When students get admitted to the colleges of their choice, they’re elated. When they don’t, they’re disappointed. But what happens when students get stuck in college admissions limbo — not quite accepted and not quite rejected by the schools they want to attend?
Being put on a college wait list can be a huge blow to a student’s confidence and can feel as if his or her academic dreams are out of reach. However, there are things that student can do to deal with the situation. This guide provides information for students on how to navigate this process, possibly be admitted after being wait-listed and keep their options open.
Understanding College Wait Lists
To students, being put on a school’s waiting list may feel like a terrible turn of events in their journey to attend college. However, although a wait list may seem like an outright rejection, schools actually have an important, practical reason for using them, which doesn’t have anything to do with a specific group of applicants themselves.
What this means for students is that after a college has reached its enrollment capacity, the college may offer the opportunity to be placed on its waiting list and have their candidacy revisited after the school receives answers from accepted students. Those who decide to remain on a waiting list may be chosen for admission when the school determines how many spots are available, but this is not a guarantee. Although students who are wait-listed don’t have to completely give up on the possibility of attending their first-choice college, but they also shouldn’t put all their eggs in that school’s basket.
“In many ways, colleges’ wait lists are the Wild West of the college admissions process, meaning anything is possible during the wait list process,” Meister says. “Everything from no students getting off the wait list to hundreds getting off the wait list.”
“A college admissions office is never sure how many students will accept its offer of regular admission,” says Craig Meister, founder of Admissions Intel, a website providing undergraduate admissions guidance. “Therefore, many college admissions offices like to have some extra kids to choose from off a wait list if more students than the college admissions office was expecting choose to decline the college’s offer of admission.”
Fast Facts About the College Wait List
34 percent of colleges
maintain waiting lists. Generally, waiting lists are kept by highly selective schools or those that have low rates of students who enroll after acceptance.
Sending a recommendation from the school principal or additional teachers will get a student off a waiting list.
“I have seen all of these attempted, and usually they don’t work because colleges don’t need more third-party advice on your credentials,” says Meister. “Colleges need the space to accept you, and they need to believe that you want it more than others on the wait list. Students should be able to relay this information and not depend on others to do so.”
When students are placed on wait lists, all they have to do is wait to hear back from the schools.
Colleges expect students offered spots on waiting lists to send wait list letters expressing their continued interest in attending those schools.
Colleges only use information that was already submitted in the application to choose whom to admit from the wait list.
A student should update the college on what activities he or she has been involved in since submitting the application.
There is a way to get to the top of the wait list.
Generally, waiting lists are not ranked, but, in some cases, the school does rank students.
A wait list and a deferral are the same thing.
When a student is deferred, the school usually needs more information to make a decision. Schools put students on wait lists after they have reviewed all of those students’ information.
Being put on a wait list means that someone is not a good fit for the school.
“Just because a student is wait-listed does not mean they were ill-suited for the university,” says Pam Andrews, CEO of The Scholarship Shark. “Colleges may choose applicants based on a lack of students in different programs or some other discrepancy.”
Wait lists are small.
The size of a wait list depends on the school, and, in some cases, they can be quite large — even, occasionally, exceeding the target class size. For example, Inside Higher Ed reports that for the Fall 2018 admissions cycle, the University of Pennsylvania wait-listed about 3,500 students, and Brown University wait-listed 2,724 students. The previous year, Middlebury College wait-listed 1,316 students for a class of just over 700, and Boston College put 5,689 students on its waiting list for a class of a little more than 2,400.
Being wait-listed is the same as being denied.
“Being wait-listed is not the same as being denied. Admissions counselors create a wait list because they expect to have to use the wait list as students decline their acceptances,” says Tracy Riggle Young, director of enrollment and retention at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
You’ve Been Wait-Listed. Now What?
Once a student has been wait-listed by a preferred school, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Although it may be disappointing not being admitted to one school, being accepted to other colleges is a huge accomplishment. Once a student as processed the new, he or she should do the following to move forward.
Get a clear picture of the odds.
In order to make an informed decision about whether or not to stay on a wait list, students should get as much information as they can about their chances of getting into the school. “Call the institution to see if you can find out more information — for instance, where are you on the wait list? How many individuals will they wait-list in a typical year? What percentage of individuals on the wait list typically end up being offered admission? When will wait-listed students be notified if they are accepted or denied?” says Young.
Express interest in remaining on the wait list.
After deciding to stay on a waiting list, a student should let the school know as soon as possible. “Notify the college about your desire to stay on the wait list or pursue other options,” says Andrews. “While it is advantageous to accept if you want to attend the school, consider the stipulations that come along with it; for example, because you were notified later than other students, you will have fewer housing and financial aid options.”
Pay the deposit for another school.
A wait-listed student should keep options open. Since there’s no guarantee that the first-choice college will ultimately admit the student, he or she should make a decision about another school to attend and pay a deposit to that school to secure a place.
Increase chances of getting in.
It’s hard to predict whether or not students will get off a waiting list, but they should do their best to improve their odds of being admitted. The following tips can help:
Demonstrate interest in the school.
“If a student is wait-listed for a first-choice program, it is never a bad idea to reach out to your admissions counselor to make a case for your admission. Whether in person, through an interview or through written documentation, admissions counselors are encouraged when an applicant can articulate an authentic desire to attend the school,” Young says. “Be sure to back your authentic desire to attend the school with thorough knowledge about the institution and why you are prepared to take advantage of the institution’s resources. It is always great to be specific about what programs you plan to take advantage of if admitted.”
Keep grades up.
Students may feel tempted to slow down and not work as hard after they’ve applied to college, but it’s important for wait-listed students to continue to work hard in their classes and do well on their AP exams since schools consider wait-listed students’ entire senior year performance.
Retake SAT or ACT.
There’s always room for improvement, so retaking the SAT or ACT and getting a higher score can help to bolster a wait-listed student’s application, as well as demonstrate that person’s dedication to proving he or she will succeed at the school.
Get alumni recommendations.
“It is always a great idea to solicit alumni recommendations. Don’t be shy about asking a family friend who has graduated from the institution to send a supporting letter on your behalf,” says Young. “Most institutions value the opinions of committed alums — particularly those who continue to support the school financially.”
Update the school.
After students have worked hard to keep their grades up and increase test scores, they should let schools know what’s been going on since they submitted their applications. “It’s always a good idea for a student who is wait-listed to write the college a letter explaining any and all new accomplishments since the initial application and emphasizing that if the student is accepted off the wait list, the student will most certainly attend the college,” Meister says.
If a student finds out he or she has been admitted into the first-choice college after all, that student should quickly accept the offer, and let any backup school the student will not be attending know right away, so the admissions office can fill that slot with a wait-listed student at that college.
Expert Q & A
When applying to colleges, students will have a lot of questions about how waiting lists work. We have interviewed the following experts to get their perspectives on college wait lists and how students should handle being wait-listed:
Craig Meister, founder of Admissions Intel
Pam Andrews, CEO of The Scholarship Shark
Tracy Riggle Young, director of enrollment and retention at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
How do admissions officers decide which students will be admitted and which ones will be wait-listed?
Colleges generally accept the students they really want during regular decision or earlier. Those students that the colleges know would be a good fit, but who just didn’t make the cut for regular admission are sometimes offered the wait list option.
Typically, admissions officers look for applicants who conform to the college’s institutional needs. For example, a university that lacks students in its chemistry program will be apt to accept applicants planning to enter that area. Schools will wait-list candidates if there are certain features in their applications that cause alarm or if they have received many qualified applicants, especially for a certain major.
Admissions officers evaluate applicants very carefully. Most carefully use a rubric to assess each applicant for an overall fit to the school. They may evaluate the following areas: prior academic record, standardized test scores, leadership experience, volunteer work, awards/prizes as well as strength of written submissions (yes, they really will read your essays, so make sure to proofread them before submitting). Students who score lower on the rubric but still meet overall admission requirements may be wait-listed. Often, as individuals decline admissions offers, individuals placed on the waiting list will be offered spots in the incoming class. So being wait-listed does not automatically indicate being denied admission.
What factors increase the chance of a student being wait-listed?
A student who was weaker as an underclassman but stronger as an upperclassman may be a good match for a waiting list if the college is waiting to see how that student’s grades progress through the end of his or her senior year. If the student stays strong or gets stronger, the college would be more apt to overlook earlier grades and accept the student from a wait list. But, really, there is no rhyme or reason as to why some students get accepted from a wait list and some do not.
Factors that determine being wait-listed depend on the institution. Some schools will wait-list students if they have low academic profiles (i.e., you had poor grades/performance in high school), standardized tests (SAT or ACT) that did not meet their quotas, lack of extracurricular activities compared to accepted students or applications that did not grab their attention.
A student may be wait-listed for a number of different reasons. Common reasons include: inconsistent academic transcripts, poor written submissions, borderline test scores, concerns from recommenders or a lackluster interview. It is important to highlight, however, that applicants to very selective programs may be wait-listed without having any of these prior red-flag issues. In the case of these selective programs, a candidate may be wait-listed because he or she falls within an overrepresented demographic.
What can students do to reduce their chances of being wait-listed when they apply to a college
Do a great job when you apply initially and make sure that your college list is well balanced between safeties, possibles and reaches from the start; that way you will most likely get a good number of acceptances.
To decrease your chances of being wait-listed, look at your chosen college’s requirements and pay attention to details. (Do they prioritize students in the aquatic program? Are they looking for applicants entering certain majors?) In addition, making sure your academics and/or standardized test scores meet or exceed their expectations will help keep you out of this department.
Carefully craft your application to each school. Be thoughtful about what essay you choose to submit as admissions counselors are looking specifically for students that fit their school’s mission. Your resume and transcripts are predetermined, but your essays, interview and references have the great opportunity to illustrate why you are a great candidate for that particular school. Lastly, make sure your references are familiar with the schools you are applying to so they can tailor their letters accordingly, highlighting which programs and resources specific to that institution you will take advantage of if admitted.
Should students pursue other opportunities as they wait to hear about their wait list statuses?
Absolutely! If a student has not heard from the college that has wait-listed him or her by May 1, the student should accept the offer of admission and deposit at another college that has offered acceptance. Many wait list offers don’t come until well after May 1, and some don’t come until late July or early August! You need a plan B.
Unless you would only be happy at the college that wait-listed you, you should pursue other collegiate opportunities you may have.
Absolutely. It is never good to close a door prematurely. We always recommend that students have a list of reach schools as well as safety schools. We encourage folks to research a school’s incoming student profile to determine average GPA, test scores and other demographic information so an applicant can accurately assess the likelihood of being admitted.
Should those who were wait-listed at a school before freshman year reapply as a transfer student later?
Possibly. Especially if the student has grown a lot or accomplished a lot more since he or she put in the initial freshman application.
Unless you are happy at the school you have agreed to attend, you could reapply as a transfer student once you prove your mettle in college as a freshman.
Yes, particularly if a student can supply an outstanding transcript from the institution from which that student hopes to transfer. Undergraduate transcripts nearly always trump high school transcripts in the admissions process, so students who perform well in the first year of an undergraduate program may have more flexibility to be admitted as transfer students than as new admits, particularly if high school transcripts were lacking.
What are the most important things students should keep in mind during this process?
It’s sort of like playing the lottery. Don’t expect to win, but if you do, celebrate like a rock star!
Just because you were wait-listed does not mean you were not a worthy candidate. In fact, because the college saw that your application demonstrated promise, it has decided to keep it for further review.
Remember that being wait-listed does not indicate a failure on your part. Being wait-listed often indicates more about the competitiveness of the institution and a lack of available spots than it does a fault in an applicant.
This article from NPR discusses the chances of moving from a waiting list to admittance at certain schools, and it provides information on how many students were wait-listed, how many chose to remain those lists and how many were ultimately admitted to those schools.
In this Clear Admit podcast, experts discuss how students can be proactive about moving from waiting lists to being accepted and what they should avoid. Although this discussion focuses on wait lists for MBA programs, all students can gain an understanding of how the wait list process works from this podcast.
This VoiceAmerica Internet Talk Radio discussion of wait lists features Kennon Dick, former Swarthmore senior admissions officer, who provides information on ways students decrease or increase their chances of being placed on a school’s waiting list. Also, the episode includes tips from college finance expert Jeanne Mahan on how to reduce the cost of higher education.
College counselor Sara Harberson, who previously worked as the associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College, provides information about the impacts that test scores, financial aid and student interest may have on whether or not students end up on a school’s waiting list.
This Forbes article include tips on how to get off a waiting list by making themselves more appealing for colleges to admit.
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