What Students Should Do If Waitlisted This Spring

At some point in their lives, most people experience the emotional pain of having a dream crushed. Obviously, it’s an experience that most would prefer to avoid. So why would a student, aware that the chances of admission to a top college’s waitlist are slim, set herself up for another disappointment by joining their waitlist. It would seem a futile distraction during a very busy time in her life. Yet there is one good reason to do so — she will recover faster from disappointment than from regret.

Why Waitlists Are More Important in 2024

Waitlists are especially useful this year due to the FAFSA crisis. The rollout of the revised Federal financial aid form by the U. S. Education Department (ED) has suffered frequent delays and technical glitches. These problems have disrupted the normal schedule of sending financial aid packages to students. Without this information, admittees find themselves choosing among colleges without knowing their actual net cost.

Many colleges have extended their usual May 1 enrollment deadline by two weeks or a month, but given the slippage in the FAFSA schedule, that won’t be enough time for many students to know the actual net cost of colleges. Many admittees won’t have Award Letters from the colleges that have accepted them until the end of May.

The main exception to this rule will be admittees at the 300+ top colleges that require applicants to submit the CSS Profile. This is a form managed by the College Board that collects even more detailed information from applicants and their families than the FAFSA does. So, while other schools wait for the ED to provide them with FAFSA information for applicants, many CSS colleges were able to send reliable estimates of how much Federal grant and scholarship funding their admittees can expect to receive. Thus, top colleges such as the Ivy League schools have been able to send out Award Letters on their usual schedules.

The most logical reason that the majority of admissions offices are relying more heavily on their waitlists this year is because they are behind in their goals for enrollment revenue due to the delay in receiving FAFSA reports from the ED. Many colleges have been unable to calculate Award Letters in lacking this information. By starting early in padding their waitlist, a college can create a reserve of qualified students before their peer schools can make their moves. College administrators seek to optimize their competitiveness just as corporations do.

The Rationale Behind Waitlists in Normal Years

Colleges wouldn’t maintain waitlists if they didn’t use them from time to time. They use them because well-qualified students apply to multiple schools and are often admitted to several of them. If more students choose to accept the offers of other  colleges than has been the case in the past, a college can access its waitlist in order to fill its freshman seats. Since waitlisted students nearly made the first cut for admission, a college can confidently admit a number of them without sacrificing the academic quality of its freshman class.

The Outcome of Applications

Students aspiring to attend top schools are advised to submit about 10 applications. This spreads the risk of rejection, especially by colleges in the  “Reach” category, over a greater number of target schools.

There are only three possible outcomes for an application: acceptance, rejection, or an invitation to join a waitlist. Acceptance is, of course, cause for celebration.

The second outcome may hurt, but the student doesn’t need to take further action.

The third outcome is the one that causes anxiety. It’s the offer of a position on a college’s waitlist. If such an offer is from one of several desirable colleges at which the student has been accepted, it’s no big deal. Students pick the one that fits best. But if the college making the waitlist offer is an applicant’s dream school — the one that the student would prefer to attend above all others, she should follow her heart and join the waitlist even though admission is unlikely. Otherwise, she’ll never know if she would have been admitted.

Odds of Admission

This year, there  have been 20% more college applications than there were last year, with no indication that there are significantly more freshman seats. Last year, over 600 colleges used a waitlist, including many selective institutions. Nationally, about 150,000 students accepted spots on a waitlist.

Over a recent period, colleges admitted about 33% of waitlisted students, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors. They noted, however, that among those institutions with admission rates of less than 50%, the waitlist admission rate was only 17%. The 30 most highly selective institutions admitted  less than 10%.  A few top colleges almost never admit any of their waitlisted students because their Yield is always high. The number of waitlisted admittees varies according to how strong the college’s yield is that year. Yield is the number of early and regular applicants who receive an offer of admission from a college and then go on to enroll in it.

Below is a list of well-known institutions that admitted a low percentage of students from their waitlists during last year’s admissions cycle:

  • Michigan – 2%
  • Baylor – 3%
  • UC Davis – 1%
  • Vanderbilt – 5%
  • University of Virginia – 1%
  • UMass-Amherst – 2%
  • Rensselaer – 3%
  • Carnegie-Mellon – 5%
  • UC San Diego – 2%
  • Cornell – 4%
  • Georgetown – 12%
  • MIT – 9%
  • Northwestern – 3%
  • Princeton – 5%

Recommended Plan of Action

If a student elects to join a waitlist, they should be proactive in pursuing admission. But before joining, the student should get a sense of their chance of admission. They should contact the admissions office to find out if the college ranks waitlisted students. If so, most of them are likely to advise a student of their rank. Next, students should research the yield rate for the college over the last few years. If the college is experiencing a lower than average yield rate and the student has a high rank on the waitlist, chances of admission will be high. Students can research the yearly waitlist outcomes of colleges in the Common Data Set and other public databases.

Below are steps that are recommended to boost the chances of admission:

  1. Email: A student should write a brief email to the admissions office soon after accepting waitlist status. The email shouldn’t reiterate the points that were made in the application. It should briefly update the admissions office on recent significant academic and nonacademic achievements. Emphasis should be placed on the student’s continuing strong desire to attend the college, making a brief case for an exceptionally good fit between the student and the college. Students should state that they will enroll if admitted.
  2. Senior Grades: Students should maintain good grades during senior year. Tif waitlisted, they may be reassessed when senior year grades are available.
  3. Letter of Recommendation: Check to see if the college will accept another Letter of Recommendation. If so, the student should ask a senior year teacher who can provide fresh information.
  4. Contact: Stay in touch with the admissions office. Don’t overdo it! They want to see that a waitlisted student is genuinely interested in their school, but they don’t want to be pestered. A few well-chosen contacts are advisable.

After a student has accepted a spot on a waitlist, they should carefully consider the other colleges to which they have been admitted. If a student would be happy attending one of them, she should enroll and submit a deposit before the deadline and then plan to matriculate at that college in the fall.

If a student is admitted to a waitlisted school after enrolling in another college, she should confer with her guidance counselor or independent educational consultant to review options. There is expected to be a higher level of “Summer Melt” this year than usual. This is the term used to describe students who have enrolled and paid a deposit but who don’t show up at the college in the fall to register. The most likely reason is that over the summer they received and accepted an offer from a college that they prefer.

A healthy way to look at college waitlists“ is summed up below: