When you apply to your top-choice college, you hope to get accepted, but know that rejection is possible too. But there’s a third outcome—getting waitlisted—which, for some, can actually be the most emotionally difficult. Logically, you know that it's a better outcome than an outright rejection, but the uncertainty around getting waitlisted can ratchet up anxiety during an already stress-filled college admissions process.
What does it mean if you’re on a college waitlist?
When you’re on a college waitlist, it means that the college considers you a competitive candidate but has reached the maximum number of admittances it can offer. The college puts you on a waitlist because not all admittees will accept, and the waitlist helps ensure it will hit its enrollment goals. If a fewer-than-expected number of accepted students turn down their admission offers, the college will begin accepting students off the waitlist. But in recent years it has become more challenging for colleges to predict how many students will say yes to attending, so college waitlists have grown.
It's not unheard of to be admitted after getting placed on a waitlist. In fact, in the spring of 2021, 20% of high school seniors planning to go to college reported being on at least one waiting list, found a survey from consulting firm Art & Science Group.
If you’re waitlisted, it can be hard to know what to do next. Here is a six-point plan to help.
1. Find out your odds of getting off the waitlist
Most admissions offices can tell you what percentage of students their school usually admits. The College Board® provides an admissions comparison tool so you can check the selectivity across colleges—in general, the most selective schools may have the longest, most competitive waiting lists. You should also find out when you’ll get a definite yes or no. It varies from one school to the next, but most schools will give you an answer by May or June, after the deposit deadline for admitted students to enroll. You will likely need to accept an offer elsewhere before you've heard back from your top-choice school. If that's the case, decide whether you still want to go to the school that waitlisted you, since there may be financial drawbacks such as a lost deposit or less financial aid.
2. Re-evaluate the schools that accepted you
Don't wait until you get a no from the school that waitlisted you to figure out your plan B. Evaluate your options, including the financial aid packages from the schools that offered you a spot, and gather whatever other information you need to make a decision. Continue to keep your grades up, since the admissions office of the school that waitlisted you may want to see an updated transcript before making a final decision.
3. Decide whether you want to keep waiting
Once you re-evaluate the schools that offered you acceptances, you may be excited about one and decide to move forward rather than deal with the uncertainty of remaining on the waitlist. If you decide to wait, you can accept admission at another school and withdraw if you get off the waitlist at your first choice; although you may forfeit your deposit or not receive as much in financial aid from your waitlisted school.
4. If you still want to go to the school, let them know
If you want to remain on the waitlist, formally notify the school that you're still interested in enrolling. You'll want to send a letter of intent that includes information about any recent achievements since you sent in your application.
Reach out to your contacts in the admissions office to request an interview (or a follow-up interview if you've already had one), so that you can personally show the school why you're a great candidate. Of course, while you want to express your enthusiasm, don’t let it cross into nagging territory. Repeated calls or emails to a busy admissions officer could hurt—rather than help—your chances.
5. Consider reapplying for next year
If you haven’t gotten a call that you’re off the waitlist, you may want to make a plan to consider applying as a transfer student for next year. You can spend your first year studying hard, getting to know faculty, and sending in a transfer application with a stellar first-year transcript and letters of recommendation, along with restating your commitment as to why the school is your first choice. Many colleges will read your new application alongside your old one, giving you a chance to show real academic improvement.
6. Get excited about your new school
Once you’ve decided on a plan B, get excited about what they have to offer. Read the course catalog and select courses, make a list of some extracurricular activities you’re interested in, and enjoy everything orientation has to offer. It may be helpful to write down what you liked the most about your dream school—doing so can help you find similarities at your new school, too.