and sanity, you need to continue moving forward with your plans 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.


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.


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 whether you can afford to do this, discuss the situation with your family and your guidance counselor for more advice.


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 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 your plans 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:



Are you looking for some help in perfecting your update letter? CollegeVine is here to help. Our experienced consultants can assist you in crafting a compelling waitlist letter that truly shows off your achievements and potential. Learn more about our Waitlist Letter Review Service.

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.