What to Do When You’re Waitlisted or Deferred from College

So you did all the work you were supposed to, created a stellar application, and have not received the news you so desperately wanted. The purpose of this guide is to help you determine what to do now, and what your next steps should be after being waitlisted or deferred by your dream school.

There are possibilities beyond admission that are not an outright rejection; waitlisting, and deferment. Each of these will be handled in turn, and specific steps will be given to you, to maximize your potential, regardless of circumstances. The most important thing to remember is to stay calm. It may feel as though this is the end of the world, and all of your hard work was wasted, but this is not the case. New opportunities will arise, new possibilities unfold themselves, and hard work always pays off in the end. 

What is Waitlisting

Students will sometimes be waitlisted from schools they apply to. Waitlisting is how a school says a student is fully qualified to attend, but the number of available spaces is too small for all such students, so some are put on a waitlist. This is not a sign that you are not good enough, merely that thousands of qualified students apply for hundreds of spaces. 

What to Do if You’re Waitlisted

This is an opportunity for you to apply to more schools if you applied ED, or to consider letters of acceptance if you applied to multiple schools EA. You should not bombard the admissions office with new materials, but there are steps you can take, if the school which waitlisted your application remains your top choice. Regardless, schools generally don’t admit students off the waitlist until after the May 1st deadline for accepting a place at a school, so make sure you’ve accepted a place at another institution before the deadline while continuing this process.

The number of students admitted off of the waitlist varies from year to year and from school to school, as it depends on the number of admitted students who decide to attend other institutions. This number is called yield; a university lets in more students than they think will actually attend, and then some accept and some decide to go elsewhere. These numbers can be found in college’s mass data sets, which are compiled here for easy access. There are a lot of numbers given for each school, so we’ll look at Baylor as an example. Clicking on their link leads to a series of documents, each giving data from a different year of admissions. Entering one, and scrolling to the section titled “First Time, First Year Freshmen Admission” gives you the number of students admitted, who enrolled, and who were admitted off the waitlist. 

Here is that information laid out in one place: 

Admissions CycleBaylor Students Admitted off Waitlist
2016-2017351
2017-20181349
2018-2019791
2019-2020803
Source: Baylor Admissions

Admissions at Baylor has increased slightly for students on the waitlist and has increased dramatically over four years ago. While admittance off the waitlist is not guaranteed, it is much more likely here than on average. This data may be compiled for multiple schools, and by analyzing it in this way, you can approximate what the chances are for admission off the waitlist at one particular school. If the number is trending down, chances are lower, while if it is trending upwards, chances are better. 

College Waitlist Strategy

These are steps you can take if you have been waitlisted, but wish to continue pursuing admission at a school: 

  1. There will be different steps to get placed on the official waitlist for each university. Follow these to the letter ASAP, as you cannot be admitted off of the waitlist until you are officially on it. Schools will ask for different things, in terms of new information or documents they want, so make sure you read any instructions carefully; universities are looking for signs that you desire to go there specifically. 
  2. Prepare to contact the admissions office by phone. You, as the applicant, need to do this – having a parent or counselor call on your behalf will send the impression you aren’t serious. It’s important to review and prepare what you want to say thoroughly before dialing.
  3. Here are some pointers on what to say:
    • First, be exceptionally clear on what ties you to this school in particular. Too often, students treat top-tier schools like an undifferentiated mass of prestigiousness. This makes admissions officers feel that you’re more focused on self-interest and getting into the highest-ranking college possible than you are focused on building a relationship with their school and meaningfully contributing to their community. 
    • Next, think of how your accomplishments AFTER you submitted your application confirm your candidacy to this school. 
    • Research your regional admissions officer by going to the university’s admissions department website. If they don’t have a direct line, call the office and ask to speak with that person. 
    • Sometimes, that person will pick up directly. More often, your name will be taken and logged for that admission officer to call back at his/her convenience. 
    • This is your time to shine. You’ll be talking to a person whose goal is to make the best class body possible. If you can help them feel you’d be a great addition to their class body, they can take you off the waitlist. This is very challenging.
    • Be respectful on the call, and ask if there are any additional materials or information they require while expressing your continued interest in the school. 
  4. Compose a letter to the admissions department. The full steps for doing this are given below, as it is an integral part of this process. The purpose of this letter is to express your continued interest in the school and to update admissions on any major occurrences and achievements during your senior year. 
  5. If you did not do an interview as part of the admissions process already, consider setting one up. This will provide the school with further insights into you as a person and your character. 
  6. Consider your second choice schools carefully, and pick one which has admitted you to attend if you are not let off of the waitlist. Always expect the best, but prepare for the worst. In effect, make sure you are ready for any scenario. Try to fall in love with another school, and imagine yourself attending there. 
  7. Make sure you place a deposit for a school before the May 1st deadline. Decisions to admit students off of the waitlist occur in early May, after this deadline passes, and your future should not be gambled on a chance. Ensure that you have a school to attend the following Fall, even if it is not your first choice. 

Structuring a Successful Waitlist Letter

The letter you write to the admissions office is key, as it is your chance to present your case for admission to a school again. This letter consists of three main sections; an introduction, an overview of new accomplishments, and an outro. An important note: many schools have specific portals to upload these letters, each school should be researched to find this portal. Only send the letter to the admissions office directly if the school does not have a separate portal for it. 

The introduction should express your continued interest in attending the school, and thank the admissions office for reviewing your materials. Be respectful in your tone, schools are not required to admit anyone off the waitlist. The introduction should be brief and to-the-point. 

The majority of your letter should be spent describing your accomplishments in the time since your application, and making note of any major achievements. Here are things to consider including: 

  • Major awards won, either in academics or other extra-curriculars. 
  • Projects you are working on outside of school with a major impact, such as building an app or new invention. 
  • Continued high academic achievement in your senior year; schools like to see this, and some students who are admitted may have those rescinded if their grades plunge in their senior year. 

It is important to tie these in with a continued desire to attend the school in question, and to provide examples of why you are a good fit based on your achievements and desires for the future for the school. The only reason to do this is if a school is your first choice, and it should be clear to them that they are. 

Finally, the outro should firmly state your intention to attend if you are admitted, and thank the admissions office again for their time and effort. The next section goes through some examples from a letter, and discusses why they work, and how to craft your own. 

Why Was I Waitlisted?

The reason why students are admitted off the waitlist includes a number of factors and can be better understood through an analysis of one of the waitlist letters. Selections from a letter are below, along with analysis on what makes a letter successful, and what makes a school consider admissions off of the waitlist. 

Since first applying, I have continued to be a member of Congressman Pete Olson’s Academy, where I have conducted financial research and worked with a team of five to craft a consumer protection bill focused on subprime lending.  Over the past month, my group and I have edited and revised the bill extensively, in order to construct a payment plan that would help keep borrowers on track. I am the group researcher, a position that has required me to research payment options and design the core monthly payment my group has created. In early April, my team and I will present our bill to congressman Pete Olson, who may then deliver a version of our bill in Congress. If passed, our bill could help many people make payments on time and avoid late fees. 

This paragraph updates admissions on what the student has been doing in an extracurricular. Students should identify weaknesses in their application that might have caused the waitlisting, and address those in the letter. If the student did not demonstrate passion and drive in their extracurriculars, then updating the admissions department on further and deeper commitment demonstrates those qualities anew. 

Looking forward, I hope to bring these leadership skills to SMU. Through Big iDeas, I will employ the same skills I have used to bring my community together as a Food Bank Leader to my new college community, where I will work with like-minded peers to develop impactful programs. As an aspiring entrepreneurship student, meanwhile, I look forward to taking advantage of classes like Personal Finance with Department Chair Professor James S. Linck. Over the past few months, I have entered the world of investing – first trading stocks on major companies with a proven track record, then transitioning to medical companies focused on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Researching various companies these past months has paved the way for the kind academic and extracurricular success I know I can bring to SMU this Fall. SMU is where my courses, peers, and extracurricular opportunities – in other words, the entire university – will offer me the opportunities I need to succeed as both a citizen and a business person. 

This paragraph ties the student to a college, and shows that they are deeply invested in attending. Everyone likes to feel wanted, and demonstrating interest in a school by explicitly stating why you want to go there, professors you want to study with, and programs you want to be involved with shows the admissions officers how committed you are to their institution. Being specific is key here, don’t use vague phrases which could apply to any school, instead focus on the one school in particular you are addressing. 

This letter should address any weaknesses you have identified in your original application. If your test scores or grades weren’t spectacular, send updates showing stellar academic achievement your senior year. It might not be as clear cut as this, but the letter should demonstrate clear growth by the student, both academically and in their extracurriculars. 

Schools look to shore up areas where they are lacking when they admit students off the waitlist. Perhaps all the saxophonists they admitted decided to go to different schools, and so they will come to the waitlist for a student with brass on their lips and jazz in their soul. Perhaps the gender balance of their incoming class is terribly skewed; then they will turn to the waitlist to rectify this problem. Tiebreakers for coming off the waitlist involve covering boxes the school didn’t check with the rest of the admitted students. 

What is Deferment and How to Handle It

Finally, some students who apply ED or EA are neither rejected nor admitted, but instead deferred. This means that your application interested the admissions office, but they wanted more time to consider it, against a broader pool of applicants, and so it will be considered again in the general round of admissions. 

This is a chance for you to apply to further schools if you applied ED, or consider schools which have accepted you if you applied EA. If the school which deferred you is your top choice still, you may follow the procedures outlined in the section on waitlisting, as the advice there is applicable here as well. 

Deferment can induce much anxiety, as it is neither a yes nor a no, but a further period of waiting. Remain calm, apply to other schools, and remember to breathe. Deferment is a setback, true, but not a cause for panic or despair. 

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