What to Do if You’re Waitlisted for College: 5 Important Steps

Learn how to get off the waitlist and into the college of your dreams

If you’ve been waitlisted by one of the colleges you applied to, you’re probably feeling a lot of emotions right now. There’s the disappointment that you weren’t accepted. At the same time, you’re holding onto hope because you weren’t rejected from college outright. 

You might also be feeling somewhat confused and worried. You’re wondering, what are the best things you can do to get off the college waitlist? What if you miss an important step? Will that hurt your chances of getting accepted after being waitlisted? 

You planned meticulously for your college applications, but this is an unexpected wrench in your plans. Whatever it takes, you want to give this your best shot so you can be one of the fortunate students who gets accepted off the waitlist. 

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about college waitlists and discover how to get off the waitlist and into your dream school

What is a college waitlist? 

So what exactly does it mean to get waitlisted for college? 

To put it simply, a college waitlist is a group of students put on stand-by by the admissions office. They’ll be considered for admission if the college needs additional students to fill the incoming class. 

Why do colleges use waitlists? Here’s an example to explain. Let’s say a college has 600 available seats for its freshman class. The college might accept 1,000 students, knowing not all of them will choose to attend, but hoping 600 will. 

But what if only 550 of those students decide to attend? The college wants to fill all 600 seats. So the admissions office turns to its waitlist. They accept 50 students from the college waitlist to fill those empty seats. 

Now, contrary to what you may have heard, most college waitlists aren’t ranked. So how does a college choose which of its waitlisted students to accept? 

Here’s one way. If a college needs more students, they’ll look at what the gaps of their current incoming class are. Do they need more STEM majors? More musicians? Male students? Local students?

Most colleges strive to bring in diverse classes according to a number of factors—race and ethnicity sure, but also gender, major, background, and location, to name a few. So sometimes getting accepted from the waitlist depends on what the college is lacking. 

But here’s another thing—college admissions offices are filled with humans. Admissions counselors who can and do advocate for the students they think most deserve a place at their college. 

That’s where you can work your magic and improve your chances of getting off the college waitlist. I’m going to explain exactly how to do that in a moment, but first I’ll address a question I commonly get asked by students who are waitlisted for college.  

How often do waitlisted students get accepted? 

If you’re going to keep your hopes up and put in a lot of effort to get off the college waitlist, you probably want to know what your chances of getting accepted are. 

According to a 2019 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about 20% of students get accepted from waitlists nationwide. In theory, that means you have a 1 in 5 chance of getting off the college waitlist successfully.

However, that percentage is an average from all colleges in the country. It can be much tougher for highly selective schools. At some colleges, less than 7% of waitlisted students eventually get accepted.

One important thing to know is you won’t know if you’re accepted from the college waitlist until after May 1, when all the accepted students have either committed to the college or declined their offer of admission. 

How do you get accepted after being waitlisted? 

I know it can be tough waiting until May to know if you’ve made it off the college waitlist. In my work as a virtual college planning consultant, I’ve worked with many students in your shoes. I understand how hard it is to be patient. 

But here’s the good news. While you’re waiting, there are certain steps you can take to increase your chances of getting off the college waitlist. 

1. Accept your place on the college waitlist

This may be surprising, but you don’t actually have a spot on the waitlist until you accept it. Up to 50% of waitlisted students choose not to stay on a college waitlist. So if the admissions office doesn’t hear from you, they’ll assume you’ve moved on and don’t want to be considered for acceptance later on.

That’s why it’s important to follow the college’s directions to accept your place on their waitlist. Sometimes they’ll ask for a brief confirmation, and other times they might ask you to send in extra materials. 

Read the waitlist letter, email or notification carefully to know exactly how to secure your spot on the college waitlist. Then follow those instructions promptly to demonstrate your eagerness.

2. Express your continued commitment to the college

Now is your chance to get on good terms with your admissions counselor. If there are unfilled seats in the incoming class after May 1, you want them to advocate for you. To do that, you need to get them on your side by showing your commitment. 

Email your admissions counselor after getting waitlisted for college. Use a positive tone rather than a pleading or begging one. Let them know you’ll absolutely attend their college if you’re accepted from the waitlist. 

In your email, you should be specific about why that college is the perfect fit for you. What do you want to get involved in as a student? How can you see yourself thriving there? Just make sure you’re not repeating what you wrote in your college essays. 

3. Demonstrate your interest by staying involved

Here’s a way to put your words into action and show how much you still want to go to that college—show up! If the campus is open, visit and take the college tour. 

If tours aren’t available or the college is too far away to visit, attend virtual events. Most colleges are offering virtual student panels, department info sessions, or guided tours. Attending these events is a way to keep your name fresh in the minds of the admissions office. 

Now, let me be clear. I’m not telling you to become a stalker and pester the admissions counselors! That’s a surefire way to lower your chances of getting accepted from the college waitlist. 

But if your name regularly appears on event attendance lists, the admissions office will know the college is still high on your priority list. 

4. Send relevant updates

Getting waitlisted for college means your application was just on the brink of getting accepted. Now’s your chance to improve any weak areas of your application. Here are a few examples of what you might submit to do just that :

  • New SAT or ACT test scores
  • Improved mid-year or third-quarter grades
  • Recent awards or distinctions you’ve received
  • New leadership or extracurricular accomplishments
  • An additional letter of recommendation

But here’s my warning about sending updates to the admissions office—don’t overload or annoy them! You don’t want to be the student emailing your admissions counselor every week. Trust me, it’ll come across as bothersome rather than endearing. 

Instead, bundle a few meaningful updates together and send them at once. But don’t send something the college expressly asked you not to submit in your college waitlist notification. 

Did they tell you not to send in new letters of recommendation? Then don’t send one. But if they didn’t mention it at all, then it couldn’t hurt, right? It might be just the push that convinces them to accept you from the college waitlist.

5. Deposit and secure your seat at another college

It’s important to make sure you have strong options in case you don’t get accepted from the waitlist. Pick one of the colleges you were admitted to and submit your enrollment deposit. 

If you do get accepted from a college waitlist after May 1, you can always cancel your initial deposit and enroll at your dream school. You won’t get your deposit money back, but making sure you have a safe college option is worth the risk of losing it.

And remember, your future doesn’t ride on you going to a specific college. You can have a meaningful experience at whichever college you attend—as long as you choose to stay positive and make the most of it.

Final thoughts on getting waitlisted for college

If you learn just one thing from this article, learn this. Just because you were waitlisted for college doesn’t mean you have to sit back and wait for someone else to decide your future. 

If you follow the five steps I’ve shared, you’ll have a better chance of getting off the waitlist and attending your dream school. 

I want to hear from you! Where were you waitlisted? How are you feeling about it? And which of these five steps have you already completed? Drop a comment down below.

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