How to Handle Being Placed on a Waitlist

By The Dunbar Team


Did you ever wonder about the math behind college admissions? There is actually a term known as “yield” which is the percentage of accepted students who, in return, say “yes” to that college. A high yield is very desirable to colleges as it indicates a high level of interest among students who then send in deposits and matriculate. While analyzing these statistics is the full-time job of an enrollment manager, understanding the basics is helpful for an applicant. Why? As more students apply to more colleges, it becomes increasingly difficult for colleges to accurately predict their yield and shape their incoming class (and Covid didn’t help). Having a waitlist gives a college a cushion in the event they don’t hit their enrollment goals in terms of class size or distribution. In recent years, many colleges have placed more students on their waitlist, in some cases 25% or more of applicants, which they can go to if they need more students.

While it is arguably a gentler outcome than a denial, waitlists are not where we recommend you focus your energy. We recommend you concentrate on the amazing colleges that accepted you. Prior to May 1st, you will need to decide which of those colleges to attend and send in an enrollment deposit (usually a few hundred dollars). Sending in this enrollment deposit secures your place in the incoming class. Once you have made your decision and sent in your deposit, you need to alert the other colleges that accepted you will not be attending. YOU MAY NOT DEPOSIT AT MORE THAN ONE COLLEGE. If you have deposited at one college and are subsequently offered a spot off a waitlist by another college, you may deposit at the second college, but you must also advise the first college that you will not be attending.

While we encourage our students to focus on the college where they were accepted and sent in their deposit, it is important to know how to handle being placed on a waitlist. Historically, the number of students who are accepted from the waitlist varies from year to year and from college to college but—realistically—it is typically a small percentage of students who are accepted off a waitlist; in some years, it might even be none.

If a college that is high on your list offers you a place on their waitlist, reply immediately as colleges have been known to admit candidates from waitlists in direct relation to the order replies come in. Read the waitlist instructions carefully as they may vary across colleges. If you need to complete a step on your applicant portal in order to accept a spot on the waitlist, do that. We also recommend following up with a note expressing your continued strong interest in the college; if it is truly your first choice, let the college know that and that you would attend if accepted (and be sure your school counselor is also informed so they can confirm that should the college contact them). In addition, if you have favorable new information to update your profile – a new set of strong grades, another teacher recommendation, etc., be sure to mention that in your note or ask your school counselor to pass the information on to the colleges. Avoid sending excessive new information/recommendations or sending multiple emails to colleges to make your case; that can be counterproductive.

If you are placed on multiple waitlists, rank them in order of preference. You may be contacted and asked for an immediate decision. If you decide not to remain on a particular waitlist, notify that college as soon as possible as it may reduce the waiting period for someone else.

It is important to realize a waitlist means what it says – “You have to wait.” You should not expect to hear from colleges until after May 1st which is the deadline to send in enrollment deposits. It may take longer, or they may invite you to start in January instead of September; or they might not accept you at all.

Lastly, while we encourage you to accept a waitlist offer if it’s from a college high on your list, you need to be realistic about your chances. Celebrate all of your acceptances and especially the college where you deposited! We have seen firsthand that the best way to bounce back from being waitlisted by one of your top choices is to become excited by the college that said YES to you and where you said YES back.

We wish you the best of luck!