What to Do If You’re Wait-Listed for College How to Navigate College Admissions Limbo

Meet the Experts

Craig Meister Founder, Admissions Intel Read bio
Pam Andrews CEO, The Scholarship Shark Read bio
Tracy Riggle Young Director of Enrollment and Retention, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Read bio

Written by...

Kenya McCullum Read bio

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

About 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.

Source: Peterson's

Private colleges are more likely to use waiting lists than public ones.

Source: National Association for College Admission Counseling

During the Fall 2016 admissions cycle, about 23 percent of students who decided to remain on waiting lists were admitted by the schools.

Source: National Association for College Admission Counseling

About 550 colleges use waiting lists.

Source: Time

In the Fall 2016 admissions cycle, 48 percent of students who were wait-listed chose to remain on the waiting lists.

Source: National Association for College Admission Counseling

About 10 percent of college applicants end up on waiting lists.

Source: U.S. News & World Report

Most colleges don’t publicize how many students they put on waiting lists.

Source: Inside Higher Ed

Waiting List Myths Debunked

Myth Reality

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.

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.

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


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.

Additional Resources and Support

  • Can a Wait-Listed Student Still Get Accepted to College?

    This video features a conversation between Stacey Brook of College Essay Advisors and Tanya Rivero of The Wall Street Journal about how students can survive the wait list.

  • How to Take Your College Application from Wait-Listed to Admitted!

    In this video, Dakotah Eddy, assistant director of admissions consulting at Veritas Prep, discusses how students can get off a wait list and be admitted.

  • Wait-Listed for College: The Waiting Game

    Ariel Kaminer of The New York Times talks to experts about waiting lists and highlights some of the strange things students will do to get off wait lists and be accepted.

  • What To Do When You’re Stuck On A College Wait List

    In this NPR report, college admissions professionals discuss how waiting lists work and what students should do if they are wait-listed.

  • College Admissions: Inside the Decision Room

    In this video, Bloomberg provides a behind-the-scenes look at the admissions process at Amherst College.

  • College Wait Lists Often Waste Would-Be Students’ Time

    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.

  • Navigating the MBA Wait List

    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.

  • Wait-Listed: The New Rejection Letter?

    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.

  • The Real Reasons Why Colleges Wait-List Students

    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.

  • 3 College Wait List Mistakes to Avoid

    This U.S. News & World Report article warns students about what not to do if they get wait-listed by the colleges they want to attend.

  • Dirty Secrets of College Wait Lists

    This article from The Daily Beast includes a look at how waiting lists work and what strategies students can use to go from being wait-listed to accepted.

  • What to Do if You’re Wait-Listed

    The College Board provides advice on what students should do if they are placed on waiting lists.

  • Don’t Wait to Get off a College Wait List

    The Huffington Post provides advice on how to take action after being placed on a school’s waiting list.

  • How To Get Off The Wait 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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