Waitlisted? Here’s our advice.

Applying to College

(Special Note: In light of the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the waitlist practices of many colleges may look different for the Class of 2021. Because of the many unknowns, we have avoided speculation in this article and offered advice that would apply in any standard application year. Updates will be added if we learn that COVID-19 is directly impacting waitlist practices.)

After months of stressing over applications, a waitlist offer from your top college can be a bittersweet pill to swallow. You didn’t quite make the cut for acceptance, but they clearly considered you worthy enough. So, is it worth it to continue to wait?

First, it might be helpful to know that waitlisting has become a very common practice in recent years. Colleges use a waitlist for a very simple reason: if too few students have committed to attending by May 1, they can turn to the waitlist to fill the remaining spots. Because applicant behavior is difficult to predict, most colleges are now putting hundreds or thousands of students on their waitlists, but most only offer spaces to a small fraction of these.

We recommend that waitlisted students start with a bit of research. How many applicants did the college put on the waitlist in previous years, and how many were eventually offered a space? To find the stats, look up the college on Big Future. Click on the “Applying” section, where you can find the most recently published waitlist stats. If the school doesn’t publish their waitlist stats, or to get more updated numbers, call or email the admissions office directly to ask if they are willing to share them. You can also ask how many students were offered a waitlist spot this year. Use these numbers to estimate your chances of coming off the waitlist. However, bear in mind that waitlist practices usually change year to year, so last year’s numbers are a guideline, but not an exact predictor.

We also strongly recommend that students be realistic once the waitlist stats are known. If the college only took 15 students from a waitlist of 3,600, you know your chances are slim – in cases like this we recommend you move on! But if the numbers look promising – let’s say 55 students off a waitlist of 150, then it may be worth giving the waitlist a shot.

If you decide to accept your spot, carefully follow the college’s instructions to secure your spot on the waitlist. Some colleges are very specific, and they may even ask for an additional essay. Don’t miss any deadlines or requirements, as this will completely nix your chances.

Next, if you would absolutely attend if taken off the waitlist, make sure you tell that college! When deciding whom to take off the waitlist, admissions officers look for the students who they think are still guaranteed to attend. So follow the guidelines for demonstrated interest and make sure they know you would be a sure bet. Send an email expressing your continued interest, or even send a hand-written note.

And what should you do while you wait? First, it is absolutely critical to accept your spot at another school by the deposit deadline! This may mean putting down a non-refundable deposit, unfortunately. It isn’t unethical to accept a spot and then pull out later – this happens all the time with students who have been waitlisted.

It is, however, unethical to accept a waitlist spot at a school you don’t plan to attend. In other words, if you’ve been admitted to another college that you would definitely choose over the college that waitlisted you – DO NOT put yourself on the waitlist just because you are curious to see if you’ll get in (this is called “trophy collecting”)! Colleges put a lot of time and thought into deciding who to take off the waitlist, and you may be taking a spot from a student who genuinely does want to attend the school.

And finally, here is our most important piece of advice: Don’t waste too much energy pining for the school that waitlisted you, especially if your chances are not good. Senior year is a special time, so why spend it stressing about whether or not XYZ University will offer you a spot? Instead, get excited about the colleges that DO want you, and put your energy toward whatever lucky school you chose. A student who starts college with enthusiasm for their school is far more likely to be successful – so move on quickly from the waitlist blues!