What It Means to Be Waitlisted

What It Means to Be Waitlisted

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It's important to understand what it means when you've been placed on a college waitlist. Like thousands of students across the country, you haven't been accepted or rejected, and the resulting limbo can be frustrating. You'll make better decisions if you have a clear picture of how waitlists work and what your options are.

Key Takeaways: College Waitlists

  • Colleges use waitlists to ensure a full incoming class. Students get off the list only if a school falls short of admission targets.
  • Chances of getting off a waitlist vary from year to year and school to school. Because of the uncertainty, you should move on with other plans.
  • Be sure to accept a position on the waitlist and send of letter of continued interest if allowed.

In the spring, college applicants begin getting those happy and sad admissions decisions. They tend to begin something like this: "Congratulations!… " or, "After careful consideration, we're sorry to inform you… " But what about that third type of notification, the one that is neither acceptance nor rejection? Thousands upon thousands of students find themselves in college admissions limbo after having been placed on a waiting list.

If this is your situation, what now? Should you accept a position on the waitlist? Should you get angry at the school for waitlisting you and decide you didn't want to go there anyway? Do you go ahead and put down a deposit at a school where you've been accepted, even if your waitlist school is your first choice? Do you simply sit around and wait?

The answers to these questions, of course, vary depending upon your situation and the schools to which you applied. Below you'll find advice for your next steps.

Here's How Waitlists Work

Waitlists have a very specific purpose in the admissions process. All colleges want a full incoming class. Their financial well-being is dependent upon full classrooms and full residence halls. So, when admissions officers send out acceptance letters, they make a conservative estimate of their yield (the percentage of admitted students who will actually enroll). In case the yield falls short of their projections, they need some students on back-up who can fill out the incoming class. These are the students on the waitlist.

The widespread acceptance of the Common Application, Coalition Application, and new Cappex Application make it relatively easy for students to apply to many colleges. This may be convenient for students, but it also means that students are applying to more colleges than they typically did in decades past. As a result, colleges get more half-hearted applications and it's more difficult to predict the yield on their applications. The end result is that colleges need to put more students on waitlists in order to manage the uncertainty. This is particularly true at highly selective colleges and universities.

What Are Your Options When Waitlisted?

Most schools send out a letter asking you if you will accept a position on the waitlist. If you refuse, that's the end of the story. If you accept, you then wait. How long you wait depends on the school's enrollment picture. Students have been known to receive acceptances from the waitlist a week before classes start. May and June are more typical notification times.

You essentially have three options when waitlisted:

  • Decline a position on the waitlist. If you got into a school you like more, you should decline. It's rude and inconvenient for other students and the college if you accept a place on the waitlist simply to see if you'll get in. If you don't plan to attend, don't put yourself on the waitlist.
  • Accept a position on the waitlist, sit back, and wait. If you're still considering the school, you should definitely put yourself on the waitlist.
  • Accept a position on the waitlist, and then take action to improve your chances of getting off the waitlist. Be realistic here-your chances of getting off the waitlist probably are not great, and any actions you take may or may not help. Still, something as simple as a letter of continued interest can have a positive effect.

What Are Your Chances of Getting Off a Waitlist?

It's important that you have a sense of the math, for in most cases the numbers aren't encouraging. The examples below vary widely, from Penn State where 80% of waitlisted students were admitted, to Middlebury College where 0% were offered admission. The norm tends to be in the 10% range. This is why you should move on with other options rather than pin your hopes on the waitlist. Also, realize the numbers below will vary significantly from year to year because a college's yield will vary from year to year.

Cornell University

  • Number waitlisted: 3,213
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 1,976
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 279
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 14%

Grinnell College

  • Number waitlisted: 740
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 279
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 16
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 6%

Haverford College

  • Number waitlisted: 732
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 305
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 10
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 3%

Middlebury College

  • Number waitlisted: 1,231
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 603
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 0
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 0%

Penn State University, University Park

  • Number waitlisted: 1,828
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 1,704
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 1,356
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 80%

Skidmore College

  • Number waitlisted: 1,584
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 522
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 59
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 11%

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

  • Number waitlisted: 8,385
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 2,776
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 525
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 19%

Yale University

  • Number waitlisted: 728
  • Number who accepted a place on waitlist: 204
  • Number admitted from waitlist: 56
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 27%

A Final Word on Waitlists

There's no reason to sugarcoat your situation. Yes, we can say, "At least you weren't rejected!" The reality, however, is that it's frustrating and discouraging to be placed on a waitlist. If you were waitlisted from your top choice school, you should definitely accept a place on the waitlist and do all you can to get an acceptance.

That said, you should also move on with plan B. Accept an offer from the best college that accepted you, put down your deposit, and move forward. If you are lucky and get off the waitlist, you will likely lose your deposit, but that's a small price to pay for attending your top choice school.

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