The Waitlist

Why do colleges have waitlists?

  • Although colleges use past experience and algorithms to predict the targeted class size, it is an imperfect science. The waitlist helps to fill out numbers if deposits fall short of the target.
  • Some colleges waitlist students who may be admissible but have not expressed a strong interest in attending and thus are deemed less likely to attend. Waitlisting these students helps protect their yield (percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll) which, in turn, affects their ranking. 

Why do highly selective colleges often have particularly long waitlists?

  • To appease alumni whose qualified children were not accepted.
  • To help maintain good relationships with high schools who have not had  students accepted in recent years.
  • During COVID-19, waitlists have been longer as some of the typical ways to judge the interest/intent of students have been altered. Thus, making it hard to predict enrollment numbers.
  • Families who have been economically affected by COVID may be more reluctant to send their children to high cost colleges.

I am on several waitlists. Now what?

  • Contact the colleges immediately to confirm your place on the waitlist at any college in which you have interest.
  • Compose an email to reaffirm your interest in the college(s) and why. 
    • Include any new information such as spring awards you have won, sports achievements, strong grades, academic awards, recognition of any kind.
    • Reaffirm the number and kinds of contacts you have had with the college or alumni of the college.
    • Reaffirm your intent to enroll if accepted.
    • The letter should not be more than one page.
    • Letters of interest should be sent to your area representative at the college as soon as possible.
  • Ask a teacher for whom you have done impressive work to write an additional letter of recommendation.
  • Ask your counselor to write an updated letter to confirm your interest.

What is the timeline for the waitlist?

  • Although some colleges may “go” to their waitlist in April based on the early return of deposits, most will wait until May 1st, (Admitted Candidate’s Reply Date), to tackle the waitlist when they have more information about possible space available.
    • May 1st is the day that students must confirm their enrollment at their chosen college by sending a deposit.
    • Although you may still be waiting to hear from a college(s), you must accept an offer from your next choice school and send a deposit to secure your place there in case you do not get off a waitlist.
      • Although it is difficult to wait for another decision(s), you should begin to transfer your thoughts and excitement to the college where you have sent your enrollment deposit, as waitlist offers are generally quite low.
      • Enrollment deposits are seldom refundable although there is increased pressure on colleges to do so. 
    • Colleges begin to notify students on the waitlist after May 1st. 
    • Guidance counselors will often call a college on behalf of a student after May 1st when the colleges will have a better idea of how many students they might accept from the waitlist.
    • By June 1st, many colleges will begin to “cut loose” some students on the list when they believe that there is little likelihood of their acceptance.
    • This is actually in the best interest of the student who should be encouraged to transfer his focus to the college where he has deposited.
    • A smaller number of students will be asked if they wish to remain on a summer waitlist
      • This is a difficult position for the student who is still holding out hope for a spot but is unable to make plans or begin to feel a part of a college community.
      • The summer waitlist is used to fill spots that might open due to a larger than expected “summer melt.” Summer melt is when an accepted/deposited student comes off another waitlist and thus creates an open spot.
      • Most summer waitlists are cut loose some time in July. 

If I am accepted from the waitlist, will financial aid be available?

  • Colleges that are committed to fully funding all accepted students (the Ivies, Stanford, Williams, etc) will offer the aid needed. Other colleges may have little or no money left.
  • Students with a high need may not be accepted from the waitlist if the college cannot fund them.

Are waitlists ranked or numbered? Can I ask where I am on the waitlist?

  • Waitlists are not ranked or numbered.
  • Colleges accept the students they need to round out their class in some way. 
    • If the enrolling class has more of one gender than another, they tend to accept more students of the gender they need.
    • If the college is trying to develop a particular academic department, a student who has indicated a possible major in that area might be accepted.
      • For example, if there are too many enrolled scientists? Then, humanities students might be more sought after. Does the symphony need a tuba player?  And so on.
  • Students connected to a person of influence at, or to, the college may get a closer look.

Concluding Thoughts

After waiting many months to receive an admissions decision, a waitlist decision can be disappointing and, looking at the statistics of numbers accepted in previous years, it can be discouraging. It is impossible to predict from one year to the next how many, if any, students will be accepted from the waitlist at a given college. And, although colleges do their best to attend to the waitlist in a timely fashion, there is a lot of “waiting” involved. The exception to this waiting is if, and when, the college calls or emails you with an offer of admission. Be prepared to give them your answer in as little as a day or a few days. If you do not want the spot, they will be eager to move on to the next person. 

A student placed on a waitlist should be proud that the college or university thought they were qualified and worthy of a place in their entering class, if space had been available. We hope that by following the suggestions listed above, that it will yield positive results or, at the very least, let the student know that they did everything they could to enhance their chances for acceptance had room been available.

By Cindy Pendergast