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Wait and See? Tips for Getting Off the Waitlist

As another admissions cycle comes to an end, many colleges are reporting record numbers of applications, as well as record-low admission rates, for the class of 2023. Harvard University reported a record-high number of applications to the class of 2023, with 43,330 students applying. Dartmouth College also reported a record-topping applicant pool with 23,641 students applying to the Ivy League school. Brown University and Boston College also reported record numbers, 38,640 and 35,000 respectively, and Yale also had a record-setting applicant pool, with 36,829 applying, an increase of 4.3% over last year.

These increases in application numbers can cause some complications for admissions offices, because students are applying to more colleges on average, making it more likely that they are gaining multiple acceptances to schools where they won’t end up enrolling. This makes yield, the percentage of admitted students who matriculate, more and more difficult to predict each year – often leaving schools with empty seats once final enrollment deposits are in.

According to a report by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), the average yield rate of colleges has dramatically declined over the past decade, from 48.7% to 33.6%. Even Harvard University is concerned with yield, with 82% of applicants matriculating to the class of 2022. While that is well above average, no college has 100% yield, and all institutions need a strategy to ensure they can fill those empty spots and enroll the most students possible – and that’s where the waitlist comes in.

What Is The Waitlist?
Being waitlisted means that you will be considered for admission in the event that the school needs additional students for the freshman class. According to NACAC, 40% of colleges surveyed reported using waitlists, with highly-selective colleges placing a greater proportion of students on those waitlists. However, being waitlisted doesn’t mean that students are automatically considered for admission. At many schools, students must first tell the admissions office that they want to accept their spot on the waitlist. Of those students who chose to remain on the waitlist (50%), colleges only accepted an average of 25%, with only 14% of waitlisted students at the most selective colleges eventually gaining admission. At individual highly-selective institutions this number can be dramatically lower, with some schools like MIT admitting zero students off the waitlist.

This can leave those students feeling confused and uncertain about where to enroll. Waitlisted applicants are usually considered for admission after enrollment decisions from accepted students are in. Because waitlists are not ranked, meaning that there’s no overall number one student who will definitely be admitted if there’s space, schools will need to evaluate their institutional needs before offering admission to waitlisted students. For example, if few engineering students enroll in the freshman class, a school might go to the waitlist and admit some students who applied as engineering majors. Because each school is different when it comes to building a well-rounded class, some colleges will admit students from the waitlist as early as April, while others wait until July or even August as they take time to assess their institutional priorities.

So what can waitlisted students do to improve their chances of being accepted off the waitlist? Our team of expert counselors, all of whom are former admissions officers at schools like Yale, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Georgetown, and more recommend the following tips:

Don’t Take “Waitlist” Literally
Don’t wait to take action! While the situation may seem out of your hands, there are a number of steps to take now in order to improve your chances of getting off the waitlist and prepare for your back up plan. Talk to your college counselor, or consult an independent college counselor, to develop a plan of action.

Think It Over
Before contacting any colleges that have waitlisted you, take some time to consider whether you still want to attend the school. If the college where you are waitlisted is no longer one of your top choices, you should write to withdraw your name from the waitlist, opening up a spot for another student who wishes to remain on the list. If the waitlist school remains your top choice, accept your spot on the waitlist and move forward with these next steps.

Enroll at Your Second-Choice College
Even if you choose to remain on the waitlist, you should still enroll at your next choice school, because you don’t know if you’ll be accepted from the waitlist. Secure your spot at your next choice school by sending your non-refundable deposit (which you will lose if you decide to enroll elsewhere) by May 1st.

Reiterate Your Desire to Attend
Before May 1st, write a letter to your admissions representative (the person responsible for evaluating applications from your high school) and copy a dean of admissions. Be upbeat in your approach and do not show frustration or disappointment. In the letter, include a paragraph explaining how you see yourself at this school. Include the courses you would like to take, the professors with whom you would like to study and/or conduct research, and the activities in which you would participate. Show how you would enhance the school community. This should be different from your supplemental essay and should highlight new or additional reasons that the school is a great fit for you academically and socially.

If the college remains your first choice and you will definitely attend if you get in, state that. Only write this to your first-choice school, especially if you are on several waitlists. The letter will reiterate your commitment to attending if admitted off the waitlist, which helps the admissions committee determine its final student count and, in turn, can help your chances of getting in.

Give Updates
Update the college on everything important you have been doing in school and in the community since you submitted your application. Inform them of any updated grades, honors, awards, or new standardized test scores that you have received. Also consider submitting an additional letter of recommendation from someone who can add new information and depth to your application file (for example, a senior year teacher who has come to know you well and could highlight your scholastic growth and achievement). Only send what is absolutely necessary – you don’t want to overload the admissions office. It’s a good idea to consult with your college counselor before sending new materials.

Stay in Touch
You should also get in touch with any contacts you have made throughout the application process so they will keep you, and your strong desire to attend their school, fresh in their mind. If the college encourages its waitlisted students to visit, then set up a visit before May 1. This is also a good time to meet with your admissions representative.

Keep Up Your Grades
Maintain senior year grades, study hard for AP exams and finals, and above all maintain a great attitude in school! The entire year’s performance is factored into the admissions decision and for waitlisted students, this can be the deal maker or breaker.

If you don’t get off the waitlist at a particular school, it’s not the end of the world. If you applied to a balanced list of best-fit colleges, you should have a number of acceptances from good fit colleges that meet your social, academic, and financial needs.

Remember, you can always apply to that school later as a transfer student if you are unhappy at the college you choose to attend freshman year. However, you should start your freshman year off with an open mind and make the most of your new campus.

Remember, college is what you make of it! Although you may have a top choice school, if you have done your research well, there are likely many other great choices that fit your goals, where you’ll be a happy and productive student. Good luck!