You just found out that one of the colleges you applied to has put you on its waitlist. What should you do next?

Waitlists are totally different from normal admissions populations and can be difficult to navigate. The bad news is there’s not a lot you can do to improve your odds of getting off that list (except for a letter of continued interest—more on that below!). But we do have some general tips that can help ease anxiety and make sure you stand out for the right reasons.

What Does Being Waitlisted Mean?

There are three main things you should know:

1. The school is managing its yield. Most waitlists are used to fill space when students decline their offers of admission. Schools want to limit the number of acceptances they send out because a university’s ranking is often associated with low acceptance rates. Waitlists are used to help schools better manage this process.

2. The school wants to better gauge your interest. Again, schools are very conscious of their numbers. If they think you will be unlikely to accept their offer because they are your safety, they are unlikely to give you immediate acceptance. But if this is the case, you are in a very strong position! Your acceptance of their waitlist offer and a strong letter of continued interest can make all the difference here.

3. Above all else, remember that being put on a waitlist means you were close. Schools don't offer waitlist spots for fun—the processes that drive waitlist admissions require a lot of data management and organization. If you were offered a spot, you possess qualities that the school actively wants. Again, this is a great position to be in; a clear letter of continued interest will be your best next step.

What Not to Do

Being on a waitlist for your dream school can be stressful. Some students want to do whatever it takes to be taken off that list, which can result in some pretty bizarre interactions. Here are some tips on what not to do:

Don’t slack off! Senioritis is real and hits hard in the spring, when most waitlist offers are made. It's a huge red flag when a student begins to let their grades or activities slip in their senior spring. You don’t want a school to question your work ethic, so keep up with your commitments!

Don’t send unrequested documents and materials. Schools know exactly what they want in order to make an offer off the waitlist. Additional letters of recommendation, essays, and portfolios are not going to make a difference. All you’re doing is giving an admissions officer more paperwork! This goes double for “thinking outside the box” type items like gifts and artwork. Those kinds of things make you stand out for the wrong reasons! A school wants you to follow their instructions and nothing more.

Don’t be “extra.” Many students think increased admissions interactions convey interest, but this can actually work against an applicant. Outside of collecting required waitlist materials, an admissions officer doesn't want to spend endless amounts of time helping you. Excessive emails, phone calls, and visits bog down the admissions process during a busy time.

Don’t have your counselor call. This is becoming more frequent, but it does very little to help a student. Anything that’s pertinent to your admission should have been put in your application, so your counselor shouldn't be sharing anything new. Additionally, their call won't speed up a school’s normal waitlist processes. Students are accepted off of a waitlist based on institutional priorities and enrollment management, nothing more.

What To Do

Okay, so you’re pretty confident you can avoid doing anything to harm your application. But what can you do to help it?

Do follow instructions carefully. Every year, some students miss their response deadline or forget materials, and then still ask to be considered. It's hard to believe a student is committed to your institution when they let major deadlines pass or forget other requirements. Read the waitlist acceptance procedures very carefully!

Do let the school know of your sincere continued interest. Letters of continued interest are important when deciding who to take off a waitlist. As we’ve already discussed, schools want to see how committed you are to their institution. I have never seen a student come off of a waitlist without reiterating their interest in an institution.

But what should a strong letter of continued interest contain?

    • Address it to your admissions counselor. At this point in the admissions process, you’ve probably been in contact with at least one admissions representative. Personalize your letter to the individual you’ve been in touch with. If the school has assigned you a regional counselor who would’ve reviewed your application, it should be them!
    • Let the school know if it is your top choice. I can’t stress this enough: if the school is your dream, admissions should know it. Knowing that you would definitely accept a spot in their class makes an admissions officer’s job much easier. However, do not say this to every school—only your actual top choice!
    • Provide relevant academic and extracurricular updates. Have your grades gone up? Have you won an award or succeeded in an extracurricular activity? Admissions should know this. Please do not simply reiterate the information in your application, though! This is a space for updates.
    • Be humble and sincere. This may be hard to hear, but you don’t deserve to be admitted off the waitlist. An academically gifted student who has worked hard in high school deserves to go to a great school, but not to any specific one. So don’t fluff yourself up; instead, be genuine and show the school that you know what you’re getting into with this next step in your academic career.
    • Be specific and succinct. Do not wax poetic. Letters of continued interest should be kept to a page and should address the reasons why you remain committed to that school. Stay away from general statements that could apply to any school.
    • Time it right. Some waitlist offers require you to submit a letter of continued interest; others simply want you to sign your name on a waitlist agreement. If you are not asked to submit one initially, but would like to follow up, wait about four weeks from the time of your waitlist acceptance. This shows the school that you remain committed to their institution.

Being on the waitlist isn't easy, but the best way to manage the stress that comes along with it is to get excited about your other options. Hopefully, you were targeted enough in your initial school selection that you only applied to programs you would gladly attend. You have great opportunities ahead of you, so stay on those waitlists, but don't lose enthusiasm for the schools that have already accepted you.

If you’re still unsure about something, connect with us. Our experts can look at your case and use their knowledge to offer specific advice. We’re here to help!

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