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How to Get Admitted Off a College Waitlist

Experts suggest that wait-listed applicants contact the admissions office to express continued interest.

Jordan Friedman and Josh Moody | April 13, 2021 8:58 am ET

THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic disrupted countless facets of daily life, economic activity and educational pursuits for most of 2020 and into 2021. Add the already complicated college admissions process – including whether students are ultimately accepted, rejected or placed on a college waitlist – to the list of things made more difficult due to COVID-19.

Professionals in the field say this admissions cycle is particularly complicated for a variety of reasons, with greater numbers of students applying to top colleges as many schools have gone test-optional, meaning SAT and ACT scores are not required. Admissions experts say waitlists are expected to balloon this year as colleges try to sort through voluminous applications to enroll the right number of students for the fall semester.

“Given the number of applications that schools received this cycle, we predicted that a much higher number of students would receive news that they have been waitlisted,” Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of the admissions firm Command Education, wrote in an email. “This year has been an incredibly competitive and unprecedented cycle, and schools generally have the same number of spots (or even fewer) for freshmen, so the waitlist reflects that.”

While waitlists may be especially long this year, there is also the possibility “that more students than usual will receive offers of admission off the waitlist,” Carolyn Pippen, master college admissions counselor at college counseling firm IvyWise, wrote in an email.

Pippen adds that “how a school uses their waitlist will depend less on the selectivity level and more on their yield and enrollment goals.” Essentially, that means colleges aiming for specific enrollment targets may tap their waitlist at a greater rate, whether that’s elite schools or slightly less selective colleges that turn to the next candidate when another prospective student turns down their admissions offer.

Universities usually offer applicants waitlist spots during the regular decision round of admission. Wait-listed applicants generally won’t hear back about a decision on their admission until after the national May 1 deadline for high school seniors to submit their deposit and secure their spot at a college. Sometimes, they don’t find out until soon before the fall semester.

The admissions office’s final decision often comes down to whether there are openings for students left in the incoming class – that is, how many admitted students ended up deciding not to enroll.

Applicants should also know that college waitlists are important tools for schools to use in admissions and not necessarily a reflection of the prospective student’s application. Being put on the waitlist means a student is a competitive candidate, but colleges are trying to admit well-rounded classes and predict who will ultimately enroll, which may mean prioritizing students based on major choices or a desirable quality they bring to the school.

“I think it’s really important for a student to think about the waitlist more in institutional terms than it is for a student to think about what the waitlist says about them as an applicant,” says Ian Fisher, director of educational counseling and strategic partnerships at Bright Horizons College Coach.

Experts suggest wait-listed applicants carefully follow a college’s specific procedures and take these six steps to hopefully get admitted:

  • Accept a spot on the waitlist.
  • Express interest again in the school.
  • Submit a deposit to another university.
  • Manage expectations in the admissions process.
  • Be ready to make a decision if admitted.
  • Inform the school where you submitted a deposit.

Accept a Spot on the Waitlist

Wait-listed applicants can typically either accept or reject a waitlist offer, usually via postcard or online. Those considering accepting – which is required for further consideration – should ensure the school is truly a top choice, experts say.

“Students should only accept a spot on the waitlist if they would rather attend that school than any other school they have been admitted to,” Rim says. “If they stay on the waitlist with no intention of attending that school, then they are essentially taking a seat from a student who would have loved to attend that school.”

Express Interest Again in the School

Experts say wait-listed applicants should contact the admissions office, perhaps via email, to demonstrate continued interest even if the school doesn’t require additional follow-up.

Applicants should also know that colleges have different approaches to the waitlist. Some may want additional materials such as an update from applicants, whereas others may not even look at this information if supplied.

Pippen suggests reaching out to regional admissions counselors for specific details and advice on the waitlist.

“Many schools do consider demonstrated interest during this time, which means letting the college know that you are still interested in attending can bump you closer to the top of the list; this is because, when the time comes, the school wants to admit students who will accept their offers quickly and get them to their target enrollment numbers as early in the summer as possible,” Pippen says.

She adds that writing a letter of interest is one way to demonstrate continued interest, to emphasize that a student is a good fit for that campus and to provide any important updates on the personal or academic fronts. However, she cautions against putting too much stock in the power of an interest letter since “it is only one of many factors that will play into the waitlist decisions that a college has to make.”

Submit a Deposit to Another University

Even if an applicant is wait-listed from his or her No. 1 choice, it’s wise to submit a deposit – generally a few hundred dollars – to enroll at another university before the traditional May 1 deadline, admissions pros say.

“Given the way that timeline all plays out, you have to accept an offer by May 1,” Fisher says. “Because if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to have a spot in that class. That deadline is important.”

Fisher adds that he’s worked with some applicants who have decided to submit deposits at other universities and ultimately turned down waitlist offers that came in. But generally such offers are rare, so prospective students shouldn’t bank on getting in if they’re wait-listed. Ultimately, applicants should find a college they are happy with given how uncommon it is to move up from the waitlist in a normal year.

Some colleges admitted as few as 1.5% of their wait-listed applicants in fall 2019, according to U.S. News data submitted by 79 ranked National Universities that admitted wait-listed students. The average across all of those schools, which offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs, was 32.3%.

Manage Expectations in the Admissions Process

To get more details about college waitlists, prospective students can reach out to admissions offices and request information such as the size of the pool or related figures, but colleges often provided limited details that leave applicants with little to work with, experts say.

“Unfortunately, there is just no way to estimate these odds, and trying to do so will only drive you crazy,” Pippen says. “Waitlist decisions are subject to a variety of factors and events that students may never be privy to – why they were waitlisted, how many students were waitlisted, how many and what type of students chose to accept their spots in the class, the college’s enrollment needs and institutional priorities, availability of financial aid – the list goes on and on.”

Additionally, even if college waitlist data is available from the prior class, comparing it to the current year is an apples-to-oranges scenario. Students should focus on what they can control, experts say, rather than obsess about long shot odds of getting off the waitlist.

“We would advise students to not depend on getting off the waitlist, and make plans to attend another school or even take a gap year if that is an alternative that they are truly interested in,” Rim says.

Be Ready to Make a Decision if Admitted

Applicants who do get the rare admissions offer from a college where they are wait-listed need to be ready to act fast.

Fisher says that as soon as that offer is made, the clock starts ticking and colleges want a quick answer – often within 24 to 72 hours. That means families need to be ready for the possibility and discuss in advance what they can afford and other factors in the final college decision.

“I think more than any other year, it’s important for students to anticipate what they think life on campus is going to be like in that first year or second year,” Fisher says, adding that they should also consider the logistics of travel and living far from home when choosing a school.

Inform the School Where You Submitted a Deposit

After being admitted off a waitlist, an applicant should notify the school where he or she submitted a deposit and decline, according to experts.

“It’s perfectly acceptable for you to call colleges and say, ‘I’ve enrolled, but I’ve been accepted off the waitlist somewhere else, so I’m going to forfeit my deposit and withdraw my intention to enroll.’ That happens all the time,” Fisher says. “You’re going to forfeit that enrollment deposit. But usually, it’s fairly small in the grand scheme of the cost of college.”


US News

Originally published in US NEWS on April 13, 2021.

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