Waitlist: What Does It Mean?

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Once again colleges are shuffling many worthy students onto their waitlists. This is a common practice that most students are aware of, but it creates another layer of stress and doubt. Questions like: How large are the waitlists? How many students are ultimately selected from a waitlist? What can I do to better my chances of being one of those selected students? Can I deposit at a college and still agree to be on a waitlist? Although all the numbers aren’t out yet, I suspect that colleges are beefing up their waitlists because “tried and true” yield formulas are no longer working in the ways they once did. We can point to the pandemic, the rise of test optional policies, and more, but we still wind up in the same place—on the waitlist. So now what?

One tip to keep you sane is to focus on colleges that accepted you. After all, they are the ones that recognized your strengths in the first place. Choose one of these, send in a deposit and start working on your housing. These actions guarantee you a spot in college – something you’ve worked very hard to achieve over the past four years.

Here are some actions you should consider if placed on a waitlist:

  • Officially accept a spot on the waitlist if this is your dream school. Follow the directions from the college about how to do this. Then, pick up the phone and call the admissions office. Find out how many students are on the waitlist and how many have been pulled off over the past year or two. In other words, get a sense of your chances.
  • Next, ask if you may send some extra materials. If the school says that is acceptable, send a letter of interest stating why you are eager to attend the school and why you are a great match. If you will attend if accepted, say so, but only if you mean it. Extra materials may include third quarter grades, something new that adds power to your profile like an honor or award, and perhaps another strong letter of recommendation. Help the college to see you in a new way, but don’t overdo it and don’t do it at all if the college says not to.
  • The universal reply date is May 1, so colleges generally begin to contact waitlist candidates sometime after that. Remember, the waitlist is really a wait pool. Schools will dip into that pool based on the factors they are trying to address for an incoming class, like geography, ability to pay, caps on certain majors and other institutional priorities.
  • Be prepared to move quickly. Some colleges that offer you admission off the waitlist ask you to decide within 24-48 hours.

Finally, as students move off waitlists and into schools, a domino effect is created among colleges. In some instances, it doesn’t end until school begins in the fall. It’s important to remain flexible over the possible long haul.