Best Advice for the Wait List

As decision letters roll in, some students may find themselves waitlisted. If placed on a waitlist, you haven’t been accepted and you haven’t been denied. You’re in limbo, and that can be stressful. Students rarely anticipate they will be placed on a waitlist at one of the colleges where they have applied, but they very well may be and it's important to understand what your next steps should be.

So this month we asked our experts: "What is your best advice for students who are waitlisted?" Today and tomorrow, we'll be bringing you the excellent insights and guidance from these high school college counselors who know best.

John E. (Jake) Talmage
Director of College Counseling
St. Paul’s School
Brooklandville, Maryland

A couple of years ago, one of my senior boys was waitlisted by his first choice college. He was devastated. As the month of April progressed, he and I were in touch with this college and learned that the college had moved to the waitlist twice in the previous three years. In both cases, the college had needed men (like many liberal arts schools, the college is more popular with girls), so we held out hope. In early May, we heard rumors that the college had started to admit some students off the waitlist. So, we contacted the admission office. During this call, an admission officer told us, “Surprisingly, we are going for girls.” 

My best advice to waitlisted students is probably the hardest to take – accept that a college’s movement to its waitlist is beyond your control. First, the college that waitlisted you needs to see who enrolls based on its initial offers. Then, if space remains, the admission office will use the waitlist to “shape” the class. A university might need more students in a particular major, of a certain gender, or who do not need financial aid. This “shaping” is why most colleges do not rank the waitlist; instead, they use the waitlist to fill perceived holes in the incoming class.

So, if you have been waitlisted, take a deep breath. Get excited about your other choices. They are great colleges—that’s why you applied to them in the first place. And, ask yourself, “Do I really still care about College X?” If not, tell them that you are no longer interested (i.e., “Deny” them!). 

If you are still interested in attending College X, here are your next steps:

1.            Be informed. Read your waitlist letter closely. Ideally, the college provided insight concerning historical waitlist offers, potential housing, financial aid and timing. If they did not, contact the college to ask.

2.            Follow the directions to remain on the waitlist. Some colleges provide a website, others a return card.

3.            Put College X in the back of your mind and focus on the colleges to which you were admitted. You will likely need to enroll at one of your other schools because many colleges will not move to the waitlist until after May 1.

4.            In mid-April, re-consider your waitlist option. If still interested, write a formal e-mail to update your application and explain your interest. Also, ask if the college would like any additional information such as updated grades or recommendations.

5.            Remember Number 3.  Wait. Here’s hoping you get another option.

And what happened to that student who was waitlisted at his fist choice? He had deposited at another college where he enrolled and is getting a great education. In fact, he recently told me, “I am so happy I ended up at my College. I love it.”

Carolyn Lawrence
Independent Educational Consultant

Being waitlisted is like being asked to fly stand-by. You don’t know whether you’ll get on the plane at the last minute or be left at the gate.  So, if you’re waitlisted, your first step should be making sure you’re booked on another flight -- choose your top choice from among the colleges that have admitted you and send in your enrollment deposit before worrying about the waitlist.  Once that’s done, weigh whether staying on the waitlist is the right choice. People can - and do – get admitted off waitlists, but there are potential downsides to adding your name to the waitlist. The stress and anxiety of applying to college will be prolonged and you’ll likely have to make a decision in a matter of days if you’re admitted off of the waitlist. 

If you do decide to accept a waitlist spot, follow the college’s instructions about sending extra materials. If they will accept additional materials, choose wisely. An extra letter of recommendation from a senior year teacher who knows you well is almost always better than sending multiple letters from people who won’t be able to give admissions any additional insights about you.  In most cases, it’s fine to write and send a thoughtful letter to admissions explaining why you still feel the college is the best choice for you, but resist the urge to deluge the admissions office with emails and phone calls.

Finally, be realistic about your chances. At many colleges, the waitlist odds are slim. So, hope for the best, but don't peg all your hopes and dreams on the waitlist college.  Fall in love with your other options!

Kate Grant, Director of College Counseling
Blythe Butler, Associate Director of College Counseling
Catlin Gabel School
Portland, Oregon

A waitlist offer means that the college believes you are admissible, but doesn’t have room for you in their class at this time.  Before you respond, consider all of your options.  Think about the schools that have offered you admission, and why you applied to them in the first place.  Is the school that offered you a spot on the waitlist one you would prefer over the acceptances on your list?  If it is, respond to their offer in the manner they tell you in their decision letter.  Usually this involves filling out a form that says you want to stay on the waitlist.  Sometimes you will be asked to indicate how long you will wait (through May, June, possibly the rest of the summer.)  You should also clearly state your level of interest.  If you would enroll at that college if offered admission, say so.  If you are still considering your options but want to see where the process goes, simply tell them you are interested.  Talk over these decisions with your counselor and your parents.

Generally, offers of admission made from the waitlist arrive during the first weeks of May or later.  So be sure to choose another college and send an enrollment deposit to secure your spot by May 1.   Your first impulse might be to focus your energy upon getting in to the school that has waitlisted you, but don’t forget to celebrate and get excited about the college you have chosen!  As time passes, continue to reassess how you feel about your waitlist college.  You are in the driver’s seat – you may continue to wait, or choose to close your file.  Check in with your admissions counselor once very few weeks, to re-express your interest.  Consider asking your school to send updated third quarter or progress report grades if you are doing well.  And be ready to make a quick decision if you are admitted; most waitlist offers require a reply within a few days.


For more information about waitlists see these previous posts from True Admissions:

               Waitlisted? What to Consider…

               Waitlisted? Next Steps...

               Waitlisted? Questions to Ask

Our experts' responses reflect not only the wisdom of their experience, but also their schools' philosophies and policies. There is a great deal of diversity in American education and some of that will be on display here. Make sure to check with your own school about their policy on any particular subject discussed here.

We would like to extend a special thank you to the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), who partnered with us on this post, and in particular counselors Marie Bigham of Greenhill School, Jody Sweeney of William Penn Charter School, and Sarah Markhovsky of Severn School.




Great advice! I always ask students who are waitlisted the following question: "Do you really want to go to a school that can't make up its mind whether it wants you or not?" Follow your passion, and go to a college that welcomes you with open arms!

Thank you for your comment! I think it's really important for students to know how it may make them feel to prolong this process. Christine VanDeVelde

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