What to Do When Waitlisted

For a lot of college applicants, spring represents the culmination of many months—years, even—of hard work. This is when they find out whether they will be attending their top-choice school in the fall. However, many students fail to prepare for what happens after the college letters come in. Although applicants often experience happy tears over acceptance letters or bitter disappointment at rejection, thousands find themselves instead on waitlists for their favorite schools, leaving them feeling confused and frustrated. They haven’t necessarily been rejected, but neither have they been accepted. While some waitlisted students hold out hope for a late admission, others may decide to opt for the certainty of a second or third-choice school to which they were accepted.

If you find yourself on a college waitlist, don’t give up hope! Keep reading for tips on what to do next to enhance your chances of admission.

Why Do Colleges Use Waitlists?

First, it is helpful to know why colleges put applicants on a waitlist. Schools often use waitlists to meet enrollment goals, review applicants in further detail, or replace students who end up retracting their acceptance. The number of students placed on a waitlist each year, as well as the number actually accepted from the waitlist, varies greatly from one school to another. While some colleges accept most of the applicants on their waitlists, others accept very few or even none of their waitlisted applicants.

For example, in 2015 Penn State accepted 1,445 out of the 1,473 students on its waitlist. In contrast, Stanford admitted none of its waitlisted students that year, and the previous year it admitted only seven. Knowing how your particular school typically uses its waitlist may help you decide whether to take your chances and wait it out or move on and select another school.

It is also important to understand that being waitlisted is not an indication of your failure as a student. In fact, it is likely that the admissions committee really liked you and thought that your application was compelling, but there were simply many other students who submitted stronger applications. You will likely never find out how you ended up on the waitlist or exactly how close you were to being either admitted or denied.

How to Improve Your Chances of Acceptance

Remember that it is your choice whether to remain on the waitlist or not. If you are no longer interested in the school and have no intention of attending even if accepted, call the admissions office and request to have your name removed from the list so you don’t unintentionally take a spot from someone who really wants it. On the other hand, if you are serious about pursuing acceptance, you should actively demonstrate interest in the school to improve your chances of being admitted.

Getting accepted off a college waitlist requires proactivity, persistence, attention to detail, and creativity. When you consider that most students do absolutely nothing at this stage—that they simply wait—you realize that this is your opportunity to stand out. This is your opportunity to let the admissions officers know that you still want to attend their school, and that if you are admitted off the waitlist, you will eagerly attend.

The best thing you can do at this point is write a letter or email to your regional admissions counselor. Express your continued desire to attend their college and explain the reasons why. Be sure to update them on any honors, awards, achievements, improved grades, or even job promotions that have come about since you submitted your application. Ask your high school to send in a transcript with your current grades, and see if one of your teachers will write a recommendation letter for you. This letter should speak to your attributes and provide information to the college about why they should accept you and what they would be missing out on if they didn’t.

Don’t Overdo It

Be careful not to pester the admissions office. Avoid calling them every day or sending a stream of emails, and do not inundate them with every little thing that you have done since you submitted your application. In addition, name-dropping endorsements or recommendations from prominent individuals (e.g., your aunt on the school board or a highly successful family friend who happens to be an alumnus) are also not advised. Such actions are unlikely to improve your chances of acceptance.

Instead, aim for one strong attempt at making an excellent second impression on admissions with an impactful and concise presentation of information. Select only the most important recent accomplishments to pass on, ones that will set you apart from the other waitlisted applicants, and send them all in one email to your admissions counselor. If you have a lot of questions, write them down in a list so that you can ask all of them during a single phone call to the admissions office.

Create a Back-Up Plan

Last, but certainly not least, make sure you have a back-up plan. Regardless of how many students a college accepts off their waitlist, there will always be students left on it. In all honesty, simply being on the waitlist sets the odds against you. What if you end up as one of the students who remain on the waitlist? It’s also important to note that colleges sometimes make waitlist decisions as late as early fall, but deposit deadlines for most schools are around May 1.

Sending in a deposit to your second-choice school ensures that you still have a college to attend if you aren’t accepted off the waitlist. However, keep in mind that you will lose the deposit if you are taken off of the waitlist and enroll at your first-choice school. If you weren’t accepted into any other colleges, it may not be too late to send in more applications. Some schools have later application deadlines, and perhaps you’ll find a great fit among these options. Other alternatives include taking a gap year or enrolling in a community college and then taking another shot at applying to your preferred school.

There Is Always Hope!

Waiting is hard, and being placed on a waitlist can make you feel hopeless, but there are many things you can do to pass the time and improve your chances of acceptance. Follow the tips above and do your best to keep a positive attitude throughout the long wait. Most importantly, resolve now to make the most of any outcome. Even if you aren’t accepted off the waitlist into the school of your dreams, you can still pursue the career you want, and isn’t that the point anyway? There is always hope.