March and April can be an overwhelming period for high school seniors, as college admissions notifications come rolling in. While an acceptance is the most ideal outcome and a rejection is the most disheartening, we often forget about the third possible result: being waitlisted.

What does being waitlisted mean?

Similar to being deferred by your Early Decision or Early Action school, being placed on a college waitlist is the least clear-cut, and often most frustrating, result of an application. It means that you have not been offered a place at the university, but there is a chance the college could admit you if an insufficient number of accepted students choose to enrol.

Why have I been waitlisted?

Schools usually waitlist students when they have the right academic credentials and profile, but need to determine whether they have enough vacant spots in the freshman class to offer additional places. Simply put, they had too many outstanding applicants and a limited number of spots!To understand how college waitlists work, it is important to consider the concept of admissions yield, which is the percentage of accepted students who actually enrol at the university. Maximizing yield is naturally one of the biggest priorities for admissions officers, as this not only helps them to reduce uncertainty in the admissions process but also helps their schools to keep acceptance rates low and thereby retain selectivity. In essence, colleges want to make sure that they can get as many of their admitted students to choose their university over the other schools that they have been accepted to.

Why are more students being waitlisted this year?

The coronavirus pandemic has created considerable uncertainty in the college application process. Several colleges have waived their standardized testing requirements for the 2021 and 2022 application cycles. This, along with a globally uncertain environment as well as the inability to physically visit college campuses amidst travel bans and social distancing guidelines has led students to cast a wider net when it comes to their college applications. While the overall applicant pool has not increased significantly, each student has applied to a larger number of colleges this year. Several elite colleges have consequently seen record-high applications for the Class of 2025, with numbers that are 25-30% higher than last year. This includes Ivy League universities, the University of California schools as well as others such as Johns Hopkins and Duke University and small liberal arts schools like Colgate University, which saw an unprecedented 102% increase in applicants!

All of these changes have made it exceptionally difficult for schools to predict their yield. After all, even though students are applying to a larger number of colleges, they can only attend one. As a result, admissions officers are relying all the more on waitlists as an enrolment management tool.

What should I do if I have been waitlisted?

As the name “wait list” suggests, part of the strategy is to simply wait it out! That said, here are a few things to consider doing to make the most of such a situation:

1. Decide whether to accept or release your waitlist position.

This of course depends on a number of factors, including how highly the school ranks on your college list and your acceptances to other colleges. You may not be able to make this decision right away, especially if you are still waiting to hear back from other schools, but read the communications from the college carefully to understand if there are any deadlines by which you need to opt in. If this is a top-choice school, you may decide it is worth the wait. However, if you are certain that you would not attend a school where you have been waitlisted, it is a good idea to release your spot. If anything, you are doing a favor to both the college and another student who may really want that spot!

2. Follow directions from your school.

Read the emails from each college carefully to understand their waitlist process and policy. The University of California schools, for example, email waitlisted students a form that they can fill up, which gives them an opportunity to write a letter of continued interest. Other schools may follow a similar system, but if not, it could also be a good idea to reach out directly to your regional admissions officer to show them that you are still enthusiastic about attending their school. Think of this letter as an opportunity to showcase your personality and fit for the school. It is also worth mentioning any noteworthy updates, either academic or extracurricular, especially if you can show the admissions committee how you would look to build on these achievements at their college. You could also ask your high school counselor to provide the college with an update on your academic performance, especially if there have been notable improvements since you applied. However, remember to first check that your college is open to receiving this, as each school has a slightly different approach when it comes to waitlists.

3. Get excited about the schools where you have been accepted.

Since there is no guarantee that you will be offered admission from the waitlist, it is important to secure a spot at a school where you have been accepted. Most schools give admitted students till May 1st to make a non-refundable enrolment deposit in order to confirm their attendance. Since admission from the waitlist is difficult to predict and could take place any time between May and August, it is a good idea to start engaging with the school where you have enrolled. Participate in as many freshman forums and events for recently admitted students. After all, there is a good chance that you will end up attending this school, so don’t pass up the opportunity to start getting acquainted with your future classmates.

4. Be realistic.

Research the number of students that have been accepted from the waitlist in previous years. Has the school waitlisted more or fewer students this year as compared to previous years, and how does this measure against their admissions yield? While there is no scientific way to determine your chances of getting off the waitlist, this could help you to get an idea of the bigger picture. Brown’s waitlist, for example, has had around 900-1000 students in previous years, of which it has admitted anywhere between 2 and 300 students (read this article for a closer look at the figures). However, the college has made more waitlist offers this year, and is expecting at least 1,000-1,250 students to accept their spots on the waitlist, which means that the competition here is likely to be even more fierce. Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences, on the other hand, has offered admission to fewer students (4,343) as compared to last year (5,191) despite an 18% increase in its applications. While it hasn’t published its waitlist figures, the lower acceptance rate from a larger applicant pool could result in greater movement on this year’s waitlist.

The college application process can be overwhelming and may seem especially uncertain this year. If you find yourself wondering about how this is going to affect your admission to your dream college, get in touch.