The Student’s Guide to College Waitlists and Deferrals

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  • If your college application is waitlisted, it's basically the same as receiving a "maybe" from that school.
  • If your application is deferred, you will not receive an early admission decision.
  • If waitlisted, agree to enroll in a backup school, but consider writing a letter of continued interest.
  • Deferred applicants can use their time to improve their admission chances and keep up their grades.

Not every college admission story ends in an acceptance or rejection letter. Some students face gray areas like waitlists and deferrals.

These responses typically mean a college is still considering your application but, for some reason, decided to put it on hold. For example, the institution could be waiting to see how many spots it'll have in its incoming first-year class.

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It could also mean the school wants to assess your application in a larger pool of applicants. Or it may mean the college wants to see more from you through additional assessments like test scores and an interview.

You can take a few actions when waitlisted or deferred, including lining up some backup options and writing a letter of continued interest. In this guide, we'll walk you through what a waitlist and deferral are and how to respond.

What Is a College Waitlist?

Getting on a college waitlist means that an applicant has all the necessary qualifications and has been fully reviewed by an admissions counselor. However, the school could not offer them a letter of acceptance at that time.

Getting on a waitlist is not a rejection — waitlisted students still have a shot at earning admission to the school.

College waitlist statistics from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) show that 43% of postsecondary institutions used a waitlist during the 2018-19 school year. Interestingly, a whopping 82% of the most selective universities in the U.S. kept a waitlist.

"Getting waitlisted or deferred doesn't mean that we are saying no to you," says Carrie Thompson, director of undergraduate admissions at Clarion University. "In some instances, we may need additional information from you, like test scores, grades, an essay, or an interview."

According to Thompson, if you're asked to submit an essay or undergo an interview, be prepared to show admissions officers what makes you special and why you should be moved off the waitlist.

There are many reasons a college may waitlist students. Here are two of the most common:

  • Space: Colleges have a limited number of spots for their incoming first-year classes. As such, they want to avoid accepting too many people all at once. Putting applicants on a waitlist allows schools to see how many accepted students have committed to attending before admitting additional students.
  • Borderline Applicants: Some students straddle the border between acceptance and rejection due to a mix of impressive and less impressive parts in their applications. For example, an applicant may have submitted a well-written, compelling essay, but their test scores and grades weren't quite up to par.

What Does "Deferred" Mean in College Applications?

A college deferral is not the same as a college waitlist letter. Colleges defer an application when they don't want to make a decision right away.

If you receive a deferral letter, it means the school will review your application again at a later date and decide to accept, decline, or waitlist you at that time.

Students who apply by the regular admission deadline cannot receive deferral letters. Deferred college admission only occurs at institutions that offer early decision or early action. Early admission allows students to submit their applications in the late fall, usually around November, rather than in January (for regular or rolling admission).

When deferment happens during early admission, candidates get bumped into the regular decision applicant pool. This allows the school to draw comparisons with more applicants.

Colleges usually take the strongest candidates from the early admission pools and hedge their bets about average or borderline candidates until they can see what the rest of the applicant pool looks like. Students who fall into this second category often receive a deferral letter.

Not all colleges that offer early decision or early action use deferral letters. Some only send out acceptance or rejection letters. Be sure to research admissions policies at your chosen universities to determine the best application strategy.

Do Waitlisted Students Get Accepted? What About Deferred Students?

Both waitlisted and deferred students can get accepted.

In 2018-19, NACAC reported that 10% of applicants who applied to institutions with a waitlist received a spot on the waitlist. Overall, waitlisted students had around a 20% chance of earning admission. That said, only about 7% of waitlisted students at highly selective schools got in.

Some colleges rank waitlisted applicants. Most universities send out acceptance or rejection letters to waitlisted students after May 1, or National College Decision Day.

The number of deferred students who are accepted changes every year depending on the total number of applicants and the quality of the applicant pool.

Some colleges post statistics on their websites about deferred admission rates. Deferred applications get pushed into the regular admission pool.

Most universities send out admission decisions in March or April but do not provide a fixed date for these letters. However, all decisions for regular admission must reach students before May 1.

What to Do If You Get Waitlisted or Deferred From a College

Receiving a college waitlist letter or deferral letter requires you to make important decisions about your next steps. Colleges want to see how their waitlisted and deferred applicants rise to a challenge, so it's important you take action.

Here are some tips on the next steps to take if you get waitlisted or deferred from a college and how to get off a waitlist.

1. Determine Next Steps

If you've been waitlisted, you choose to accept or decline the waitlist spot. If you decline, the college will no longer consider you for admission, even if more space opens up later. Know that this is a permanent decision.

If you've been deferred to the regular applicant pool, take time to reevaluate your top college choices. You may decide to pursue other colleges in the regular admissions cycle if you receive a rejection at your deferred college.

After a deferral, some colleges may ask for additional information, such as updated transcripts.

2. Choose a Backup School

Because waitlist decisions are typically not released until after May 1, students must choose a backup college in case they don't earn admission to their first-choice school.

It's best to choose a backup school you like, accept that school's offer, and put down a deposit. If you do get off the waitlist for your first choice, you can notify the backup school about your change in plans. Just note that you won't be able to get your deposit back.

If you were deferred, you may want to focus on improving your applications for other schools and ensuring you present the best possible version of yourself.

3. Improve Your Application

Waitlisted and deferred college applicants have the opportunity to improve their qualifications. You can retake the SAT or ACT, earn additional accolades in extracurriculars, and/or raise your GPA. Keep the admissions office informed of any new developments to your application.

Colleges want to see how waitlisted and deferred candidates respond under pressure. Maintaining or improving grades can make you a more attractive applicant.

With a college deferral, the admissions office will examine your application again at a later date. Universities generally compare a student's most recent grades to those on the transcripts submitted during early admission.

As such, your grades should hold steady or show improvement. Letting your GPA slip may hurt your chances of acceptance or getting off a waitlist.

4. Write a Letter of Continued Interest

After accepting a waitlist offer or getting deferred, take some time to write a letter to the admissions office to indicate your commitment to attending that school should you eventually get accepted.

Try to mention things you are working toward or have recently accomplished, such as earning a higher SAT score or winning an award at school.

"A letter of continued interest, even an email or a phone call, shows an admissions counselor that you are serious about our institution," says Thompson. "It keeps you top of mind and allows you to build a relationship with the college."

5. Check Your Application Status

Keeping the line of communication open between you and the college you've been waitlisted or deferred at is essential.

"Don't be afraid to reach out to the college to see how your application is progressing through the admissions cycle," says Thompson. "Inquire about the next review and ask if there are any additional steps or documents that you can provide."

According to Thompson, schools take note of students who regularly reach out and stay on top of their applications. Doing this, she says, emphasizes commitment and dedication — both valuable traits in an applicant.

6. Stay Patient

Remember that the ultimate decision on whether to admit you rests with the school.

Some years, a lot of applicants may make it off the waitlist. Other years, very few or even none will. Students should prepare themselves for either outcome and remain proud of their accomplishments, no matter what happens.

"When a student is waitlisted, there is the tendency to shut down and not take the opportunity to really understand why they were waitlisted," says Thompson. "Often, students will stop responding to phone calls, emails, and/or text messages, and they can miss out on important information that we are trying to convey to them."

Frequently Asked Questions About College Waitlists and Deferrals

How long does it take to get off the waitlist at a college?

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There's no set timeline for hearing back when you're waitlisted. It could be weeks or months before you receive an official acceptance or rejection. Colleges may accept you from the waitlist as space opens up or wait until after National Decision Day on May 1.

It's even possible to not hear back from a college regarding your waitlist status until just a few weeks before the fall term starts.

What are the typical college waitlist chances?

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NACAC's 2019 State of College Admission Report found that 20% of first-year applicants were admitted off the waitlist. Some colleges even share their waitlist statistics on their websites.

For example, Amherst College waitlisted 788 students in fall 2021 and admitted none of them, whereas UCLA kept 9,897 students on its waitlist in 2021-22 and admitted 214 of them.

Can you get waitlisted for early decision?

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No. If you apply early decision or early action, your application will either be rejected outright or deferred. A deferral means the admissions office will reconsider your application with the general pool of applicants (i.e., those who applied by the regular decision deadline).

If you've been deferred during early decision, your application could still be waitlisted during the regular admissions cycle.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Carrie Thompson

Carrie Thompson

During her 15-plus years in admissions, Carrie Thompson has seen the ebb and flow of higher education, starting as an assistant director and moving up to director. Her responsibilities include the planning, implementation, and evaluation of travel and recruitment; campus recruitment events; admissions communication flow; and oversight of the CRM system.

Thompson graduated from Clarion University with a BS in communication in 2002 and an MS in communication with a public relations certificate in 2012.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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