How to Get Off A College's Wait List

The college admissions season is coming to a quick end, and by April 1st, all students will know whether or not they got accepted to their colleges. Some students, however, receive a much more confusing, less understood decision: waitlisted.

If you are one of these students, you may be wondering what does being waitlisted mean, how did you get on the list, and ultimately, how do you get off the list? Let's demystify each of these questions.

What does "being waitlisted" mean?
Not all students will accept their offer of admission, even at top colleges such as Harvard and Stanford. Students' preferences may have changed or they got accepted to another college more suitable to their interests. Colleges expect this and admit more students than they plan to enroll. However, they are not perfect, and at times, fewer students than expected accept their offer--leaving empty spaces in their freshman class.

To account for this possibility, colleges create a waitlist to fill these spaces.

How did you get on a college's waitlist?
Are you on one of these waitlists? Waitlists are not a bad sign, and at times, they are even a compliment to your abilities. In some cases, you may have been too strong of a candidate--having grades, test scores, essays, and experiences far above the typical application to a college. Some colleges assume you will get many other offers that you are more likely to accept. Thus, they gave the spot to a student they believe will enroll, instead. This is usually the case if waitlisted from one of your safety colleges and sometimes even your target colleges.

For reach colleges, such as those among the Ivy League, being on a waitlist is a sign that your regional admissions officer believes you will be academically successful at the college. However, given the entire applicant pool, students from other regions may have been a better fit to the college's admissions goals for this year, as colleges aim to create a student body representative of students from all backgrounds and interests around the world.

Regardless of how you got on the waitlist, there are important precautions and steps to take to ensure the best possible outcome.

How do students get off a college's waitlist?
Many believe students are numerically ranked on these waitlists. In most cases, this is false. Rather, getting off the waitlist is based on a student's continual interest and fit to the college--a much more subjective process.

There are two things you should do to increase your success through the waitlist process.

First, you should always have a backup plan! You should never depend on getting off a waitlist. Above all, you should accept another college's offer before their enrollment deadline to ensure you have a college to attend in the fall. If you get taken off a desired college's waitlist, the worst scenario is that you lose the deposit to your backup college.

Next, you should write the waitlisted college(s) a statement of continual interest. This is an email to the admission office's director and your regional counselor stating that the college remains your number one choice. Then, you should provide important academic, professional, extracurricular, and personal updates since you applied.

This statement should be very positive and professional, continuing to display why you are a strong candidate.

In your letter, consider the following possible updates:

  • Have you received any new academic, school, or community awards?
  • Do you have any new roles or responsibilities in any of your activities?
  • Did you get a new job, internship, or shadowing experience?
  • Did you start any new extra-curriculars, activities, or hobbies?
  • Did you participate in (or were impacted by) any new experiences?
  • Have you attended any important conferences, events, or presentations?

Then, it is important to align your updates to support the interests and goals you stated throughout your application (the 'positioning' you hopefully emphasized when you applied), along with why you are a strong fit with the college.

For many top, selective colleges, if spaces become available, the dean or director of the admissions office will ask the regional counselors to submit the top students from their independent waitlists. So by forming a strong, personal connection with your regional counselor, you will dramatically increase your likeliness of an acceptance if spaces become available. Remember, there is no certainty of when or if a space will become available.

Being on a college waitlist can be frustrating, but by understanding the waitlist process, you can ensure the best possible outcome.

For more college advice and insights, you may visit our blog.

Drusilla Blackman is affiliated with The Ivy Dean, an independent college admissions consulting firm.