Sometime during the spring semester of their senior year, students receive the long awaited admission decision from the universities they applied to.

While an acceptance letter is ideal and a rejection letter can be disappointing, there is an in-between letter that you could receive from a university: the waitlist offer. You know you’ve been waitlisted if your admissions decisions says something along the lines of:

Your application presented compelling academic and personal attributes and achievements, and we would like to continue to evaluate your credentials should space become available at one of our campuses.” – New York University admissions decision letter from Fall 2015

Unfortunately, most waitlist notification letters don’t offer much explanation as to why an application was not accepted, or what he or she could have done better. If you find yourself on the waitlist at a university and wondering why you were put there, we at CollegeVine are here to add some clarity.

Here’s a general breakdown of why some students are put on a college waitlist.


What is the waitlist process?

Before getting into the reasoning behind the waitlist decision, it is imperative to first understand what it means to be put on the waitlist and what decisions a waitlisted applicant needs to make.

Waitlisted students are qualified to attend the university in question; however, they are not being given a definite offer of admission. The only way to get off of the waitlist and into the university is if a spot opens up in the matriculating class after the school hears back from the accepted students.

Most universities will not take students off the waitlist until they have heard back from all of their accepted applicants, after the May 1st decision deadline. Therefore, it is important that you send in a deposit and plan to enroll in a university you were accepted to, despite being on a waitlist at another university.

Unfortunately, the chances of admission from the waitlist are pretty low. Many top-tier universities have been known to accept few, if any, of their waitlisted applicants each year. However, there is no fee or penalty for choosing to stay on a university’s waitlist. Therefore, it could be worth a shot to stay on the waitlist, especially if you were waitlisted at your dream school.

Note that if you want to stay on a university’s waitlist, there are sometimes steps you have to take to secure your spot. You may need to email the university admissions office or click a button on the application portal in order to acknowledge that you wish to stay on the waitlist. Otherwise, you run the risk of being removed from the waitlist and never having your application reconsidered for admission.


General Reasons for Waitlisting an Applicant

Every applicant is different, and each Admissions Committee is looking for different things. Thus, if you are put on the waitlist, it is important to note that it isn’t because you are not a worthy applicant. In fact, it means just the opposite. The university thought your application demonstrated an ability to succeed at their institution. However, there may have been something in the application that deterred the Admissions Committee from accepting you.

Perhaps there was a particular flaw in your application that caused some concern. Maybe you didn’t have as many extracurriculars as the accepted applicants, or perhaps you were lacking in community service hours or standardized test scores. It could also be that your essays did not answer the prompt fully in a concise and eloquent manner. Often, admissions decisions are made on the basis of institutional need—for example, a university whose swimming team includes many graduating seniors will give swimmers are given a slight edge in admissions, possibly at the expense of students who don’t meet any particular institutional need.

While each university will tell you that they consider your application holistically and to not worry about those areas of your application where you may be lacking, sometimes an admissions decision will come down to those small parts of your application where you were lacking. This is particularly true of the top-tier, more competitive universities.

Another reason why you may have been waitlisted is simply because your application didn’t stand out as special. This doesn’t mean that you are an ordinary human being with nothing that makes you unique. It simply means that your application was not fully effective in highlighting makes you appealing as an applicant.

Thirdly, it may simply be that you were waitlisted because the Admissions Committee didn’t think you would be a right fit for the school. Each university has a different feel and atmosphere. The students they accept tend to echo that vibe. Regardless of reason, the differences that set waitlisted students apart from accepted students are typically small and somewhat arbitrary in nature. If you were waitlisted at your top college, it’s important to keep in mind that after you reach a certain level of qualification, admissions decisions depend just as much on luck as they do on skill or accomplishments.


Taking a Critical Look at Your Own Application.

In order to further determine why you were waitlisted, it may be worth taking another look at your essays, resume, and overall application. Try to read your application from a stranger’s perspective and see what impression you may have given the Admissions Committee. If that doesn’t work, have a peer or teacher read it and tell you what they gathered about you from your application. Perhaps your application did not highlight the right things.

Be sure to also focus on any obvious areas of weakness in your application. Maybe you were lacking in the number of meaningful extracurriculars you participated in, or perhaps your test scores weren’t up to par with the university’s accepted applicants.

A great way to tell where your weaknesses are or whether you were the applicant the university was looking for is to compare your application to those of other applicants who were accepted to that school. You may notice some clear patterns in their applications that yours does not follow.

At the very least, try to ponder whether you are really a good fit for that university. Think about what that university is known for and what their alumni have done. Could you realistically fit in that mold? For instance, you may not be comfortable at UC Berkeley if you are more reserved and dislike protests and political demonstrations. If you were waitlisted at a university, it may be that the Admissions Committee could tell that you would not fit in with their current student body and University setting.

Once you’ve determined the possible weaknesses in your application, you can try to remedy them in a waitlist letter or some other form of contact with the university (see our waitlist services page for more details).

Be sure to mention some accomplishments that could boost your application in the direction of what that university is looking for along with some achievements you have made since you sent the application.

After all, there’s no point in reflecting on your shortcomings as an applicant if you don’t do anything with that information.


What To Do Next

If you decide to stay on the waitlist, make sure your follow the school’s procedures so that you don’t lose your spot. Once you’ve secured your spot, however, you don’t have to sit idly by and wait for an accepted applicant to turn down their offer. There are steps you can take to try and tip the balance in your favor.

For starters, you can contact the admissions office to find out your chances of admission. Some colleges, though not all, will be willing to let you know how they decide which applicants get taken off the waitlist.

You can also try to send a letter to the admissions office stating your intention to enroll if offered admission. However, don’t say that unless you know that you will do so. You should also mention any supplemental information that may help your case in the letter. This is where you can try to remedy some of the weaknesses in your initial application.


If you’ve been waitlisted or simply want to know more about the waitlist process, CollegeVine is always here to help! We at CV offer a Waitlist Assistance Session that will help you maximize your chances of being accepted off the waitlist. For more information, click here.

Also feel free to check out these other blog posts that will help you understand a university’s waitlist and how you can get off it:


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

How to Get Off the Waitlist

How to Deal with College Admissions and Make a Choice

Sadhvi Mathur

Sadhvi Mathur

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Sadhvi is a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, double majoring in Business Administration and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!
Sadhvi Mathur