Navigating the Wait List
Q: What is the waitlist, and what do I do if I’m placed on one?
A: Not all application decisions rendered by colleges fall neatly into the categories of “accepted” or “denied.” A third, often more emotionally challenging result, is the waitlist or waiting list. The chances of getting off the waitlist are slim on a national (US) average, but there are several things to understand and then to do, which we hope to illuminate here.
First, what is the wait list? In as simple a definition as possible, the wait list is a pool of applicants to whom the admission office has not granted outright admission but whom they might still consider if they have space once all deposits are counted.
Why do colleges use wait lists? Simply put, the admissions practices at colleges and universities in the US are driven predominantly by the need to fill a specific number of beds, their enrollment target. In order to do this, colleges focus on yield, which is the number of students who were admitted who actually attend, and the waitlist protects yield. To explain further, let’s consider a simplified example of a college that is looking to fill 1000 beds in the freshman class. Some individual way up the leadership hierarchy of the admissions team is responsible for constructing a yield model that predicts yield. This is an enormously complicated calculus that we will not try to explain here, but suffice it to say that predicting the behavior of adolescents is tricky. However, let’s say that this college anticipates a 50% yield, which is to say that half of all admitted students will deposit and enroll. If they are looking to fill 1000 beds, then the logic would suggest that they admit 2000 students at that 50% yield to result in filling those 1000 beds. However, given the imprecise nature of yield predictions, colleges would rather avoid being over (and have too many students to fill their limited beds) and consequently typically pursue being under. In our overly simplified example, the admissions team might aim to admit 900 students by admitting 1800 instead. In this model, this college would then go to the waitlist to creep toward their enrollment target of 1000 beds.
How do colleges use the wait list? As with most of the information here, the specific details of practice at individual colleges vary, but the general ideas are roughly accurate across the board. In regards to this question, most US colleges release decisions by April 1 and expect students to deposit at one (and only one) college by May 1. As such, as deposits and refusals (those students who have made the decision to enroll or not, respectively) come in, colleges begin looking at their waitlist pool. For example, if there are a disproportionate number of women in their enrolling pool, then they might start looking at men from the waitlist. If there is not enough diversity, then they might start looking at those factors. If they need more athletes, artists, business majors, etc… At some point, usually after May 1, colleges will then either release all students from the wait list because they reached their targeted enrollment (essentially denying all remaining students on the waitlist), or they will start making offers to wait-listed applicants. If we consider the example from the previous question, they will look to fill those 100 beds, but they will do so based on their institutional needs based on the demographics and composition of those students who have already deposited. So, in considering this, the wait list is not really a list at all, with students all receiving a rank or number; instead, it is a pool from which they will look to sculpt their incoming class.
What can I do to get admitted off the waitlist? There is no sure-fire way to guarantee admission off of the waitlist — remember that the overall chances of getting off the waitlist are small! — but there are things that students can do to make sure that if a college is going to the waitlist, that they are considered.
Focus first on where you were admitted. Make a plan to accept one of the offers of admission from the schools to which you were admitted and to make a deposit before May 1. That is most important. Do not overly focus attention on the waitlist.
Determine whether you would like to accept offers to remain on the waitlist. Once you have chosen where you will deposit, you need to ask whether you would definitely attend the school whose wait list you have been offered. If you cannot say definitively that you would attend, then it does not make sense to accept the spot on the waitlist. In this case, decline the wait list offers and move on with the places where you have been admitted or other wait list offers.
Carefully consider what is asked of you to remain on the waitlist. Posts like this are somewhat dangerous in that we are providing an overview of what might be asked of you, whereas the actual expectations of a college (which change year-to-year) are articulated carefully to the student directly. Strictly follow the instructions the schools provide!
Demonstrating Continued Interest. Most colleges will ask wait-listed students to somehow demonstrate their continued interest in their school. Ultimately, these instructions tend to be very specific. Keep in mind that the admissions team at all colleges is focusing on yielding students throughout April; they are not ignoring wait-listed students per se, but the wait list is not their top priority, so the trick is to articulate your desire to be admitted and to follow the instructions provided while not coming across as pushy, aggressive, or annoying. This is a slippery slope, but it is most easily navigated if the student has effectively engaged in establishing a relationship with the admissions officer previously! That said, in most cases, colleges will provide instructions on how to demonstrate continued interest, which usually is through an additional letter to be uploaded to a portal or sent to a particular person or institutional email address. Sometimes specific prompts are provided for students to respond to, but often there is no structure. In this latter case, we recommend students consider the following for inclusion in their letter: What has changed in your life since time of application? Interests, activities, family life, etc. Are there any updates to share? Accolades, performances, awards? What has continued to resonate with you about this college? Programs, majors, professors, specific courses, etc.How have you remained the same? Grades, activities, etc? Tell them that if admitted, you would 100% attend. (If you cannot say this, with the exception of financial aid packages, then do not remain on the waitlist.)
Work with your college or guidance counselor. Finally, your counselor can be helpful to you throughout the waitlist process. They can be helpful in brainstorming and proofing letters and emails, but they can also provide additional advocacy whenever possible.
What does the timing look like here? We continue to share new ways in which the college landscape has changed. The wait list is one notable example of this. Until recently, colleges, by and large, never went to the waitlist until after May 1, the date by which admitted students must deposit. Until that date, they would not know for sure how many waitlist spots they must fill. However, over the last several years, colleges started going to the wait list prior to May 1, with the hope that if they were to beat their competitors to a particular wait-listed student, then they would have a better chance at yielding. (One college with whom I spoke recently shared that on May 1, they have to make 4 calls to yield one student off the waitlist while on July 1, they have to make 25 calls to yield 1.) However, this trend has accelerated and last year, we saw some of the most selective institutions on the planet go to the waitlist well before May 1. As such, it is our firm recommendation to complete all expectations to remain on the waitlist as soon as possible. While previously we would have recommended to get the work done by May 1, we are now recommending that students work to accept or deny spaces and then to submit any requested materials as close to April 1 as possible.
What happens if I do get admitted off the waitlist? If a student deposits at one college and then gets offered an acceptance off the waitlist at another institution, the timing of the offer determines the process. If the waitlist acceptance is offered prior to May 1, then the student must notify the institution to which he or she initially deposited of his or her intention to accept a spot at the other college; typically the initial deposit would be refunded. Then the student may deposit at the new college. However, if the wait list offer is made after May 1, the same process applies, but the initial deposit (typically) is nonrefundable.
What if I get multiple waitlist admission offers? Implicit within this question is one about choosing to remain on multiple wait lists. We do not take issue with a student remaining on several waitlists so long as the student would accept an offer of admission to each of them over the college to which he or she has deposited. If a student remains on multiple waitlists and is offered admission from one, we ask that he or she reconsider their decision to remain on the still-pending wait lists. For example, if a student is wait-listed at 5 colleges (not outside the realm of possibility), remains on all of them, and is offered admission to her third favorite place (#3), then we would ask that she then remove herself from the waitlist at colleges #4 and #5 given that, logically, she would not ever accept the offer of admission over #3. Things can get tricky if multiple waitlist admission offers arrive simultaneously, but we would ask the student to communicate with his/her college counselor to navigate the process.