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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.

By Jordan Friedman and Sarah Wood | Wednesday, May 11, 2022, at 9:29 a.m.

College admission decisions can take up to several months, leaving applicants to wonder whether they have been accepted, rejected or placed on a waitlist.

The results leave some applicants discouraged, especially those who were wait-listed at their top choice college.

This year’s admissions cycle saw an uptick in applications – especially among first-generation students and students of color.

“Because of the increasing number of applications that colleges are receiving, many of those institutions are placing more students on the waitlist,” says Andrea Felder, assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions at American University in Washington D.C. “Depending on the school, there could be waitlist of a few hundred or a few thousand students.”

An acceptance offer off the waitlist is rare – though possible – so experts encourage applicants to consider other options.

“The factors that determine whether or not you’ll be admitted off a school’s waitlist are often out of your hands so it’s best to prepare for the school you’re currently admitted to,” Ellen Chow, dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, wrote in an email.

What are College Waitlists?

Colleges have a limited number of seats each year given physical space requirements or to maintain faculty-to-student ratios, so some students are put on a waitlist in case enrollment spots open up.

Universities offer some applicants spots on the waitlist 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.

“How a school uses their waitlist will depend less on the selectivity level and more on their yield and enrollment goals,” Carolyn Pippen, master college admissions counselor at college counseling firm IvyWise, wrote in an email. 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.

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, senior director of education counseling and strategic partnerships at Bright Horizons College Coach.

What to Do After Being Wait-listed

Experts suggest wait-listed applicants carefully follow a college’s specific procedures and take these seven steps if they’re hoping to 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.
  • Continue to focus on high school academics.
  • 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. Those considering accepting – which is required for further consideration – should ensure the school is truly a top choice, experts say.

“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,” Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of the admissions firm Command Education, wrote in an email.

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.

But 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,” Pippen says. “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.”

Writing a letter of interest is one way to demonstrate continued interest, she says, to emphasize that a student is a good fit for that campus and to provide any important updates on 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 their 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 experts say.

Ultimately, applicants should find a college they are happy with given how uncommon it is to move up from the waitlist. Some colleges admitted as few as zero applicants off their waitlist in fall 2020, according to U.S. News data submitted by 98 ranked National Universities that had wait-listed students. The average percentage of students admitted off the waitlist across all of those schools was 39%.

The odds were much lower at National Liberal Arts Colleges. These schools – which emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in liberal arts – admitted 17% of applicants, on average, off the waitlist in fall 2020, according to U.S. News data submitted by 63 ranked National Liberal Arts Colleges.

“Start getting excited about the options you have,” Chow wrote in an email. “While it may not have been your top choice at the beginning of the process, starting to picture yourself as a student there and learning more about the academics, programs and student body could change your mind.”

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.

Continue to Focus on High School Academics

The last few months of high school are filled with milestones events, including college acceptances, prom and graduation. While it’s important to stay on top of deadlines before attending college in the fall, high school academics should still be a priority, experts advise.

Not only do schools receive end-of-term transcripts for each student, but scoring high enough on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam can lead to college credit.

Be Ready to Make a Decision if Admitted

The timeline for being admitted off the waitlist varies, but many schools try to let applicants know before June 30, experts say. If that admissions offer does come, the prospective student should be prepared 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.

Inform the School Where You Submitted a Deposit

Applicants who are admitted off of a waitlist are not required to accept. But applicants who do accept should notify the school where they submitted a deposit to alert officials they won’t be attending, according to experts. Note that most deposits are nonrefundable.

From there, focus on preparing to attend school in the fall by meeting deadlines and submitting required documents.

“Go through an admitted student checklist,” like securing housing, asking financial aid questions and registering for orientation, Felder says.

US World News

Originally published on U.S. News & World Report on May 11, 2022

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