What To Do If You’re Waitlisted

You sent in your application, waited with baited breath for a response, and then got some unexpected news. You’ve been…waitlisted? What does that even mean, anyways?

Every year, thousands of talented students are waitlisted by their dream schools, and the same questions arise anew. In this article, we’ll explain what waitlisting is, why it happens, and what you can do to get off the waitlist and into the school of your dreams. 

What is waitlisting, and why would a school waitlist me?

Every year top schools receive tens of thousands of applications from all over the world. Many of the applicants are fully qualified to attend the schools they’ve applied to. The problem is, the number of applicants is often far greater than the number of students these schools could ever enroll. The universities must select from their elite application pool the students they feel are best suited to the vision and mission of their school, who will fit into and contribute to their unique culture and atmosphere. 

Being waitlisted doesn’t mean you aren’t smart enough or accomplished enough to go to a certain school; instead, it usually means the admissions officers at that school think you would thrive better elsewhere. 

There is another reason for the waitlist: a concept known as yield. Yield is the number of admitted students who will actually choose to attend the institution that admitted them, as compared to the full pool of admitted students, of which some number will opt to enroll at a different university. Universities want to keep the number of students in each class consistent, so they will change the number of students they admit each year on the basis of expected yield. The waitlist acts as a cushion for this effort. Thus, if yield is lower than anticipated, schools can turn to the waitlist to fill out their incoming class. 

Different schools will put different numbers of students on the waitlist, with elite schools waitlisting a far greater number of students than most other universities. This means the odds of getting off the waitlist at an elite school are especially low. If you’re currently on a waitlist, this may make you second-guess your chances of ultimately being accepted. Fortunately, there are existing statistics that detail roughly how many students different schools let off the waitlist each year. These numbers can be found in college-specific mass data sets known as “Common Data Sets”, which are compiled here for easy access. 

Each school’s data set contains tons of different numbers and statistics, so we’ll look at Baylor to show as an intro to reading and understanding them. Clicking on the Baylor link leads to a series of documents, each offering data from a different admissions cycle. Choose one and scroll to the section titled “First Time, First Year Freshmen Admission” to see the number of students admitted, enrolled, and admitted off the waitlist during that cycle. 

Here, we’ve laid out Baylor’s waitlisting information from recent years: 

Admissions CycleStudents accepting spot on waitlist Students admitted off waitlist% admitted off waitlist
Baylor University Waitlisting Statistics

Admissions at Baylor for waitlisted students has been a bit all over the place in recent years, with 2017-2018 as a clear outlier. In general, it seems that waitlisted students who accept their position on the waitlist have about a 45-50% chance of being admitted. While admittance off the waitlist is never guaranteed, it is much more likely at Baylor than at many other institutions. By analyzing the same data from other schools’ common data sets, you can roughly approximate what the chances are for admission off the waitlist at a given school. If the number is trending down, chances are lower; if it is trending upwards, chances are better. 

How to get off the waitlist

You’re on the waitlist, and you’re determined to get off of it. But how? 

Here are the steps you should take if you’ve been waitlisted, but wish to continue pursuing admission at a school:

  1. Accept your spot on the waitlist. This is crucial–if you do not explicitly accept your spot by the school-specific deadline, you will no longer be considered for admission. There will be different steps to get placed on the official waitlist for each university. Follow these to the letter as soon as possible. Schools will ask for different things, in terms of new information or documents they want, so make sure you read these instructions carefully.
  1. Prepare to contact the admissions office by phone. You, as the applicant, need to be the one to do this – having a parent or counselor call on your behalf will send the impression that you aren’t serious. It’s important to review and prepare what you want to say thoroughly before dialing. Here’s some pointers on what to say:
    • First, be exceptionally clear on what attracts you to this specific school. Too often, students treat top-tier schools like an undifferentiated mass of prestige. This makes admissions officers feel that you’re more focused on self-aggrandizement and getting into the highest-ranked college possible than you are on building a relationship with and meaningfully contributing to their community. 
    • Next, think of how your accomplishments since you submitted your application can strengthen your case for admission. If you recently won an award or took on a big responsibility in your primary extracurricular, be sure to mention that. Focus on your excitement about new happenings in your life to avoid sounding like you’re reading straight from your updated CV. 
    • Research your regional admissions officer by going to the university’s admissions department website. If they don’t have a direct line, call the office and ask them to redirect you to that person. Sometimes, your admissions officer will pick up directly. More often, your name will be taken and logged for that admission officer to call back at his/her convenience. 
    • Once you’re on the phone, take a deep breath: this is your time to shine. You’ll be talking to a person whose goal is to build the best incoming cohort possible. If you can help them see that you’d be a great addition to their class, they can take you off the waitlist. This is challenging, but not impossible. 
    • Be respectful on the call. Ask if there are any additional materials or information that they require, whilst also expressing your continued interest in the school. 
  1. Compose a letter to the admissions department. The full steps for doing this are provided below. Your letter is extremely important. Its purpose is to express your continued interest in the school, and to update admissions on any major occurrences and achievements during your senior year. 
  1. If you did not do an interview as part of the admissions process already, consider setting one up if the option is available. This can provide the school with further insights into your personality and character. 
  1. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Consider your second choice schools carefully, and choose a school that you will be excited to attend. Try to fall in love with another school, and imagine yourself attending there. If you are ultimately not admitted off the waitlist, you won’t be as disappointed knowing you’ve got a great four years ahead of you at another school you love. 
  1. Make sure you place a deposit for the school of your choice before the May 1st deadline. Decisions to admit students off the waitlist happen in early May, right after the deposit deadline. Ensure that you have a school to attend the following fall, even if it is not your first choice. 

The letter

The letter you write to the admissions office is crucial. View it as your opportunity to present your case for admission to a school one last time. The letter should consist of three primary sections: the introduction, an overview of new accomplishments, and the conclusion. An important note: many schools have specific portals for uploading these letters. Research each individual school to find them, and only send the letter directly to the admissions office if you’re sure the school doesn’t have a specific portal. 

Writing your letter

The introduction should be direct and concise. Express your continued interest in attending the school, and thank the admissions office for reviewing your materials. Keep your tone respectful and polite throughout. 

The majority of your letter should be devoted to describing all your post-submission accomplishments. Some examples are:

  • Major awards won, either in academics or other extracurriculars. 
  • Projects you are working on outside of school with major impact potential, such as an app or new invention you’re developing.
  • Continued high academic achievement in your senior year; schools really like to see that you have continued to excel even after submitting college applications. 

Beyond this information, it’s crucially important to reiterate your continued desire to attend the school in question. Provide examples of why you are a good fit based on your achievements and future goals. Remember, the only reason to go through this process is if a school is truly your first choice, and you should make this very clear. 

The outro should firmly state your intention to attend if you are admitted. End by thanking the admissions office once more for their time, effort, and consideration. 

Moving forward

While there is no guarantee you’ll make it off the waitlist, you can maximize your chances by following the steps listed above. If you want more in-depth guidance on the waitlisting process or any other college admissions topics, don’t hesitate to reach out to Ivy Scholars. Our mentors have extensive experience with all aspects of the college application experience, and we’re always eager to help. 

Wendy Y.
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