Although it has been more than two years since COVID-19 first made headlines, the pandemic continues to influence the college admissions process. Most colleges have extended the test-optional admissions policies that schools first moved to when the pandemic began disrupting standardized testing dates. Admissions rates remain exceptionally competitive at top colleges, with Brown, Harvard, and Yale reporting record-low admission rates for the class of 2026.
What’s behind these competitive acceptance rates? The move to test-optional admissions policies may have encouraged some students who otherwise wouldn’t have applied to feel more confident hitting submit. As a result, applications submitted via the Common Application rose by 13% over this past year. Only 51% of these students submitted test scores with their applications.
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 85% of applicants matriculating to the class of 2025. 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 incoming first-year 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 first-year 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 of 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 backup 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.
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. Now that most campuses have reopened for in-person tours, visiting may be beneficial, but what matters most is staying 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.
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.
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. However, you should start your first 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.