What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted for Colleges?

Searching for the right college, deciding what your safety schools and reach schools are, and applying to the school of your dreams, can be an exciting yet challenging process. There are many different factors to consider, like location, campus size, student resources, and more.

Because of all of the excitement and anxiety surrounding the college admissions process, it can be pretty disheartening to hear that you have been placed on a college’s waitlist, especially if that college is a school you were hoping to attend.

If you find yourself in this position, do not throw in the towel and accept defeat just yet — being placed on the waitlist does not mean all hope of receiving an admission offer is gone.  

In recent years, some colleges have increased their use of the waitlist as an option in the admissions process. 

As such, if you learn that you have been waitlisted by a college, you are far from alone. 

Here, we will discuss what it means to be placed on a waitlist, how to get off of one, some statistics about college waitlists, and more helpful information to guide you through the ins and outs of being waitlisted.

What Exactly Does It Mean to be Waitlisted?

Waiting List
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Getting placed on a college’s waitlist means that upon reviewing the student’s application, the admissions department determined that they had all the necessary qualifications to attend their school, but that they are unable to offer admission at that time. 

Thus, the waitlist is something between acceptance and rejection. 

Being waitlisted is no reason to give up hope entirely — there is still a chance that students who are placed on the waitlist will eventually be offered admission. 

On the other hand, it is also a possibility that after being placed on the waitlist, students will later find that they have been denied admission.

There are two main reasons a college may decide to place a student on their waitlist. 

For one, it may be the case that the university has a low number of open seats in their incoming class, compared to the number of applications they receive. 

Placing students who quite nearly or just barely meet the college’s admissions standards on the waitlist allows colleges more time to determine how many accepted students will ultimately enroll at their school before they start to accept second-tier applicants. 

The second common reason that colleges waitlist students is to allow more time to consider whether or not they want to accept applicants whose credentials, such as extracurricular activities, standardized test scores, and grades, do not quite meet their bar for admission. 

In this case, waitlisted applicants may be admitted after submitting any final grades, standardized test scores, or additional academic records that were not available at the initial time of applying and that reflect positively on their ability.

How to Get off the Waitlist – Strategies for Admission

The first step to getting off of a college’s waitlist is to accept your spot on it. 

Most colleges that use a waitlist typically allow students the option to accept or reject the waitlist offer, and accepting the offer is required in order to be considered for admission.

After accepting the waitlist offer, students should contact the college’s admissions office to express their continued interest in attending their school. 

Some schools may allow or even require that waitlisted students submit additional information as an update regarding their application, while others may refuse to accept supplemental materials. 

Contacting the admissions department is also an excellent opportunity to find out what a particular school’s approach to their waitlist is since this information may be crucial to the applicant’s chance of being accepted.

At this point in the process, it is wise to submit a deposit at a different college. Because the college enrollment deadline is generally May 1 every year, students must accept an offer for admission at a college before that date. 

By doing so, students can ensure a seat in at least one college’s incoming class rather than banking on the possibility of being admitted from the waitlist at their desired school. 

While waiting to hear back from the school at which they have been waitlisted, students should prepare themselves to make a final decision promptly after being notified of their acceptance or rejection.

Many colleges that use a waitlist prefer to hear back as quickly as possible from waitlisted students.

This is because if students on the waitlist end up denying an offer for admission, then the college will need to send the next student on the list an admission offer to fill seats in the class.

College Waitlist Statistics

In a report from NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling), in the 2018-2019 academic year, 10% of students who apply to colleges that have a waitlist will be placed on the waitlist. 

The same report also notes that students placed on a waitlist have an about 20% chance of being accepted to the school later.

The NACAC report also found that 43% of postsecondary institutions had a waitlist in the same year. This statistic, however, varies considerably between different types of schools. 

Nearly half, or 48%, of private colleges used a waitlist in the 2018-2019 academic year. On the other hand, a mere 34% of public schools used a waitlist that year.

The use of a waitlist is most common among highly selective colleges, with 82% of top-ranked schools opting to use a waitlist in their admissions process. 

Of course, as this group of schools is most selective, a smaller percentage of students — just 7%, in fact — who are waitlisted at prestigious schools eventually earn offers for admission. 

In a survey of 100 private and public colleges and universities, CollegeKickstart found that the chance of being admitted to a school after being placed on their waitlist has increased in recent years. 

A 2020 study found that 43,867 students who were waitlisted at surveyed schools were eventually accepted. This is a 97% increase compared to the previous year, during which only 22,223 waitlisted students were lucky enough to get off of the waitlist.

Should I Accept an Offer On a Waitlist?

If you are offered admission after being placed on a college’s waitlist, you may wonder whether you should accept the offer. 

This may be especially true for those who decided to submit a deposit for enrollment at a different school since, the majority of the time, enrollment deposits are non-refundable. 

Whether you should choose to accept or decline an offer on a waitlist depends on a number of different factors. 

One factor that may influence this decision is how the school at which you were waitlisted compares to the other schools you have been accepted to. 

If you receive an offer for admission from the school of your dreams’ waitlist, then it makes sense for you to accept the offer.

On the other hand, if you have been accepted at other colleges, you might find that you have started to accept or even look forward to the idea of attending a different school. If that is the case, it may be wise to reconsider how much you really want to attend the school that placed you on their waitlist. 

The cost is another factor to consider when debating if you should accept an admission offer from a waitlist. 

For some colleges, financial aid is merit-based, meaning it is awarded according to the strength of your academic profile as reflected in your application. 

The most selective colleges receive an excess of applications to begin with, and if you were placed on their waitlist, then it is more likely than not that you are near the bottom of the applicant pool in terms of test scores, GPA, grades, and so on.

As a result, you will probably not be offered a very good merit-based financial aid package.

On the other hand, financial aid offers are also sometimes need-based, meaning that the amount you will receive in aid is determined based on your family’s income. 

In this case, being placed on the waitlist has little to do with the likelihood that you will receive a handsome financial aid package. 

In this case, attending the school that had placed you on the waitlist may prove to be as affordable, or even more affordable, than attending whatever other schools you have been accepted to. 

Remember: you are free to accept or decline an offer for admission from the waitlist after the May 1 deadline, even if you have already paid an enrollment deposit at a different college.

What To Do If You Are Not Accepted Off a Waitlist

Before you even begin applying to schools, it is best to have an idea of what your reach schools are, what your safety schools are, and what your first choice school is. 

You should apply to at least a small handful of different colleges in order to ensure that you have an attractive array of options for where to enroll, just in case. 

No matter how badly you may want to attend one particular school, if you are placed on their waitlist, you will be glad if you have already prepared a solid backup plan. 

In the event that you are not offered admission from your desired college’s waitlist, you will have a few different options for how to move forward from there. 

If you are not accepted off of a waitlist, then you can cross that school off of your list of possibilities. This may hurt, but it is not the end of the world. 

Then, it is time to reconsider your other options. You will probably have already done some amount of research about each school you have applied to, but it might be helpful to start fresh, compile a new list of pros and cons, and use the knowledge you gained from getting rejected to make a more informed evaluation of how well you think you will fit into the campus community at whatever given school. 

If you did not prepare adequately for being rejected from the waitlist by applying to a variety of other colleges, then you can still apply to any school with rolling admissions

Colleges with closed admission require that applications are submitted by a specific deadline so that their admissions office can evaluate all applications for a given cycle at the same time. 

In contrast, colleges with rolling admissions consider applications as they receive them, meaning that you can submit an application until all of the seats in their incoming class are filled.

This gives you another opportunity to secure yourself a spot at a college without the pressure of a hard deadline.