Sometimes it’s more difficult to receive a “maybe” than a definitive “no” from a school. The first decision you will have to make after receiving a place on the waitlist is whether you would like to remain there. If you’ve already received acceptance to your dream school and you’re more excited to go there than anywhere else, then it’s not necessary for you to take up a spot on a waitlist. If you were waitlisted at a school that you had your heart set on attending, it’s okay to stay on the list, but stay realistic. Waitlists are often longer than the list of accepted students, so there’s a lot of competition.


Being on a waitlist can be agonizing. Unlike your friends and peers, who may have started to announce their exciting future plans, you feel stuck in college limbo. This can be a particularly horrible feeling if you’re trying to transfer into an institution, and it can be demoralizing if you’re trying to return to school as an adult. Unfortunately, the odds of getting off any particular waitlist do not weigh in your favor. Statistics vary from year to year, so there is almost no way of predicting the likelihood of receiving an acceptance offer. You can check the most recent statistics by searching for an individual college and clicking on “Applying.” Macalester College, for example, accepted nearly 80% of the 269 students who accepted a place on their waitlist in 2014, but in 2015, they accepted zero of the 177 students on their list.

Why are there so many waitlisted students?

The waitlist at many elite schools is just as long as, or even longer than, their list of accepted students, and some waitlists are even larger than the entirety of the freshman class. Carleton College offered 1,366 students a place on the waitlist in 2016, but the freshman class only had room for 567 students. (Only two students were accepted off the waitlist.) While it may seem unfair, colleges do have their reasons for doing this. Here are a few issues in higher education that may help you understand your school’s motives for choosing to waitlist students rather than accept or reject them outright.

  • Colleges focus on selectivity. Colleges often choose to accept fewer students to boost their selectivity rating, which denotes how competitive admissions are at their institution. Schools that admit a large percentage of their applicants are not very selective, while schools that admit very few of the students who apply are highly selective. The U.S. News and World Report’s list of the best colleges in the country reflects these statistics, making selectivity the top priority for colleges competing for top spots on the list.
  • It is difficult to predict who will accept their offer of admission. Students today are applying to more schools than they did 15 years ago. With a growing number of high school seniors choosing to apply to nine or more elite colleges, individual schools find it hard to predict who will say yes to their admissions offer. In the situation where every accepted student says yes, a waitlist would be unnecessary, but such situations never happen and colleges need to be able to offer admission to students who were not accepted in their first round. This is particularly important for schools who do not allow students to apply early.
  • Schools use unranked waitlists for a reason. A large waitlist pool allows colleges to handpick students to fill any gaps in their freshmen class after all admissions offers have been answered. For example, if the school realizes that they are in need of a pianist for the incoming class, they can sort through their waitlisted students to find a candidate that meets their requirements. Generally speaking, waitlists are not ranked for this reason, meaning that if you call and ask about your likelihood of getting off of a waitlist, admissions officers probably won’t be able to give you a good answer.

How can I be proactive while waiting for a decision?

  • Make a quick decision. Send in the form, letter, or postcard accepting your place on the waitlist as soon as possible. If schools assess your enthusiasm and commitment based on your response time, do yourself a favor by making a quick decision. Note that admissions offices cannot request deposits from students to remain on the waitlist. Don’t pay a deposit before you receive a written acceptance letter.
  • Know your status. Call the school to ask if their waitlist is ranked and if so, what your position is. If they cannot tell you, ask how many students they accepted off of the waitlist the previous year to get an idea of the odds you are facing.
  • Know how much it will cost you. Be aware that if you are accepted from the waitlist, it is unlikely that the school will be able to give you much financial aid. Your housing options may also suffer. Financial aid and prime housing options are rewarded on a first-come, first-served basis; so regular admission students take precedence. Connect with the school’s financial aid and housing offices and ask about their waitlist policies.
  • Don’t neglect other options. Reconsider schools that have already granted you acceptance. Would you be equally as happy attending one of them? If the answer is yes, don’t put yourself through waitlist stress. Inform the school that waitlisted you that you want to be removed from the list to give other students a chance.
  • Keep up your grades. Senioritis is tough to beat, but now is not the time to slack off if you are trying to get into your dream school. Show admissions officers that you have what it takes to make it at their university. Send them your mid-semester and final transcripts. The same goes for transfer students; just because you want to leave your current institution doesn’t mean you can slack off. Show that you’ve maintained high grades, or better yet, that you’ve improved them.
  • Show off your accomplishments. Let the school know if you have received any awards or accolades such as higher test scores, athletic awards, or outstanding grades since you submitted your application. Consider asking your guidance counselor to call your prospective school’s admissions office on your behalf; as these accomplishments are school-related, your achievement may be met with greater weight if admissions officers don’t hear about it from you.
  • Explain how you’re a perfect fit. Write a brief statement explaining why the school is your first choice and how you would contribute to the campus community if accepted. Discuss which academic programs interest you and how you think they would help you achieve your career goals.
  • Let others speak. Consider asking a teacher, employer, coach, or counselor to send in another recommendation (only one) if they can speak to how you have grown academically or personally over the past year.
  • Show off your interpersonal communication skills. Schedule a first or second interview with an admissions counselor. If your prospective institution contacts you, always respond quickly and courteously, but don’t go over the top with thanks and emotional gushing. If you’re asked to participate in another interview, absolutely say yes.
  • Advocate for yourself. Do not let anyone call or email the admissions office for you unless it has something to do with your academic record or an achievement (and even then, only a guidance counselor or coach [if you’re trying to join a sports team] should be making this call). Your parents, friends, choir leader, grandma, and significant other have no business bombarding an admissions office on your behalf. Do not send greeting cards, gifts, or an excess of email. Though it is disappointing, handle this situation with maturity.
  • Secure your spot elsewhere. No matter what, send in a tuition deposit by May 1st to one of the schools that accepted you. It’s your insurance policy in case you do not get off the waitlist. If you are accepted off the waitlist and decide to enroll at that school, it is unlikely that you will get your deposit from the other school back. Some schools may be more lenient than others. Read the institution’s refund policy if you are concerned about the loss of money.

Remember to congratulate yourself for making the waitlist. Many other applicants received rejection letters, so it’s already an accomplishment to be where you are. While waiting to hear from the school, make sure to enjoy your summer and start making plans to attend another institution. If you do not feel like you have any other adequate college offers, consider taking a gap year to travel or participate in a long-term community service project and then reapply for college in the fall. You could also consider applying to and attending a local community college for a year or two and then applying to transfer into your dream school after completing prerequisite classes. Transferring can be tricky, though. Check with the admissions offices at both schools if you plan on following this route.

Page last updated: 04/2017