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What To Do (Besides Wait) When You’re On A Waitlist

What happens when the decision you receive isn’t really a decision at all, and more like a “maybe”? Welcome to the waitlist.

Rather than just wait while on a waitlist, be proactive. Colleges typically have thousands of students on these lists in case they need more students to fill out their class. If they do go to their waitlists – and not all do (and things can vary considerably year to year) – then you’re more likely to stand out and be noticed if you’ve reached out.

So…what to do?

Write a letter. And by letter, I mean an email. It’s best to write directly to the admissions representative for your school or geographical area. If you don’t have this person’s contact information, ask your school counselor or call the admissions office directly and they’ll provide it. 

Timing. While you want to get in touch promptly, schools don’t go to the waitlist a week after they sent out their initial offers of admission. There’s no benefit to a knee-jerk reaction and so you’ll want to take a deep breath, think things through, and then sit down to write. Aim to get the letter submitted a few weeks after decisions are released. A little later is fine, too. Many colleges won’t be able to go to their waitlists until after May 1 (or thereabout), as that’s the date that students who were initially offered admission must notify colleges whether they’ll be enrolling. If numbers are down considerably, some schools will go to their waitlists a bit earlier. In the current pandemic, colleges went to their waitlists unusually early—but this timeline is as typical as, well, a pandemic. 

Substance. Simply writing a letter won’t do much for you. As with your college essays and supplements, it needs to be good and it needs to be intentional. This is an opportunity to explain why you want to go to a school and to be clear about your level of commitment. Let’s tackle substance first. You’ve got to be clear as to why you want to study at that school above others just like it. Include specific examples, but also try to demonstrate that you really know the school beyond a laundry list of academic and extracurricular offerings that match your interests. Show you know the school’s vibe and its people and tell them how you see yourself engaging in their community. Be specific, but don’t repeat what you’ve already told them in your application essays.

Update. By the time you receive your waitlist decision it will have been about three months since you submitted your application. Has anything of note happened since then that would be of interest to the admissions committee? It may be that things have been moving along and there’s truly not much new to report. Your grades have stayed consistent, you’re continuing with your extracurricular activities…life is good. 

But if you do have a substantive update, this is the time to share the details. Have your grades (or a grade in a particular class) improved? Did you complete a research project or a lab report on something that really excites you? Or maybe you worked hard to complete your first 5k race. Did you organize an epic school event? Finally get an afterschool job? Something else? Whatever you share (if there’s anything new to share, that is) make sure that you don’t just tell what you did but that you also share how you engaged and maybe even how you see yourself applying what you learned or accomplished to your college experience. All this said, if there really isn’t much new to share, don’t feel compelled to have an “update section” of your letter. Like the rest of your college application, this letter is about quality over quantity.

Commitment. If the school you’re writing to is your top choice and you’d go in a heartbeat if given the chance, say so! You can tell them that if admitted you will definitely attend. Only say this if you mean it 100 percent, though. If you’re not sure it would be a definite “yes” on your end, then explain that you’re highly interested…but don’t go so far as to say that you’re sure you’ll attend.

From there, be sure to sign off and thank them for taking the time to read your letter. You can write the letter directly into an email (as opposed to attaching a separate document). Be sure to proofread and…send!

Additional materials. If you’re on a waitlist and you want to advocate for yourself, a letter is the way to go. Occasionally, a student might also consider sending additional materials beyond that. Before you do, check to be sure the college accepts additional materials from waitlist candidates. Many do not. And even if they do accept additional materials, only send something if it is an important part of your update. Remember: quality over quantity! More is not necessarily better.

Now that you’ve got a game plan for the waitlist, you need to have a plan based on the offers you do have. If a waitlist offer comes through…great! But assuming the decision won’t change, you need to evaluate your options, pick a school that feels right for you, and get psyched about enrolling in the fall. If you find yourself admitted off of a waitlist at any point, you can then decide if you’d like to change your plans (believe it or not, plenty of students don’t). 

In the meantime, congratulations! You’ve worked hard. You have some great options, no doubt. Now it’s time to celebrate your accomplishments and start envisioning college life— and all the possibilities that come along with it.


Dr. Norman is Co-Founder and Head Counselor at Expert Admissions. She is a Certified Educational Planner and worked as an Admissions Officer at Barnard College/Columbia University. She has been featured as an expert on college admissions by virtually every major media outlet.


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