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Wait and See? Tips for How to Get Off the Waitlist

IvyWise Live: What to Do If You Get Put On The Waitlist

Watch our expert counselors answer some of your most pressing waitlist questions. Check out the recording of the IvyWise Live webinar What to Do If You Get Put On The Waitlist.

The ongoing pandemic resulted in an unusual admissions cycle for the class of 2025. After receiving an unprecedented number of applications, all of the Ivy League colleges have opted to push back their decision notification date to April 6 to give their admissions office more time to finalize their decisions.

What’s behind this uptick in applications? With many colleges moving to temporary test-optional admissions policies in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, some students who may have once been discouraged from applying to a highly selective college are now hitting submit. As a result, applications submitted via the Common Application rose by 11% over this past year, while the number of applicants only increased by 2.4%. This indicates that many students may be casting a wider net when it comes to college admissions.

Even before the pandemic, students were applying to more colleges on average than applicants had in years past. As a result, some applicants were gaining admission to multiple schools, which made yield (the percentage of admitted students who matriculate) more and more difficult to predict each year. The uncertainty associated with the pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, making it nearly impossible to accurately gauge yield.

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 81% of applicants matriculating to the class of 2024. 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, 43% of colleges surveyed reported using waitlists, up from previous years, 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 20%, with only 7% of waitlisted students at the most selective colleges eventually gaining admission – down from 14% in previous years. At individual highly-selective institutions this number can be dramatically lower, with some schools admitting zero students off the waitlist in certain years.

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.

Getting Off the Waitlist

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 a variety schools like Yale, Princeton, Columbia, NYU, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, 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 Next-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
In the past, colleges often encouraged waitlisted students to visit before May 1. With many campuses still closed, it is important to stay 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. Although you can’t visit, this is a good time to check in with your admissions representative.

Keep Up Your Grades
Generally, students need to maintain senior year grades, study hard for AP exams and finals, and above all maintain a great attitude in school in order to have the best chance of getting off the waitlist. The entire year’s performance is factored into the admissions decision and for waitlisted students, this can be the deal maker or breaker. However, much like last year, colleges realize that the class of 2025 is experiencing an unprecedented time, with some high schools remaining closed while others begin to reopen. Regardless, it’s important to keep up the momentum and stay engaged in your current courses and prepare for any AP exams, whether you’re taking them virtually or in person.

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.

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.

If you’re looking for additional support after receiving a waitlist decision, IvyWise offers a Waitlist Consultation where students receive expert feedback from a former admissions officer (sometimes with experience at the school where they were waitlisted!)  to help students draft a waitlist letter and make an informed decision about how to choose where to enroll while waiting for waitlist outcomes. To learn more about the IvyWise Waitlist Consultation, contact us today.

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