What to Do If You’re Waitlisted at College

What to Do If You’re Waitlisted at College
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on May 12, 2021

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The big day has finally arrived. Your dream school verdict awaits, your educational fate moments away. Nervously, you enter the admissions portal, log in, and steady yourself as you see "Click Here to View Your Admission Decision."

Yes? No? How about … maybe.

You've been waitlisted. Now what?

Longer College Waitlists Predicted for This Year

The admissions cycle for the fall 2021 entering class is by most measures an anomaly. Because of COVID-19 concerns, many institutions — including the Ivy League and other selective schools — waived SAT and ACT requirements, which resulted in record numbers of applications at several universities.

At the same time, students are applying to more schools than usual. While this gives them more options, it means yield rates — the percentage of admitted students who will actually enroll — are likely to fluctuate unpredictably. To hedge their bets, colleges appear to be putting together longer waitlists.

“Colleges with higher acceptance rates will need to use their waitlists more aggressively this year.” Source: Sara Harberson, Private College Counselor and Former Admissions Officer

"I predict that this year, top institutions will have higher yield rates and will not need to use their waitlists very much," said Sara Harberson, a private college counselor and former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin & Marshall College. She recently authored "Soundbite: The Admissions Secret That Gets You Into College and Beyond."

"If a student gets into their reach school, they're going, so the percentage accepted from the waitlist will probably be at an all-time low," Harberson said. "But colleges with higher acceptance rates will need to use their waitlists more aggressively this year."

A recent report by consulting firm Art & Science Group revealed that 20% of students surveyed were on at least one college waitlist. What's more, 2 in 5 students were willing to attend the college that waitlisted them if offered admission, creating a maddening version of musical chairs for admissions officers.

What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted?

Colleges accept more students than they need to fill an entering class. That's because not everyone who is accepted will choose to attend. Even highly selective schools hear "no" quite often.

Williams College in Massachusetts, routinely ranked No. 1 among national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report, averages a yield of about 46%, meaning more people turn down the school's offer than accept it.

At the high end of the yield scale, some 82% of students accept offers at Harvard and Stanford.

At the high end of the yield scale, some 82% of students accept offers at Harvard and Stanford, suggesting almost 1 in 5 admitted students declines.

Waitlists provide colleges a pool of qualified students who can fill spots as they become open. For selective schools, it's a way of ensuring diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic standing, geographic distribution, major choice, and extracurriculars. For less selective schools, it's a tool for hitting enrollment targets.

Additional factors are at play. Building a waitlist lets a college lower its acceptance rate and raise its yield, affecting rankings and public perception of selectivity and quality. Instead of accepting enough students outright to ensure a full, diverse class, colleges construct a waitlist, thereby lowering the number of acceptance offers.

Colleges also handpick students from the waitlist who indicate they'll attend if offered a spot, which boosts yield. In fact, colleges even go so far as to call waitlisted students before admitting them, "prequalifying" them to avoid wasting an offer on someone who might not accept.

Building a waitlist lets a college lower its acceptance rate and raise its yield, affecting rankings.

Similarly, a college might waitlist a highly qualified applicant who it thinks considers it a safety option, assuming there's a low likelihood of enrollment.

Finally, colleges waitlist marginal children of alumni and donors for political purposes, figuring an invitation to admissions purgatory is more benevolent than an outright rejection — even though, in most cases, it's tantamount to one.

Bear in mind colleges don't rank waitlisted students, so there's no exact pecking order determining who gets in next. Decisions are based more on fitting a particular profile and satisfying a college's enrollment needs.

Following National Decision Day on May 1, colleges will tap into their waitlists as needed, usually wrapping up the process by June 1. In rare instances, this activity can stretch into July and even August as institutions deal with the "summer melt" of student decision-making.

A Look at College Waitlist Statistics

According to a 2019 National Association for College Admissions Counseling report, 43% of colleges use waitlists. Half of the students offered a spot on a waitlist accepted it, and colleges on average admitted 20% of students off the waitlist. At the most selective institutions, that figure was 7%.

You can find waitlist statistics through colleges' Common Data Set reports; however, not all schools provide these statistics. The best way to find the report, if available, is to search a school's official website for "Common Data Set" and look for the most recent year. You can also Google the school's name along with the phrase "Common Data Set" and look for relevant pages on the institution's website. Waitlist data can be found in Section C.

As an example, if you look at page 9 of Tulane University's report, you'll see that for fall 2020, the institution offered 12,813 students a spot on its waitlist. Of the 4,486 students who accepted that offer, zero were admitted.

That's an extreme case. Here's a sampling of other competitive schools' numbers from fall 2020 or a prior year (noted below):

  Applicants Offered a Waitlist Spot Applicants Who Accepted a Spot Applicants Admitted Off Waitlist
Amherst College 1,640 1,081 7
Caltech 312 235 10
Cornell University (2019) 4,948 3,362 147
Dartmouth College 2,661 1,945 95
MIT (2018) 460 383 0
Northwestern University (2019) 3,067 1,482 55
Princeton University (2019) 902 668 1
Stanford University 850 707 259
Penn (2019) 2,932 2,051 101
UC Berkeley 8,753 5,043 1,651
UCLA 14,470 9,254 1,779

6 Tips for What to Do If You've Been Waitlisted

If you're waitlisted at one or more colleges, here are some suggestions for what you can do:

Ensure you'll be in college somewhere in the fall by choosing a school that chose you and by sending in a deposit by May 1. Harberson suggests trying to get excited about attending. "Start investing yourself in that college," she said. "Start wearing the sweatshirt."

Doing this leaves your options open but might create a false hope of getting in. Keep in mind that if you applied early to a college and were deferred to the regular round and then waitlisted, your chances of admission are remote.

"The reality is that colleges have absolutely no intention of admitting the vast majority of students they do that to," Harberson said. "It's one of the most unethical, unprofessional things admissions offices are doing right now."

These may include a statement of continued interest or more letters of recommendation. "Students should follow the college's instructions to a tee," said Harberson. "Admissions officers are easily annoyed by students who aggressively reach out to them or send information they didn't ask for."

If you're allowed to submit one, this letter should be carefully crafted for that college and not a generic statement of interest.

"Students need to make a really strong, personal connection between them and the institution," explained Harberson. "A student would get on my radar at Penn because of how thoughtful the letter was. It got my attention and made me fight for them in that last round."

By the time colleges begin admitting students from the waitlist, financial aid resources might be depleted, and students seeking aid may face a disadvantage. Institutions that are need-blind during the regular admission round often become "need-aware" during the waitlist. You might encounter a lack of housing options for similar reasons.

If you do receive and accept an offer from your top choice after being waitlisted but have already committed elsewhere, quickly notify the school you will no longer be attending of your decision. Remember that most enrollment deposits are nonrefundable, so don't expect to get any money back.

The admissions process can be a frustrating and bewildering experience, and being waitlisted simply adds to the angst. To maintain a healthy perspective, set your sights elsewhere and let yourself be pleasantly surprised if your dream school finally comes calling.

Feature Image: PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images

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