What It Means to Be Waitlisted

You Should Do More than Wait

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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 an acceptance nor a rejection? Thousands upon thousands of students find themselves in this college admissions limbo after having been placed on a waiting list.

If this is your situation, you are probably wondering what you should do now. Accept a position on the waitlist? Decide against attending a school that waitlisted you? Accept a position at a school to which you were accepted even if the school you are waitlisted for is your first choice?

Whatever you do, don't just sit around and wait. The experience of being placed on a waitlist varies by school and situation, but there are commonalities across all university waitlists. Here is some advice on what next steps a waitlisted person can take to ensure that this small setback doesn't keep them from reaching their goals.

Here's How Waitlists Work

Waitlists serve a very specific role in the admissions process: every college wants a full incoming class. Their financial well-being is dependent upon full classrooms and residence halls. So, when admissions officers send out acceptance letters, they make a conservative estimate of their yield (the percentage of admitted students that will actually enroll). In case the yield falls short of these projections, the school needs back-up students that can fill out the incoming class. These students come from a waitlist.

The widespread acceptance of universal application programs like the Common Application, Coalition Application, and Cappex Application by most universities makes applying to colleges relatively easy, but it also means that more students apply to schools than was typical in decades past. As a result, colleges get more applications from students that don't truly plan to attend and actual yields are more difficult to predict. This means that an increasing number of students are placed on waitlists, especially for highly selective colleges or universities.

What Are Your Options When Waitlisted?

If you were waitlisted, you have a few choices to make. You can:

  • Decline a position on the waitlist. If you got into a school you like more, you should decline the invitation to be placed on a waitlist for another school. It's rude and inconvenient for other students to stay on a waitlist for a college you don't plan to attend if you get accepted.
  • Accept a position on the waitlist and just wait. If you're still considering a school, you should definitely put yourself on the waitlist. Then just wait and see what happens.
  • Accept a position on the waitlist and take action to improve your chances of getting off the waitlist.

Obviously, you shouldn't just sit and wait. You could be waiting for a long time and there's no guarantee that you'll ever be accepted. How long you wait depends on a college's enrollment big picture. Some schools have been known to pull students from the waitlist a week before classes start, but May and June of the same academic year are more typical.

Ultimately, if you're waitlisted at a university you'd still like to attend, you should take action to get off the waitlist. But be realistic—there is little you can do to change your circumstances and you shouldn't count on being accepted no matter what. Still, something as simple as a letter of continued interest can have a positive effect.

What Are Your Chances of Getting Off a Waitlist?

Use caution when looking at waitlist acceptance rates because the numbers can be discouraging when you don't have all the information. The norm tends to be in the 10% range but varies for every college from year to year. In other words, you have a chance, but don't pin your hopes on being admitted from the waitlist.

Here are the waitlist acceptance statistics for several universities and colleges for the 2018-19 academic year:

Cornell University

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 6,683
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 4,546
  • Admitted from waitlist: 164
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 3.6%

Dartmouth

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 1,925
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 1,292
  • Admitted from waitlist: 0
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 0%

James Madison University

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 3,713
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 1,950
  • Admitted from waitlist: 445
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 22.8%

Northwestern University

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 2,861
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 1,859
  • Admitted from waitlist: 24
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 1.3%

Penn State

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 105
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 76
  • Admitted from waitlist: 41
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 54.7%

Stanford University

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 870
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 681
  • Admitted from waitlist: 30
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 4.4%

University of California, Berkeley

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 7,824
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 4,127
  • Admitted from waitlist: 1,536
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 37.2%

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

  • Offered a place on waitlist: 14,783
  • Accepted a place on waitlist: 6,000
  • Admitted from waitlist: 415
  • Percentage admitted from waitlist: 6.9%

A Final Word on Waitlists

There's no reason to sugarcoat your situation. You were neither accepted nor rejected, and this in-between reality can be frustrating and discouraging. But rather than let your situation get the best of you, do your best to move on. 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 admitted.

That said, you should also explore and prepare for other options. Accept an offer from the best college that offered you admittance, put down your deposit, and move forward. If you are lucky and get off the waitlist at your top school, you will likely lose your deposit elsewhere, but that's a small price to pay for attending your dream college.