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College Waitlist Limbo: Why? What Now?

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

This year has been “unprecedented”, “unusual” and “challenging” for all, and now to top it all off, for the Class of 2021, more common than ever before, is the dreaded WAITLIST! Thanks to the waitlist, Senior Spring may not be what you had envisioned. With all of the uncertainty you have had to deal with, your college acceptances gave you something wonderful to look forward to: the culmination of your hard work and the grand finale to your childhood and high school career. You are going to college and finally you get to decide where. You were hoping for acceptances and prepared for rejections, but what you were not ready for was the limbo and purgatory of “the waitlist.”

What is the waitlist?

Being offered a spot on the waitlist means that you are qualified and that the college may consider you for admission before the fall in the event that they need more members for their freshman class. Once you have received notification from admissions that you have been waitlisted, in order to officially stay on the waitlist, you must let admissions know that you would like to accept their waitlist offer. According to NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling), approximately 50% of students who are offered waitlist positions choose to remain on the waitlist. And of those 50%, historically, approximately 20% will ultimately be offered admission from the waitlist. And the more selective a school is, the lower that rate usually is. Not great odds, but not impossible. But of course in 2021, historical data, and what has happened in the past, is pretty much out the window. Like everything else these days, we will just have to wait and see.

The waitlist is not an actual list, in that, typically, it is not ranked. Rather, members of the waitlist are there to help balance the diversity, demographics, and institutional needs for the freshman class. For example, if fewer students from the Northeast than are expected accept the regular decision admission offers of a particular college, then the college will likely take more Northeastern students from the waitlist. Or conversely, if many humanities majors accept their admission offers from a college, then that college will likely be looking to pull STEM majors from the waitlist.

Why Do Colleges Have Waitlists?

One of the most important priorities of a college admissions office is to predict “yield”, or the percentage of students who are admitted to a school who ultimately enroll. Currently the average yield at four year colleges is around 35%. So, you can do the math: At the large majority of colleges in the U.S., most students who are admitted to any one school will never enroll. Even at Harvard, which boasts the highest yield in the country at 82%, 18% of students, in the end, will be somewhere else come fall. Admissions offices do their best to determine yield based on historical trends and statistical data based on several factors, ranging from geography to major to financial aid. But the bottom line is that colleges need to accept significantly more students than they expect to enroll and usually they use the past as a predictor of the future. This year, because of the pandemic, the yield, like everything else, is more unclear and difficult to estimate than ever. To combat this uncertainty and because they don’t have a crystal ball showing them who will actually enroll, colleges are using their waitlists in a big way. If their yield goes down and they do not get the number of acceptances they were expecting, they will need to make additional offers by going to their waitlist.

So, what does this mean for me?

In general terms there are two kinds of applicants who are offered a spot on the waitlist:

  1. Students who the college would like to welcome to the class, but the admissions team doesn’t think that they are likely to enroll. Frequently, these students have grades and/or test scores that are higher than those that are typical for the school and the admissions office believes that these students will have offers to attend other schools that they are more likely to accept. *If this is you, please do not accept a spot on the waitlist, just to see if you can get in. The fact is, you probably can. But, by doing this, you are taking a spot from someone who really wants it. If you know that you will not attend if given the spot, please be as generous as you hope someone would be for you, and take yourself off the list. You’ll feel good about yourself, knowing you made someone else very happy.

  2. A student who the admissions office feels is qualified and they would be happy to accept if they still have room after they have heard back from the students they initially made offers to. If they have space in their class at this point, they are likely to make additional offers to students until they reach their target number. Whether this happens depends on the year and on the college. Some years, many schools never end up going to their waitlists at all. Other years, those same schools may end up making many offers from the waitlist to students who ultimately attend and flourish at the college. But in general terms, the odds of receiving an admissions offer off the waitlist are slim and not in your favor.


Think carefully and then act.

If you really want to go to the college where you are waitlisted and it is worth it to you to give it your all, follow the instructions of the college to let them know that you are eager to stay on the waitlist.

Commit to your next choice school and get excited.

In the end, there is only one college that really matters: the one that you will be attending in the fall of your freshman year. Even if you choose to stay on the waitlist, and plan to go all out to get off the waitlist, “love the one you’re with” and secure your spot at your next choice college. Send your non-refundable deposit, treat yourself to that college’s best swag, and get psyched! Chances are that you will have a wonderful experience living and learning at this school for the next four years.


Compose a letter of continued interest.

Write a one-page letter by email addressed to your admissions representative and the head of admissions. Your letter should:

  • Be enthusiastic and excited. State clearly that the college remains your top choice and that if accepted you will happily accept and attend.

  • Tell the college something they don’t already know. Update them on activities you have already shared, but ideally give them some new information. Have you earned any awards or honors since you submitted your application?

  • Remind admissions why you love their school and how you plan to contribute to and make an impact in their community. Refer to specific classes, clubs, and opportunities that show that you have researched the school well. Show admissions that you are a great fit for the school and that the school is a great fit for you.

Be nice.

As hard as it is when you are disappointed, be gracious and upbeat. It is important that you treat everyone that you come into contact with from the school, courteously. Be your best in all communications. Admissions people are looking for students who will make their college community a happy and compassionate place. Use this opportunity to show them that is who you are.

Finish up strong.

During these unusual and stressful times, it is tough to remain focused. Do the best you can. As always, the most important thing to college admissions is your academic performance in high school. Do your best in all of your academic classes, even if it is through remote classes. Ideally, get the best grades you have ever gotten and tell your admissions representative about it. Let them know that this is a trend you are eager to continue.

Stay positive.

You are going to college, you have so much to look forward to you, and you WILL celebrate! In the meantime, be good to yourself, and congratulations on being a Spring Semester Senior. You earned it. Go enjoy it!

If you are on the waitlist at your top choice college, contact to help you write a letter of continued interest and do all you can to gain admission to the college that is the best fit for you.

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