What to do when you're waitlisted by a college
Updated: Mar 15
It's the time of year when admission decisions from the Regular Decision process are beginning to roll in! Most of the selective colleges and universities in the US will notify between mid March and April 1; they expect replies to their offers of admission by May 1.
My hope for thoughtful students with balanced lists is that they have multiple compelling offers to choose from, aka offers of admission. Just a note-- you can only choose one US university you plan to attend, as I discuss below.
The second potential outcome of an application from the Regular Decision cycle, or a deferral to Regular from an Early deadline, is the other final option: a denial of admission. This kind of news is never easy to receive; give yourself 24-48 hours to grieve the loss, and move on to focus on the possibilities in front of you. Remember, it's not the right place for you, if your sense of fit was not matched by the college's sense of fit of your application. Admission offers are never judgments on you as a student or person; they are shaped by applications from many more students than there are spaces, and priorities of the admission office, administration, faculty, coaches, board of trustees, and other pressures that you can never know.
The third option at this stage of the admission cycle is a little more ambiguous. This advice is intended to help students understand and respond productively to waitlist offers.
A waitlist decision means you are admissible to a college or university, but there is not presently room in the class for you to be admitted. It's disappointing news, but your application is still alive, and there is a possibility of eventually receiving an offer of admission.
In general, selective colleges accept more students than they can accommodate and hedge their bets that the “yield” (the percent of students who then accept their offer by the reply date) will be somewhat similar to last year’s. If their predictions fall short of what they have targeted, they will turn to the waitlist for additional candidates.
First things first: if you’re interested in pursuing a waitlist offer, reply to the college right away (through whatever process they use—portal, online form, email) and accept a space on the waitlist.
Then, reach out to your counselor. They may be able to help you comprehend the statistics of this year’s applicant pool for that particular college, and help you make sense of conflicting deadlines among different universities as you enter the slightly complicated space of holding a decision while waiting for other potential decisions.
There is a wide range of admission office practice here. Some college admission offices are very selective and intentional, and only make waitlist offers they think have a reasonable chance of becoming offers of admission. Others, frankly, put more students on the waitlist than they have room to enroll in the entire first-year class. If this is the case, it's good to know it and to stay realistic about your application's prospects.
You can also keep an eye on College Kickstart's blog for latest known data on waitlist statistics.
Next, commit to your first-choice college-- from your list of colleges that have admitted you--by its reply deadline. You must choose one (and only one) of your other choices before those deadlines expire, usually May 1.
In the meantime, admission offers from waitlists could come to you anytime between now and August. Reply “no” to offers you do not plan to accept. And, get excited about your current, existing choice of college by learning as much as you can about the school you have chosen.
How do waitlists work?
The waitlist is not literally a ranked list with someone at spot #1 and someone else at spot #100. If colleges have the opportunity to go to the waitlist and make offers, they are usually going to review the pool of students who have accepted offers of admission, and look to fill different “gaps”—they may be related to demographics, geography, special talents or academic interests, and these factors are out of your control. There's no obvious consistency, predictability or logic to waitlists that you can see from outside the admission office.
However, colleges are also interested in your likelihood of accepting an admission offer from the waitlist. For many colleges, demonstrating interest appropriately is extremely important at this stage!
Note: Some colleges (USC!) explicitly ask that you do not send them additional information beyond what they ask for. Look carefully at the information the college sends you, and ALWAYS consult your college counselor, if you have one, before sending any communication.
When appropriate, you can demonstrate your strong interest by composing an email to the colleges at which you are waitlisted. This should typically be sent by mid-April. Sometimes an additional letter of support from someone else might be helpful, if the college welcomes it, but more information is not always better, and many colleges will not review new material of this kind. Discuss this option with your counselor before asking for additional work from teachers; bonus rec letters are usually not effective or even reviewed.
You can pursue more than one wait list.
Advice on communicating with the colleges where you've been offered a waitlist spot:
IF the college in question does not explicitly say that they don't want additional information:
Send an email to the attention of the area representative for the admission office. This information is available on many college websites, or your counselor may be able to help you find the right contact. If you aren't sure, or there is no area representative (did you know that MIT operates this way?) it's perfectly fine to send your message to the general admission office email address. Also, this is a good opportunity to practice your skills with the old fashioned telephone line; give the admission office a call to ask who to direct your message to. You might end up having a helpful conversation with a current student who works in the office, or an admission officer.
This communication has come to be known by many as a LOCI, or letter of continued interest.
Here is a good outline for starting your draft:
Paragraph 1: State why you are writing: You have received their decision, and are (humbly) asking that they reserve your space on the waitlist and consider additional information. Thank the reader for evaluating your application, and state your continued interest in attending.
Paragraph 2: Provide persuasive ammunition from this year: highlight senior courses/grades and noteworthy accomplishments. Admissions officers will want new and compelling information since you applied. Have any interesting things happened with your activities? Any honors, distinctions, capstones accomplished, or other achievements? Tell them about any reading, studies, pastimes, and independent projects you think are relevant.
Paragraph 3: Assure the admissions office of your desire to attend. If you can genuinely state that you will definitely attend if admitted, it can be powerful to do so—but only if at the time of writing it is true. Demonstrate your knowledge about the school and sense of fit with its programs and offerings. Remember that "why us?" supplement you wrote, that led with your self-knowledge and made specific connections to the campus culture and opportunities at that school? Write a brief update of that. Show them you not only recognize the opportunities for you at their college, but how, specifically, you will take advantage of them.
Thank the reader again in your closure to your message!
Draft and send this letter by mid-April.
Again: if the college admission office says they won't review/ don't want additional information, please respect that request, at the peril of your application...
What else can I do?
Finish strong! It is important that you perform well academically in your final semester. Colleges often ask for a grade progress report. A good trend can help; a poor trend can hurt your chances.
In any case: finishing high school on a high note is just a smart plan. Go into college feeling accomplished and in control of your academic powers.
Be patient, and avoid focusing too much energy on waitlists. If you take care of the tasks above, then you will have done all that you can until the admitted candidates finalize their college plans and notify the college. You’ll have to wait with uncertainty, and accept that there is no control over what happens with a waitlist. After an email as discussed above (if appropriate for the college!), further communication with the college admission office while you wait is not advised.
In recent years, waitlist "movement" has occurred as early as May 1, and shifts and offers can happen into June.
If you are offered a spot from a waitlist:
Congratulations! Now you have some choices to make. Be prepared that a waitlist offer may come with a short response window—you may have to accept or lose the offer within as few as 24 hours.
If you accept an offer to attend a college after being waitlisted, and after you have deposited elsewhere, It is important to let the school at which you originally deposited know immediately, so another student can have your spot off that college’s waitlist. In this case, you will lose your original deposit to the first university where you accepted an offer.
Be aware that colleges in the US consider the practice of having active deposits to two or more universities at the same to be unethical, so choose wisely. The consequences can be messy and jeopardize one of your offers, so please talk to your counselor.
Finally: You don’t have to take an offer of admission from a waitlist if it comes through. Many students decide that they are happy with the college they deposited to by the time the waitlist is released.
As always, a counselor can help navigate and make sense of all these steps!