How to Get Off the Waitlist for College

Student wearing an orange shirt leaning over her desk with a blue coffee mug wondering how to get off the college waitlist
April 26, 2024
5 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Understanding how to get off the waitlist for college is an essential part of the application process. Read on to learn the steps to change your “maybe” to a “yes”!

For many students, getting waitlisted can be more disappointing than being rejected. Rejections are concrete decisions, whereas being waitlisted is a limbo decision that is neither a yes nor a no! The ultimate decision can go either way and waiting to find out can be extremely nerve-wracking!

Fortunately, you can get off the waitlist for college in several ways, so you don’t have to go through the tiresome process of simply crossing your fingers, waiting, and hoping for the best. This guide will review these steps and answer common questions about college waitlists. 

What Is a College Waitlist?

Colleges always receive significant applications but only have limited spots available in their programs. Once all of these spots are taken up by more competitive applicants, or those that applied before the suggested deadline, certain students are waitlisted in case spots open up, as some candidates will reject their offers.

The number of students accepted off a waitlist differs from school to school. Their acceptance rate, class size, and enrollment statistics determine how many students get off the waitlist. For instance, Harvard admitted zero students off their waitlist for the class of 2021 but admitted 65 students for the class of 2023. 

Why Do Colleges Waitlist Applicants?

Colleges use waitlists to manage uncertainties in meeting enrollment targets, a challenging task due to the unpredictable acceptance rate. Waitlists serve various purposes, including controlling admission rates and managing yield rates.

In some cases, students are also waitlisted due to intense competition within their applicant pool (for example, Harvard), offering a chance for admission with proactive follow-up efforts. Moreover, colleges use waitlists as a Plan B if they don’t meet their enrollment numbers.

How to Get Off the College Waitlist

Male student holding pen

Some colleges waitlist hundreds, even thousands, of students! Accordingly, most waitlisted students don’t gain acceptance into these programs. However, this doesn’t mean getting off the waitlist is impossible! Here are the steps to increase your chances of getting off the waitlist and into your top college.

Step One: Maintain Realistic Expectations and Consider Your Options

While this step doesn't actively get you off any waitlists, it will ensure you leave your doors open for other colleges. Before trying to get off the waitlist, you should first understand this will only happen if a spot becomes available for you to take.

Accordingly, you shouldn’t reject any other offers you’ve received. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket because the waitlist is a gamble! Move forward with other schools and consider your options. Is the college that waitlisted you truly a top choice? Are there other schools that could offer you a similar experience and education?

Step Two: Accept Your Waitlist Position

After confirming that your waitlisted school is a top choice, the first step is to accept your waitlist position. Students can either accept their position to continue being considered throughout the application cycle or reject their position to be taken out of the running for available spots.

Step Three: Write a Letter of Continued Interest

The next step is to inform the admissions committee you’re still highly interested in attending their school! This may be through a formal letter of continued interest or an email to the admissions office.

Look into what the normal procedure is for expressing continued interest, and take the time to draft a strong letter or email.

How to Draft a Strong Letter or Email

Your letter should first focus on thanking the admissions committee for taking the time to reconsider your application. Considering at least hundreds of students are waitlisted each year, these committees must go through countless letters yearly!

Next, you need to demonstrate that your waitlisted school is your top choice and why. Do not simply recount all the school has to offer you! Also, discuss what you can offer the school and how you can contribute to its values.

Lastly, reassess your application and find any gaps or weaknesses. Address these weaknesses by including information about how you’ve improved as an applicant. Perhaps you gained more volunteer experience since your application, your basketball team won the state finals, or you pursued a meaningful project.

Step Four: Focus on Your Academics

You’ll still be completing high school as you wait for a decision on your application. You should focus on your academics and increase your GPA to improve your competitiveness.

As more colleges are test-optional now, your GPA is the most important number admissions committees will consider. To ensure you’re among the most competitive waitlisted applicants, you should increase your GPA.

If you accept your waitlist position, your final transcripts will be sent to the college. While maintaining the same GPA won’t necessarily hurt your chances of acceptance, having a higher one can increase them. 

Step Five: Focus on Your Supplemental Materials

Some colleges will ask waitlisted students to submit supplemental materials, such as essays and letters of recommendation, so the committee can gain better insight into their candidacy. 

Admissions committees may waitlist students that they have an unclear picture of, so these supplemental materials can be useful in providing clarity to help them make a final decision. 

To increase your odds of a favorable outcome, you should spend extra effort on these materials and use them to address any parts of your application that may have caused the admissions committee to be hesitant about your candidacy. 

If you felt your application poorly reflected your full academic potential, having strong letters of recommendation from your teachers can help. Or, writing impeccable essays that tell a unique and memorable story can help differentiate your application and make you stand out.

Step Six: Be Flexible

Even if you don’t get accepted into the program you were hoping to, some schools will offer you acceptance into another program starting later in the year. They may offer spring or summer terms and extend you an offer into these programs. 

You should consider these options if you’re set on attending the school you were waitlisted for! Remain flexible and open to altering your undergraduate plan to ensure you can still attend your dream college!

What to Avoid After Being Waitlisted

Now that you know how to get off the college waitlist, it’s important you know what not to do after being waitlisted:

Don’t Reject Other Offers

While being waitlisted isn’t necessarily a no, it isn’t a yes either. As such, you shouldn’t leave it up to fate and take your chances by rejecting all of your other offers. Wait until you receive a decision, or begin moving forward with your second choice while waiting. 

Don’t Bombard the Admissions Committee

Admissions committees allow students the option to submit letters of continued interest or emails. However, you should not submit any other requests beyond these and should not ask for follow-ups! There is no telling when you’ll receive a final decision on your position; students may forfeit their spots until the first day of school! 

Rushing the admissions committee or constantly asking for updates will only lessen your chances of acceptance! While it’s important to demonstrate your commitment and eagerness to your desired school, you don’t want to annoy the committee. 

You’ll need to remain patient. Once you’ve submitted your letter of continued interest and any necessary supplemental materials, you’ve provided the admissions committee with everything they need to make a final decision – the rest is out of your hands! 

Don’t Resort to Desperate Measures

Telling the admissions committee a sob story about how important attending their college is to you and your family or how many obstacles you faced during the application process isn’t convincing them to accept you into their program. 

You’ll only waste your opportunity to share valuable information with the committee that could get you a yes!

You should never resort to pity or guilt to get into college. Demonstrate your academic potential and that you’re a well-rounded candidate. These qualities will speak for themselves and will be all you need to rely on to gain admission to your top choices.

Don’t Lose All Hope

While it may seem discouraging that some schools admit zero waitlisted candidates into their programs, you shouldn’t lose all hope. 

There is no way to predict how many students a school will admit! You still have a chance to get into your top program, so take the necessary steps to increase these chances and remain positive!

When Do Waitlist Decisions Come Out?

You may be thinking, “when do waitlist decisions come out?

Students typically receive waitlist decisions on a rolling basis. Students will learn that they have been placed on the waitlist as early as October of the application cycle and can expect to receive a decision on their waitlisted status beginning in May. 

However, students can receive decisions until the fall semester begins as students reject or drop programs. 

Woman resting chin in hands

How Do Colleges Decide Which Waitlisted Applicants to Admit?

Because you’ve been waitlisted, the college is still considering your application. There are a few factors colleges consider when deciding which waitlisted applicants to admit:

  • Demonstrated interest: Colleges appreciate applicants who show genuine interest in attending. Students who communicate their continued interest through email, letters of continued interest, or sending additional application materials may improve their chances of acceptance.
  • Improved academics: Colleges will also take a student off the waitlist if they see a significant improvement in their academics. An increased GPA or high test scores show a school that you’re determined for academic excellence. 
  • Diversity: Colleges value a diverse community on campus and, therefore, will accept students from all walks of life. This is another consideration a college will consider, so ensure you fill out the school’s diversity essay. 

Although these are the main factors colleges look at when admitting waitlisted students, ensure you boost all aspects of your application to gain a competitive advantage. 

FAQs: How to Get Off the Waitlist for College

In this guide, we’ve reviewed the waitlist journey, what not to do as you await your decision, and when to expect a response. Read on for any remaining questions about college waitlists to find your answers.

1. What Are the Chances of Getting Off the Waitlist?

Your chances of getting off college waitlists are impossible to predict accurately. They depend on multiple factors that are completely out of your control! However, in general, it’s estimated that about one in five applicants is accepted off the waitlist. 

Following the steps in this guide can increase your chances of being this one in five!

2. Can You Get Into College After Being Waitlisted?

Yes, you will receive a final decision on your application after being waitlisted. You will either be rejected or accepted into the program. 

3. Can You Get Off the Waitlist Before May 1?

While some students are taken off the waitlist early into the application cycle, most don’t receive a decision until after May 1 because this is when students decide which school they’d like to attend.

4. How Often Do Waitlisted Students Get Accepted?

US News surveyed 91 colleges and found schools will accept as few as 0% of their waitlisted applicants to as many as 100%! As such, the number of students accepted from waitlists fluctuates.

5. Should I Follow Up With My Waitlisted College?

The only way you should follow up with a college that waitlisted you is to abide by their instructions and suggestions. Research what their typical waitlist procedure is. If you can submit a letter of continued interest to their admissions committee, do this! 

Alternatively, if you’re allowed to email the admission committee to express your continued commitment to attending their school, do this instead. 

You should also submit any supplemental materials asked of you early, so the committee can review your application again as soon as possible and consider you for any open spots.

Aside from these steps, you should not follow up with your college. Do not call, email, or visit them asking for updates on your application! They have all the information they need to make a decision, and your part is to just wait patiently. 

6. What Should I Avoid If I’m Waitlisted?

You should avoid doing the following after being waitlisted:

  • Rejecting other offers in hopes you’ll get accepted from the waitlist
  • Losing all hope, you’ll get an acceptance
  • Resorting to pity, guilt, or unnecessary persistence to get accepted into your desired program

A large part of learning how to get off the college waitlist is having a realistic understanding of how waitlists work! While you should understand it’s more likely for you to be rejected than accepted from the waitlist, do not completely discredit your top school choice simply because you’re waitlisted. 

Final Thoughts

Being left in limbo is frustrating! Putting your all into your application and receiving a “maybe” can leave you feeling confused and unsure of what to do next. While you’re not promised a spot off the waitlist, you should remember securing one isn’t impossible!

Follow the steps in this guide to give yourself the best chance of gaining admission to your dream college, even if you’ve been waitlisted!

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