What if you end up on a Waitlist?

March 31, 2021

As decisions from highly selective schools start rolling in, there is a good chance that you might be offered a place on an institution’s “waitlist.” Admissions officers use these lists to manage their yield. It is a hedge against a class size that comes in lower than expected. This year there has been a lot written about waitlists given the explosive amount of applications at elite schools coupled with the uncertainty of where kids will matriculate. (“Expect College Wait Lists to Be Obnoxiously Long this Year” in WSJ). So, I thought it might help to provide you with some guidance if you find yourself with this “we-didn’t-say-yes-and-we-didn’t-say-no” offer.

Don’t get your hopes up

While making the Waitlist is better than a denial, statistically, it’s not likely to result in an acceptance. It is not only a school-to-school analysis but also a year-to-year one. Regardless of last year’s numbers, this year will be hard to predict. Nevertheless, the chances of coming off the Waitlist are slim at best.

Take the lottery ticket if the school is higher on your list than your admitted schools

There’s no actual harm in trying. The only “cost” associated with a spot on the Waitlist is the enrollment deposit you will have to forfeit if you get an offer. There is, of course, also the emotional cost of holding on to hope throughout the summer.

Pay the enrollment deposit to the school that has admitted you and you are prepared to attend

Don’t mess around. Regardless of Waitlist offers, review the schools that did accept you and decide which one you will attend. Find out their enrollment deposit deadline (usually May 1 or soon after that) and pay. The deposits are generally in the $400 to $600 range. While it is non-refundable, it will reserve you a spot in their incoming class.

Follow the instructions

Each school has different directions for accepting a spot on their Waitlist. Some will require additional supplemental material, while others simply want an acknowledgment. It is critical to take note of any deadlines…be prepared to respond ASAP.

Letter of Continued Interest

Once you have decided to accept a Waitlist spot, be prepared to craft a Letter of Continued Interest. Some schools have a place to submit additional material in the portal. If they don’t, I suggest you find your admissions officer’s email address and direct it to them. Much like an essay, it is crucial to understand the purpose. You want to address the “weakness” in your application. Ask yourself why they didn’t say yes. It might be that the school doesn’t believe you want to attend (demonstrated interest). Or, you might have had a weak grade on your transcript (maybe a new grade and rec letter from a teacher can offset that). You want to communicate (only if true) that the school is absolutely one you would attend if you were admitted. Reiterate the fit (the Why Us essay) while also updating them on anything relevant since you turned in the application. (POSITIVE TONE…NOT GROVELING).

Things NOT to do

This is not the time to be too reactionary. Don’t try and visit or reach out directly to the admissions office for an explanation. Don’t send cookies or flowers. And, most importantly, ALL communications should come from the student, NOT the parent.


After you have done the above, move on. Give your attention to the school that wanted you from the beginning. Respond to any summer emails. Get excited. You are about to attend a great college. If you happen to get a call or an email over the summer from the Waitlist school, assess the offer then. I’ve had kids change their minds over the summer and reject the Waitlist offer. It is amazing how time heals that feeling of rejection. PATIENCE IS THE KEY. You might get the call as you are literally moving into your dorm!

The bottom line is you should feel good that you were offered the spot on a Waitlist. It means the school thinks you are a good fit and can matriculate at the institution. It is more a reflection of numbers and the make-up of the actual class. They might have room for only one southerner who plays the tuba…so, it just wasn’t meant to be. GOOD LUCK to all of you over the next few weeks and months.