Your Guide to College Waitlists and Deferrals

How does a college waitlist work?

This guide explores options for students who receive waitlist or deferral letters. Read on to receive advice from a college admissions officer and learn what a college waitlist means, how to handle a waitlist letter, and how to write a letter of continued interest.

What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted?

Getting on a college waitlist means that an applicant has all the necessary qualifications, but that the admissions office could not offer them acceptance at the time. Getting on a waitlist does not mean you should give up hope. Waitlisted students still have a chance at earning admission into the school.

Why Have I Been Waitlisted?

College waitlist statistics from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) show that 43% of postsecondary institutions used a waitlist in the 2018-2019 school year. About 48% of private colleges use a waitlist, compared to only 34% of public schools. About 82% of the most selective universities kept a waitlist.

Colleges can waitlist students for many reasons, including the following:

  • The institution does not have enough space. Putting applicants on a waitlist allows colleges to see how many accepted students decide to attend before admitting additional students.
  • Borderline applicants may go on a waitlist because their standardized test scores, grades, activities, or other qualifications might just miss the institution's standards.

Do Waitlisted Students Get Accepted?

For the 2018-2019 school year, NACAC reported that 10% of applicants who applied to institutions with a waitlist received a spot on a waitlist. Overall, waitlisted students had an approximately 20% chance of earning admission. However, only about 7% of waitlisted students at highly selective schools earned admission.

Some colleges rank waitlisted applicants. Students should call the institution's admissions office to determine if they use rankings as well as their place on the waitlist. Universities send out acceptance or rejection letters to waitlisted students after May 1.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Waitlisted?

Receiving a college waitlist letter leads to several important decisions. Colleges want to see how their waitlist applicants rise to a challenge, so it is important that applicants take action.

Below, readers will find a list of things to do if they get waitlisted.

  • Make a decision

    Students can choose to accept or decline a waitlist spot. If a student declines, the college will no longer consider them for admission, even if more space opens up later.

  • Choose a backup school

    Waitlist decisions do not come out until after May 1. Waitlisted students need to choose a backup college in case they do not earn admission to their first choice. Applicants should select a school they like, accept their offer, and put down a deposit. If they ultimately get off the waitlist at their first choice, they can always notify their backup school about their change in plans.

  • Write a letter of continued interest

    After accepting a waitlist offer, students should write a letter to the admissions office to indicate their commitment to the school. If applicable, applicants should mention things like better ACT or SAT scores and recent awards.


    How to write a letter of continued interest
  • Improve the odds

    For borderline candidates, getting placed on the waitlist provides an opportunity to improve qualifications. Students can retake standardized tests, earn additional accolades in extracurriculars, and/or bolster their grade point average.

  • Keep up grades

    Any student who gets waitlisted must maintain their grades. Colleges want to see how waitlisted candidates respond under pressure. Maintaining or improving grades can make students more attractive applicants.

  • Stay patient

    Waitlisted students must stay patient and avoid stressing too much. Applicants should keep in mind that while they can improve their position on the waitlist, the ultimate decision rests with the admissions office. Some years, a lot of applicants will make it off the waitlist. Other years, very few will. Students should prepare themselves for either outcome and remain proud of their accomplishments.

What Does It Mean to Be Deferred?

A deferral letter is not the same as a waitlist letter. Colleges defer an application when they do not want to make a decision right away. If students receive a deferral letter, it means the university will review their application again at a later date and make the decision to accept, decline, or waitlist then.

Deferment mostly happens during early admission, bumping some candidates into the regular applicant pool so that colleges can make comparisons with more applicants.

Why Have I Been Deferred?

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

“Do not panic! In some instances, [colleges] may need additional information from you.”

Carrie Thompson, Director of Admissions, Clarion University

Early decision admission offers some benefits. Students enter a smaller applicant pool and acceptance decisions come back earlier. However, colleges usually take the strongest candidates from the early decision pool 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 receive deferral letters.

Not all colleges that offer early decision use deferral letters. Some only provide acceptance or rejection letters. Applicants should research admissions policies at their chosen universities to determine their best application strategy.

Do Deferred Students Get Accepted?

The number of deferred students who are ultimately 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. Most universities do not release rankings of deferred students because they want to examine the regular decision applicant pool before making decisions.

Deferred applications get pushed to regular admission. Most universities send out acceptance letters in March or April. Colleges do not provide a fixed date for these decisions. However, all decisions for regular admission must reach students before May 1.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Deferred?

Receiving a deferral letter gives applicants time to reevaluate their priorities and improve their college application for regular admission. Even though receiving a deferral can feel painful, students should stay focused on their goals. Most importantly, students should remember to have patience and not lose hope.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to the college to see how your application is progressing through the admission cycle.”

Carrie Thompson, Director of Admissions, Clarion University

Below is a list of things to do after receiving a deferral letter.

  • Make a decision

    Some students reevaluate their top college choices after receiving a deferral. They may decide to pursue other colleges in the regular admission cycle, for reasons such as their likelihood of acceptance or scholarship opportunities. Applicants should use a deferral to assess their college application list and figure out which school deserves top priority.

  • Determine next steps

    After a deferral, some colleges may ask for additional information from applicants, such as updated high school transcripts. Students should contact the university's admissions office to determine deadline information and find out exactly what documentation they need to send.

  • Continue working on regular decision applications

    A deferral does not guarantee admission during the regular admission cycle, even for strong candidates. Applicants should still submit applications to the other colleges on their lists.

  • Improve the odds

    Students should always look for ways to improve the strength of their application, such as by earning better standardized test scores, engaging in extracurricular activities, or receiving awards and honors. Candidates should keep the admissions office informed of any new developments to their application.

  • Keep up grades

    A deferral letter means the college's admissions office will examine a candidate's application at a later date. Universities generally compare a student's most recent grades to the transcripts submitted during early action. Grades should hold steady or show improvement. Students who let their grades slip only hurt their chances.

  • Write a letter of continued interest

    Applicants should consider writing a letter of continued interest. Colleges want to admit students they know will accept. Deferred candidates who indicate an intent to accept may increase their chances of acceptance.


    How to write a letter of continued interest

How to Write a Letter of Continued Interest

A letter of continued interest shows colleges that waitlisted or deferred applicants still harbor genuine interest in attending. These letters also provide an opportunity to update admissions offices on new developments or improvements to an application. Applicants should use these letters to help set themselves apart from other candidates.

“A letter of continued interest, even an email or a phone call, shows an admissions counselor that you are serious about our institution.”

Carrie Thompson, Director of Admissions, Clarion University

Letters of continued interest should not exceed one page. Letters should be 3-4 paragraphs and include an introduction, updates on accomplishments, a personal element, and a short conclusion. Applicants can use the introduction and conclusion to thank the college for their continued consideration and express their interest in attending the school.

Students should use the middle paragraphs to stand out from other candidates. Applicants should choose a few new accomplishments to highlight their continued growth and strength as a candidate. Students should humanize themselves and try to distinguish themselves from other applicants.

What Not to Include

Though going on a college waitlist might feel painful, students should refrain from talking about negative emotions in their letters. Applicants should try to keep things positive.

Candidates should also avoid rehashing information on their application. Only include new information in the letter, such as better grades, recent accolades, and higher standardized test scores.

Letter of Continued Interest Example

There are many online resources that can help you learn more about writing a letter of continued interest. Additionally, below is an example of a letter of continued interest for waitlisted or deferred students. This example shows the general flow and tone applicants should use.

 

Dear Director of Admissions,

Thank you for taking the time to review my application. I know the university receives thousands of submissions and I am grateful for the continued opportunity to earn a place at your school. If accepted off the waitlist/accepted after deferred admission, I would absolutely attend the university. I would like to take this chance to update the admissions office on some of my recent accomplishments since applying.

I recently retook the SAT and earned a higher score in math. My reading score remains steady at 700, while my math score has increased to 680. These scores better reflect my abilities in these subject areas and match more closely with the good grades I have consistently achieved throughout high school.

My passion for education and the university's excellent reputation for its education programs is what drew me to this school. I know that attending the university would help me achieve my goals of becoming an educator. In the meantime, I'm getting some experience as a peer tutor in science. I've really loved the experience and hope to do more tutoring in the future!

Thank you again for your time and consideration. Attending the university has always been my dream, and I hope that I will be among your incoming class next fall!

Sincerely,
Jane Doe

What If I Don't Get Accepted Into College?

Every admission cycle looks different. Some years, a lot of applicants are accepted off the waitlist. Other years, none are. Even candidates who do everything right may not get accepted due to factors beyond their control.

Students should not neglect other applications; instead, they should find several other universities that they would like to attend and devote equal time and attention applying to backup schools.

Students determined to get into their chosen school can pursue the following options:

  • Attempt to appeal the decision with the admissions office.
  • Take a gap year and reapply the following year.
  • Attend another four-year university or community college for a year to earn credits and attempt to transfer in the following year.

Though rejection can feel devastating, applicants should try to keep a positive outlook. Students who do not attend their first choice often end up loving their college experience at a different school.

Advice From a College Admissions Officer

Carrie Thompson

Carrie Thompson


During her 16 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.

Carrie graduated from Clarion University with a bachelor of science in communication in 2002 and a master of science in communication with a public relations certificate in 2012.

What happens if a student's college application is deferred or waitlisted?

Students who get waitlisted or deferred from a college have options, so I always tell students not to get discouraged if they receive one of these letters. Deferred applications will occur at colleges that have an early admission deadline. If you are applying to a college or university that uses rolling admissions, the waitlist often comes into play.

Getting waitlisted or deferred doesn't mean that we are saying no to you. Do not panic! In some instances, we may need additional information from you, like test scores, grades, an essay, or an interview. If that is the case, take time to consider what you want to put in your essay and prepare for your campus interview. This is your time to shine and show the admissions office why we should move you off the waitlist.

How does a letter of continued interest improve a student's chances of getting accepted to a school after being waitlisted or deferred?

A letter of continued interest, even an email or a phone call, shows an admissions counselor that you are serious about our institution. It keeps you top of mind and allows you to build a relationship with the college. If you are on the waitlist at your dream college, the more that you can advocate for yourself, the better.

Make sure you let them know who you are past the numbers. The letter of continued interest gives you the opportunity to explain why you would be a great fit for their campus. Your letter may just be the tipping point in moving you from a waitlist to an accepted student.

What advice would you give a student when writing a letter of continued interest?

Explain why you would be a great fit for our campus. This is your opportunity to tell your story, so let me know if you fell in love with the campus the five times that you visited.

Perhaps you were waitlisted due to your academics. You have researched the tutoring and support services on our campus and already know that to succeed will take additional steps (and you are ready to tell me what those are). I want to know that you are ready to take that next serious step to make your higher education a reality.

What mistakes do you see students make when their applications have been put on the waitlist or deferred?

When a student is waitlisted, there is the tendency to shut down and not take the opportunity to really understand why they were waitlisted. 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.

If a student has been waitlisted, it is due to the fact that I want to make sure that I have every piece of information I can obtain in order to make sure I can make an informed decision on whether or not they will be a successful student at our university. I don't want to bring someone on campus if I feel that this is not a good fit for them.

Don't let the waitlist allow the lines of communication to break down. We still have important information to share with you regarding your next steps and information we need from you. We don't want you to miss out on your opportunity to be part of our campus community. Watch for emails and keep an eye out for postcards with updated information, as well as text messages or phone calls.

What other recommendations would you offer a student whose application has been deferred or waitlisted?

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

Consistent communication shows that you are on top of the process and that you are dedicated. Make it a point to follow through in a timely manner with any additional requests (setting up a campus interview, new standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, etc.). If time management is not your strength, this is the perfect time to master the skill!