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Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

Navigating the Waitlist Limbo (What Should I Do If I'm Placed on the WAITLIST!)

Elton Lin

“I didn’t get rejected…but I didn’t get accepted either,” Joanna replied in a dazed voice when I asked about her admissions results. As we approach April 1st, the date by which most universities notify applicants of their admissions decisions, the majority of students are either celebrating acceptances or processing rejections. But what happens if a student is faced with neither outcome? What if he has been offered a place on the college’s waitlist like Joanna? This is not an uncommon phenomenon, and some schools, such as Case Western Reserve University, are known for placing a high percentage of applicants—up to 40% at Case—on waitlists. Every year, students struggle with how to understand this outcome and move forward, and every year we’re helping students unravel the waitlist ambiguity.

Why do schools have waitlists?

The answer to this question will depend on the specific college under discussion. Highly selective schools like the University of Pennsylvania might be using their waitlists as a courtesy, a way to gently let down an alumni family or a high school from which they didn’t accept any students. Eric Furda, the Dean of Admissions at Penn, admitted as much to the Daily Pennsylvanian in a 2015 article.

Most schools use waitlists to control their yield rate—the rate at which accepted students decide to enroll. If a school has a yield rate of around 50% (i.e., half of the accepted students decide to attend), they will need to admit twice as many students as the number of freshmen seats available. But if fewer than the expected number of students decide to attend, admissions offices will turn toward those waitlisted students who have accepted a place on the list and, in many cases, who have made their desire to attend clear.

How many students are accepted off of waitlists?

Again, this is highly school-specific, but in general, the more selective the school the lower the chance of being accepted off of the waitlist. For example, Stanford University, one of the most selective schools in the country, accepted a grand total of 0 waitlisted students in the summer of 2015. Similarly, no students were accepted off the waitlist in 2012 and 2013. Last year, however, Stanford accepted 55 students from the waitlist—this might seem like a hopeful number, but keep in mind that this is only an acceptance rate of 3.5% of students offered a place on the waitlist.

On the other hand, Stanford’s rival across the bay, Berkeley, accepted 35.6% of its waitlisted student in 2015. This 2016 Time article lists a few schools that had very high waitlist acceptance rates in 2014, including one school with a 100% acceptance rate off the waitlist.

What should I do if I am offered a place on a waitlist?

First of all, we advise that you assume being waitlisted at a very selective school is essentially receiving a soft “no.” Of course, students get off waitlists every year, and some of their efforts include elaborate YouTube videos, but you do not want to pin all of your hopes on such a slim possibility. It’s better to move on with your life and perhaps be happily surprised in a few months than to wait in anxiety and be unable to enjoy the end of your high school experience. With that being said, here are some steps you should take when you are waitlisted:

  1. Do you really want to go to your waitlisted college? Is it a dream school? Would you regret not waiting out the waitlist? If so, accept a place on the waitlist.
  2. Regardless of whether or not you’ve accepted a place on a waitlist, you should definitely make plans to attend a school at which you were accepted. Of course, this includes sending in a deposit and the Intent to Register form by May 1. If you have a well-constructed college list, you should have been accepted at a couple of schools that you would be happy to attend.
  3. Send an update and/or another recommendation if allowed. Some admissions offices request that you do not send additional materials, but if allowable, you may want to update the school on any positive changes in your resume—for example, winning a regional science bowl, being selected for a lead role in the spring play, becoming the captain of the softball team, or securing an internship at a tech company over the summer. Be sure to write an email and include this information, along with brief affirmation of why college X is still your dream school.

    Note that waitlists are often not ranked, but they aren’t random. Maybe after looking at the incoming freshmen class, the school discovers that the orchestra still needs a harpist or that the lacrosse team is short a goalie or that there are no students hailing from the territory of Guam. Highlighting your talents and experiences may help you catch the eye of an admissions officer looking to balance the incoming class at a point when their admissions priorities may be shifting.
  4. Stay in touch with the admissions representative for your area. You should make sure they know that you are still interested in attending their college. Additionally, since the need for financial aid may play a larger role in admissions decisions for students on the waitlist, your admissions representative should be aware of what you are able to contribute to your college education. Often, colleges need more students who will not need financial aid, as they award much of their financial aid money during Regular Decision acceptances.

While we always encourage students to be proactive in the admissions process, hounding the admissions office at a waitlist school is likely to make both you and the admissions officers a little crazy. We suggest that you take a deep breath, do what you can, and move forward with confidence that you are a qualified student (after all, you were waitlisted!) and will shine at the college in which you ultimately enroll.