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What to do When You're Waitlisted

by Sara Bittner

Admission decisions are upon us. Your social media feeds are soon to be filled with students gleefully opening their acceptance notifications (if it isn’t already). The last decisions come out by April 1st, giving students one month to make a decision before the deposit deadlines of May 1st. If you’ve only received acceptances or denials, the decision-making process is fairly straightforward (assuming you have applied to a balanced list of colleges): which college do you like best that has come back with a financial offer within your family’s budget? However, you might have also received offers to take a place on the waitlist. What does this decision mean?

What does it mean to be Waitlisted?

First and foremost, it means that you ARE qualified to attend that college or university. A college might choose to place students on a waitlist for any number of reasons. Maybe they filled more places in the Early Action/Early Decision rounds. Maybe the college is need-aware, and they don’t have the available funds to cover your financial need. Maybe they accepted too many applicants the year before or had a lot of deferments, which resulted in an on-campus housing shortage. Whatever the reason may be, the result is the same. You were not directly admitted.

What are your options if you’ve been waitlisted?

If you have been offered a spot on a waitlist, you have the power to accept or reject a spot on that waitlist. Maybe you have an option you like better anyway, so aren’t sad to let this offer go. Or you might just not like the uncertainty of the waitlist. Either way, you can decline the offer of the waitlist, which makes room for other waitlisted students to possibly get accepted.

On the other hand, you might have been waitlisted at your top choice school, in which case you still want to shoot your shot. In this case, we recommend looking at the Common Data Set which is a document that most colleges publish. In Section C, you can find how many students were offered places on the waitlist in previous years, and how many students were admitted from the waitlist. Sometimes it’s less than 1% of students, in which case you might still decide that it isn’t worth the effort. But, if you decide that the chance to attend this university is worth it, there are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of being moved off the waitlist.

What to do if you accept a place on a waitlist:

  • Continue to demonstrate interest. Attend any virtual events that are available to you - even those that may fall outside your time zone. Visit the campus if it’s nearby (make sure you have registered your attendance). Open all email communications from the college, and click on a few links from the emails.

  • Contact your admissions counselor. Send relevant email updates, or inform them if the college is your number one choice. If you have completed any research projects since you applied, you can also send them a copy. However, make sure the school does not have any policies stating that you should not do this and only send things that are of extreme importance.

  • Price out what your cost of attendance will probably be. Some colleges might send an offer of a merit scholarship and/or need-based grant that you would receive if you were to be accepted off the waitlist. If you did not receive a financial offer with the waitlist offer, assume that you will not receive financial aid.

  • Send a deposit to a college where you have been accepted. You should be prepared in the event that you are not accepted from the waitlist. If you are accepted from the waitlist after the May 1 deadline, you can cancel enrollment at your alternate school and send a new deposit at the college where you were previously waitlisted. It is polite to email the admissions department of the initial university you submitted a deposit to and simply explain why you are choosing to cancel your enrollment. Remember, they might have waitlisted students waiting for that spot as well, so the sooner you can make that decision, the better.

What NOT TO DO if you accept a place on a waitlist:

  • Send extra letters of recommendation. Universities that consider recommendations already have them. If you chose not to submit optional recommendations during the application process, they do not want it now. Universities that do not consider recommendations during the application process still won’t consider them in the waitlist process.

  • Have your parents call the admissions office. Admissions wants to hear from students, not parents. If they only hear from the parents, admissions will assume that the student does not care much about their university.

  • Send a fruit basket, baked goods, or flowers to admissions. This would be considered a bribe, and you would be immediately blacklisted for acceptance off the waitlist.

  • Have your sister’s best friend’s uncle who works there put in a good word. This just won’t work and is not worth anyone’s time. They will not be impressed.

  • Send them childhood photos. Who you were then doesn’t pay off for who you are now and what decision has been made. Keep your interactions professional and demonstrate your interest through appropriate channels.

  • Send irrelevant updates. Only send updates if they are relevant and add or enhance your application significantly. Admissions officers do not need to hear about every quiz, test, oral or written exam you take.

Make the most of Where you Are

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that being accepted, waitlist, or denied from a college does not reflect your value as a person. While attending college, the best predictor of future success is what you do while you’re there. Work internships, assist in research, and build relationships with professors and classmates. These high-value habits will benefit you more in the long run than having a particular name on your bachelor’s diploma.



Sara is a co-founder of LAUNCH education consultants as well as a guidance and communcy coach. She specializes in American east-coast schools, student athletes, expat and third culture families, and application essays. In her free time she enjoys reading, biking and fitness. She currently resides in the Netherlands with her husband and two children.

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