Waiting for something that you intensely want and then being disappointed, is an experience that people would prefer to avoid. So why would a student set himself or herself up for disappointment by accepting a college’s offer to be waitlisted knowing that the odds of being admitted are often slim? The reason is that they’ll recover faster from disappointment than from regret. You’ll never know if you would have been admitted at your dream school unless you wait.
The Rationale for Waitlists
Colleges wouldn’t maintain waitlists if they never had the occasion to use them. They use them because well-qualified students apply to multiple schools and are often admitted to several of them. If fewer students accept a college’s offer of admission than have in prior years, the college will need to rely on their waitlist. Since waitlisted students nearly made the initial cut for admission, a college can confidently admit a sufficient number of them to bring their freshman class up to the desired size.
Students aspiring to attend top colleges are advised to submit about 10 applications. This spreads the risk of rejection by one or more schools, especially those in the “reach” category. There are three possible outcomes for an application submitted in the Regular Admission cycle: rejection, acceptance, or an invitation to join the waitlist. The first outcome may hurt, but, in terms of follow-up action, it’s simple… do nothing. You’ll be aware of the second outcome when a thick envelope arrives in the mail, bringing cheer and jubilation with it.
The third outcome is the one that can cause anxiety… you’ve been offered a position on the waitlist. If this outcome is from one of several desirable colleges and one or more of the others have accepted you, it’s no big deal. But if this college was your first choice and you would still prefer to attend it above all others, you should follow your heart and join the waitlist even though getting admitted may be a long shot.
Odds of Admission
In 2019, pre-pandemic, more than 600 institutions used a waitlist, including many selective and highly selective institutions. Nationally, about 150,000 students accepted a spot on one of the lists. Over a recent pre-pandemic four-year period, colleges admitted about 33 percent of waitlisted students, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors.
They noted, however, that among those institutions with admission rates of less than 50 percent, the waitlist admission rate was only 17 percent. The 30 most highly selective institutions admitted an even lower percentage — an average of less than 10 percent of waitlisted students. Every year, a few colleges admit none of their waitlisted students, depending upon how strong their yield was that year (yield is the percentage of applicants who accept offers of admission and go on to attend that college).
Below is a list of well-known institutions that admit a low average percentage of students from their waitlists:
- Michigan – 2%
- Baylor – 3%
- UC Davis – 1%
- Vanderbilt – 5%
- University of Virginia – 1%
- UMass-Amherst – 2%
- Rensselaer – 3%
- Carnegie-Mellon – 5%
- UC San Diego – 2%
- Cornell – 4%
- Georgetown – 12%
- MIT – 9%
- Northwestern – 3%
- Princeton – 5%
Among the institutions with the highest rates of waitlisted students admitted are:
- Ohio State – 100%
- Clemson – 99%
- Penn State – 93%
- Arkansas – 85%
- UC Davis – 74%
- UC Riverside – 74%
- University of Maryland Baltimore County – 69%
- Saint Louis University – 65%
- University of San Diego – 64%
College Waitlist Action Plan
If you elect to join a college’s waitlist, we advise you to be proactive. Below are steps that we recommend you take to boost your chances of admission from a waitlist.
1. Probability: Get a sense of your chances of admission. Contact the admissions office to find out if the college ranks waitlisted students. If so, most of them will let you know your rank. Next, research the yield rate for the college over the past few years. If they have been experiencing a lower than average yield rate this year and you have a high rank on the waitlist, your chances of admission improve. You can research the yearly waitlist outcomes of a college on the College Board website and the Common Data Set.
2. Email: Write a brief email to the admission office soon after accepting waitlist status. The email shouldn’t reiterate the main points that you made in your application. You should briefly update the admissions office on recent significant academic and nonacademic achievements that occurred too late to be included on your application. Emphasize your continued strong desire to attend the college and make the case for why you’re a good fit. Tell them that you’ll enroll if they admit you.
3. Grades: Don’t slack off academically. If you’re waitlisted, you may be re-assessed based on your third and fourth quarter senior year grades.
4. Letter of Recommendation: Check to see if the college will accept another letter of recommendation. If so, consider asking a senior year teacher who can provide new positive information about you.
5. Contact: Stay in touch with the admissions office. Don’t overdo it! They want to see that you’re genuinely interested in their institution, but they don’t want to be pestered. Occasional, well-chosen contacts are acceptable.
After you’ve accepted a spot on a waitlist, the best thing you can do is to carefully consider the colleges that have admitted you. If you would be happy attending one of them, send in your deposit by the deadline and plan to attend that college in the fall. If you’re later admitted to your dream college from their waitlist, confer with your guidance counselor or independent educational consultant to consider your options.