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Waitlisted! Now What?

student in library

When a favorite college puts you on a waitlist, it can feel like a denial. But you might have a chance—if you can bear the suspense.

Getting waitlisted by a top-choice college is every student's worry. Learn how to figure your chances, campaign for admission, and make alternative plans.

What's a Waitlist?

About 40 percent of four-year colleges use waitlists, according to a survey by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Waitlists flag qualified students who might be admitted if room in the class becomes available. Colleges usually admit students from their waitlists after the May 1 decision deadline for admitted students.

Why Do Colleges Put Students Through "Waitlist Purgatory"?

Colleges know that some students they admit will turn them down. If more students say "no thanks" than they expect, there may be room in the class. Where do they get qualified students eager to say "yes"? From the waitlist.

Does Being Waitlisted Mean You Have a Chance of Getting In?

In 2016, colleges admitted about 23 percent of their waitlisted students, according to NACAC. For more selective colleges the percentage was far less—only 14 percent—and this percentage can fluctuate widely from year to year.

How to Gauge Your Chances of Getting Off the Waitlist

First, take a close look at your waitlist letter. It may say you are in the first pool to be considered for admission. Or it may state your rank on the list and how many of last year's waitlisted students were admitted.

If your letter does not include this information, call the admission office and find out if there is a priority list or if the list is ranked. Ask where you are on the list, and whether there are any financial aid limitations for students admitted from the waitlist.

Steps You Should Take Immediately

  1. Reserve a space at a college you want to attend. Send in your deposit. This guarantees you a spot and gives you breathing room to consider your next steps.
  2. Decide whether to stay on the list. If you need financial aid, be aware that the waitlist college may have given out most of its aid already. If you opt to stay on the list, follow the procedures explained in the waitlist letter.
  3. Start planning to attend the college you accepted. Even if you stay on a waitlist, chances are that's where you are going.

If You Decide to Stay on the List

Don't be passive. Let the college know how much you want to attend and why you are a great fit. Here are some ideas that have helped waitlisted students do just that.

  • Send an upbeat letter. Say that this college is your first choice and that you are eager to be admitted. Follow up your letter with a phone call.
  • Start regular communications with an admission rep. Send updates on grades, awards, and other signs of significant academic or extracurricular progress.
  • Arrange for a new recommendation letter. Ask someone who hasn't already written one for you. Be sure they say something new that hasn't been said before.
  • Tell them you won't need financial aid. Do this only if it's true.
  • Don't be a pest or appear desperate. Even if you feel that way!

Don't Get Trapped in Waitlist Land

Start planning your new life at the college you have accepted, and enjoy your senior year. It's that old cliche, "win-win." You win if your waitlisted college gives you the nod. If not, you win by attending an excellent school that you have chosen—one that wanted you all along.