College Waitlists: Benefits & Steps

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Some college applicants find they're neither accepted nor denied. Instead, they've been placed on college waitlists. This lesson explains the usefulness of waitlists, including what steps to take to increase your chances of being accepted.

The College Application Process

Iva dreams of attending an Ivy League college. She sent college applications to five different Ivy League schools, hoping she'd be accepted to at least one. However, she was denied admission at three and waitlisted at two. Iva is crushed, but not ready to give up on her dream. What should Iva do?

First, Iva should understand the process. When a student is offered admission, these three elements are present:

  • The student meets the college's admissions requirements
  • The student displays the qualities the school wishes to include in its entering class
  • The school has room to include that student in its entering class

When a student is denied admission, any or all of these three elements are missing. When a student is waitlisted, like Iva, it typically means the student meets the college's admissions requirements and displays the qualities the school wishes to include in its entering class. However, the college does not currently have the space available to include that student.

Colleges use waitlists when they've already offered all available spaces to other applicants. That means the waitlisted student's admission is contingent on other students declining their offers of admission. Waitlists are designed to benefit the colleges, rather than the waiting students. They aid the colleges in filling their freshman classes and bringing their dormitories to full occupancy.

These days, waitlists are quite common. Many students find themselves in Iva's position. For example, Cornell waitlisted nearly 3,000 applicants from the class of 2015 while Princeton waitlisted more than 1,200. Georgetown waitlisted over 2,000 applicants in 2012, and ultimately admitted 84 of those.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

So what should Iva do? First, Iva needs to decide whether or not she wants to stay on the waitlists. There are a few things she'll want to consider:

  • Is she still interested in attending the college?
  • What are her chances of being accepted to the college?

Many times, after being waitlisted, students reconsider their college choices and find that they have more suitable options available. Let's say Iva recently found out she was accepted into the Honors Program at her state university, with a hefty merit scholarship. Though she'd still love to attend her dream Ivy school, she decides that she should not pass up the state university opportunity. In this case, Iva should contact the admissions offices at the waitlist schools to have her name removed from the waitlists.

Iva will also want to investigate her chances of being admitted at the waitlist schools. Some colleges rank their waitlisted students. Iva should contact the admissions offices to find out how many students have been waitlisted and her position among those students. She should also ask how many students have been admitted off the waitlist in past years. If Iva likes her chances, she should immediately notify the admissions offices that she'd like to remain on the waitlists.

Also, Iva will want to inquire about housing and financial aid availability. Waitlisted students will not be admitted until May or June, if at all. By that time, many schools have assigned housing and allocated financial aid packages. If this means Iva will have limited housing and financial aid options, it might affect her decision to stay on the waitlists.

The Waiting Game

If Iva decides to stay on the waitlists, there are several things she should do to increase her chances of admission. First, Iva should write a letter or send an e-mail to each college explaining why she is still interested and why she is a good fit for the college. Iva should communicate promptly, because some colleges track response time.

Some counselors refer to this letter as a Letter of Enthusiasm because it's the applicant's chance to show his or her passion and dedication. The applicant has a chance to add additional information, like things that make the applicant unique but may not have been asked in the original application. Iva should remember that she's competing against other students for any available openings, but should not contact the admissions offices too often. She should stay courteous and professional.

Iva should also:

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