It’s the time of year when high school seniors who applied to college regular decision are starting to receive admissions decisions. Of course, the outcome everyone hopes for — especially when it comes to their first-choice school — is an acceptance, and the one they dread is a denial. But there is a third possible decision that can leave many students and their parents scratching their heads: “waitlisted.”
What exactly does it mean to be waitlisted at a college, and what should you do if this is the admissions decision you receive?
Essentially, being waitlisted means you weren’t a strong enough applicant to be admitted but that you were too strong a candidate for the college to deny you. Depending on how many of the admitted applicants enroll, you might ultimately be offered admission, but that’s a big “might.” In fact, at many colleges, more students are offered a spot on the waitlist than the college has room for in its freshman class. For more on that topic, see this blog post.
As for what you should do if you’re waitlisted, there are several steps:
- Find out more about the waitlist. First, it’s important to know how many people are on the waitlist. Some schools have a ranked waitlist, and if that’s the case, it would be helpful to know where you are on it. At other colleges, the waitlist isn’t ranked. Such schools may offer admission to waitlisted students based on a variety of factors, such as the student’s intended major, their extracurricular interests, their home state, and/or demographic factors (i.e., race, gender, socioeconomic status). For example, if you plan to major in engineering and the college has already admitted plenty of engineering majors, chances are you probably won’t be admitted from the waitlist. Some colleges will share information about their waitlist, whereas others will not, but you won’t know anything if you don’t ask, so call or email your state or regional admissions counselor and inquire.
- Understand the financial implications of the waitlist. In addition to asking how the waitlist works, it’s also important to find out what the college does in regards to financial aid for students who are waitlisted. At some schools, most or all financial aid (need- and merit-based) is offered to admitted students, and there will not be any aid available for students on the waitlist. If you and your family would not be able to afford the college at which you’ve been waitlisted in the absence of financial aid, then there is no point in remaining on the waitlist.
- Decide whether to stay on the waitlist. Learning more about how a college’s waitlist works will likely influence your decision of whether to remain on it. Also, be sure to read the college’s communications carefully. At some schools, you have to actually accept a spot on the waitlist and there likely will be a deadline to do so. If you would rather go to another college that has admitted you, then you should decline your spot on the waitlist. But if you would prefer to go to the school that waitlisted you over others where you were admitted, it makes sense to stay on the list.
- Communicate your continued interest. Doing this can set you apart from other waitlisted applicants. You should email your admissions counselor and state that the college is still one of your top choices/first choice. Report any achievements you’ve had since you applied and explain or reiterate why you think you’re a good fit for the school. If you intend to enroll if offered admission, you should say that (but only if you will definitely enroll). Finally, if you have not already had an interview and the college offers them, you can request one. All of this should be done in one email; don’t bombard the admissions counselor and don’t keep contacting them to ask when you’ll hear about admission.
- Make a deposit at another college. Most colleges have an enrollment deadline of May 1, which means you likely will have to enroll and make a deposit elsewhere before you know whether you’ve been admitted to the college that waitlisted you. Unfortunately, enrollment deposits are non-refundable, but you need to make one in order to hold your spot for the fall at another college, in case the school where you were waitlisted doesn’t accept you. Furthermore, you should try to get in the mindset that the school where you made a deposit is where you will be going in the fall. That way, if you don’t get off the waitlist at the other college, it won’t be as disappointing. Also, be sure to meet any additional deadlines at the school where you enrolled, i.e., to apply for housing, sign up for orientation, register for classes, etc.
- Know what you’ll do if offered admission. If you are admitted from the waitlist, you may only have a few days to decide whether to enroll, so it’s important to think this through and discuss it with your parents ahead of time. When you contact the college in Step 1, you can ask when you might hear about the waitlist and how long you’ll have to make a decision if admitted. Nonetheless, it may be helpful to give yourself a deadline to make a final decision. If you feel like not knowing about your status will become too stressful beyond a certain point, then choose a date by which you are going to stop waiting on the waitlist and are going to start making plans for your arrival at another school.
If you are waitlisted, the most important thing to keep in mind is that everything is likely to work out in the end, whether you end up at your waitlisted college or somewhere else.