The Waiting Game: What if I am Waitlisted?

The Waiting Game: What if I'm Wait-Listed?

(Reprinted with permission from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling- NACAC)


It's finally arrived--the envelope from your first-choice college. Nervously, you open it. It's not a denial! But it's not an acceptance, either. You've been wait-listed. What do you do now?

Colleges use waiting lists as insurance. Applicants who are qualified for a college but don't make the "cut" may be wait-listed. If enough accepted students enroll for freshman year, the college won't accept anyone from the wait list. If the college ends up with open spaces in the freshman class, it may accept a few or many students from its wait list.

Unfortunately, colleges often can't predict whether they will go to the wait list or how many students from the list they will need. And you may not receive a final acceptance or denial until as late as July.

"There are never any guarantees with wait lists," said John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School (MI) and director of college counseling for the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.

Waiting-List Trends

According to NACAC's 2003-2004 State of College Admission Report, roughly one-third of colleges and universities use wait lists. The most "selective" colleges (those that admit fewer than half of their applicants) use wait lists at a much higher rate than those that admit more than half of their applicants. The number of colleges using wait lists has remained steady over the past eight years, but the number of students placed on wait lists has increased. On average, 12 percent of students who apply to institutions that have a wait list are placed on the list.

As a national average, a student's chance of being accepted off a wait list is roughly one in five.

Your Insurance Policy

Because the wait list is so unpredictable, it's not wise to count on moving from the wait list to acceptance.

"Counting on a wait-list entry is like counting on a white Christmas in [North Carolina]," said Shaun McElroy, director of college counseling at Escuela Campo Alegre, The American School in Caracas, Venezuela. "It might happen, but you better not invest in winter gear."

If you're wait-listed at your first choice, your first task is to look at the colleges that did accept you. Carefully compare your options and decide on a second-choice college. If you haven't heard anything from the wait-list college by the May 1 deposit deadline, make a deposit at your second-choice college to insure your spot in its freshman class.

Getting the Scoop

Different colleges use wait lists differently. To assess your chances of acceptance from the wait list, call the admission office. Ask what your position is on the list (if the list is ranked). Another important piece of information is the percentage of students that have been accepted from the wait list in recent years. If a college hardly ever uses its wait list, or accepted only a few wait-listed applicants last year, that trend is unlikely to change this year. But you can ask if the admission officer knows yet if the college will go to the wait list this year.

Your high school counselor can also help you get a sense of the strength of your application compared to the statistics for accepted students. (Some colleges give these statistics in the wait-list letter. Otherwise, you or your counselor can try asking the admission office for this information.)

The goal in gathering this information is to determine your chances of eventually being accepted. At this point, if you'd be just as happy going to your second-choice college, you may want to forget about the wait list and focus on preparing for college.

Improving Your Chances

If the college that wait-listed you is still your heart's desire, there are some ways to improve your chances.

"If your wait-list school is clearly your first choice, let them know that," McElroy said.

Colleges like a sure thing. If they end up using the wait list, they'd rather offer acceptance to the students who are most likely to enroll.

"If a student has had any significant, positive changes since their application was submitted, I encourage them to send a letter and include any documentation that demonstrates these changes," Amy Thompson, college and career counselor at York Community High School (IL), said. Some students may send additional recommendations, but they don't carry as much weight as stellar senior grades or a prize-winning performance in the regional spring forensics competition.

Although it's important to strengthen your application if you can, bugging the admission office won't win you any points.

"One call or e-mail says you're interested," says McElroy. "Ten says you're a pest."

The best strategy, then, is to work with your counselor to:

  • choose and make a deposit at a good second choice;
  • get as much information from the wait-list college as you can;
  • let the admission office know that the college is your first choice; and
  • strengthen your application, if possible.

Then, sit back, cross your fingers, and...wait.

NACAC Information for Wait-Listed Students

NACAC's "Statement of Students' Rights and Responsibilities in the College Admission Process" offers the following information for wait-listed students:

If you are placed on a wait list or alternate list:

  • The letter that notifies you of that placement should provide a history that describes the number of students on the wait list, the number offered admission, and the availability of financial aid and housing.
  • Colleges may require neither a deposit nor a written commitment as a condition of remaining on a wait list.
  • Colleges are expected to notify you of the resolution of your wait list status by Aug. 1 at the latest.

Written by Jennifer Gross. Updated by Amy Vogt.