Waitlisted: Why and What You Can Do

Waitlisted: Why and What You Can Do

If you are waitlisted, you might be wondering both “why?” and “what should I do?”


The “Why”


Institutional Priorities

Unfortunately, the college admission selection process is opaque. If it was more transparent, students would likely feel less hurt by admission rejections and waitlists and instead more upset at the colleges themselves — which is why colleges publish nothing of substance about their own admissions decisions. Why would students be upset if they could peak behind the college admissions curtain and see backstage? Because “institutional priorities” in a given year might mean that a student was cut even though they seem to have better credentials than an admitted student. From the college’s perspective, what is “rare” is often desirable. And, with astoundingly high numbers of applicants to the most selective schools, these already selective schools were even more selective for the characteristics they consider rare and thus valuable.¹ A student from Nebraska applying to an East Coast college? All things being equal, this student has an advantage over East Coast students, because East Coast students are not rare to East Coast colleges. And geographic rarity is just one of many, many characteristics that selective colleges might select for. So, if you’re a student who did not get in, you can console yourself with the fact that, although you may have deserved to be accepted to a given school, your waitlisting or rejection likely had more to do with the particular qualities that a given school selected for and less to do with what you had to offer.


Number of Applicants

As previously mentioned, selective schools received record numbers of applicants. But it’s worth discussing that more. Take, for example, Amherst. They have roughly 450 seats for admission each year (with a total student body of about 1,800). How do they allocate those spots? They reserve many for athletes, some for the children of large donors and of faculty members, some to increase diversity at the school, etc. If they want to have even one student from each of the 50 states (which they do want to have), then this geographic selection alone would take up 5o spots — so over 10% of their class. Granted, Amherst is an exception (it’s a relatively tiny school). But its small size allows us to see with an exaggerated example why applicant number matters so much: if on paper you might look like a good applicant, there are very few spots for the standard, good applicant. With so few spots, a massive number of applicants, a relatively short amount of time to review all the applications, and a small staff to do so, many colleges make quick and more-or-less impossible decisions between applicants. Maybe they read your application when they were hungry before lunch. Even in the justice system, judges might give harsher sentences before lunch.²  With massive pressure to sort through applications and with the assurance that their decisions will remain hidden from the world and thus from any scrutiny, college admissions decisions often look very subjective. Unfortunately, more applicants meant that there was dramatically more competition than ever before and, unavoidably, more students put on waitlists and given rejection letters.


What to Do

So, as we have seen, it was hard to stand out in a crowded field with overworked selection judges making decisions. But, if you were waitlisted, it’s not too late to increase your odds of standing out and getting selected. Here’s what to do: write the admissions office a heartfelt, sincere email (a “letter of continued interest,” or, in the parlance of admissions, a LOCI).

  1. Express your appreciation for being considered and your disappointment in being waitlisted. If the school is your first choice, reiterate that it is, that you will definitely attend if admitted, and that you would be honored and proud to attend.
  2. Update them about activities and any leadership positions you have continued since submitting your application: clubs, sports teams, community service, jobs, and even outside research or shadowing professionals in a given field. You want to show continued work ethic and initiative.
  3. If you did not submit test scores or you submitted test scores below the college’s average for enrolled students, then ask the college if they will review your application again if you send in higher SAT/ACT scores — some colleges will, but make sure to check with the school before you take or re-take the SAT or ACT for that purpose. But, if a college will review your application in light of higher test scores, then this can be an incredible way to increase your odds of getting off the waitlist if you can retake the exam and then submit higher scores.
  4. Most importantly, discuss that you have maintained solid grades. The fact that you did not slack off in senior year speaks volumes.
  5. Offer to visit and speak to any admissions representative that will speak with you. Articulate that your desire to attend is so strong that you would love to come to campus to tell them in-person how much you love their school and want to attend. This is the ultimate show of demonstrated interest — it very often works.


While being put on a waitlist can feel incredibly disappointing, I assure you that waitlists do experience movement. Plan to deposit at your back-up school by May 1st and expect that a waitlist spot might not open up until June or July. And, although it’s easier said than done: don’t take the admissions process personally. It’s far from personal, and you’re far from alone. Always remember that there are many schools that will make you happy and try to make the most of the choices that you have.

Good luck! And, as always, please let us know if we can assist you in any way.


Works Cited:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/20/us/colleges-covid-applicants.html
  2. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lunchtime-leniency/
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