ivy league admissions

How to Deal With a Waitlist Decision

Waiting for something that you wish for intensely and then being disappointed is one of the more unpleasant aspects of the human condition. Why, then, set yourself up for pain by accepting a top-tier college’s offer to be waitlisted, knowing that the odds of being accepted are slim? Because it’s less difficult to recover from disappointment than from regret — that’s why! You’ll never know if you would have been accepted at your dream school unless you wait.

Colleges wouldn’t use waitlists if they never had an occasion to use them. They use them because well-qualified students apply to multiple schools and are likely to be accepted by more than one of them. If fewer students accept a school’s Regular Decision offer of admission than have done so in the recent past, the school will need to rely on their waitlist. Since waitlisted students almost made the initial cut, the school can admit a sufficient number of them to bring the freshman class up to the desired size.

Students aspiring to attend the most elite colleges almost always submit a large number of applications. This practice spreads the risk of possible rejection by one or more of the targeted schools. In fact, IvySelect recommends that 12 or 13 applications be submitted to a carefully curated list of desirable top-tier institutions.

There are three possible outcomes for each application: rejection, acceptance, or an invitation to join the waitlist. The first outcome may hurt but, in terms of follow-up action, it’s simple… do nothing. The second outcome is the arrival in the mail of the thick envelope that indicates acceptance, bringing cheer and jubilation.

The third outcome is the one that can cause anxiety… you’ve been waitlisted. If this school is only one among several equally attractive schools and you’ve been accepted by another one, it’s no big deal. But if this is your first choice and you would still prefer to attend it… then what should you do? Do you follow your heart and work the waitlist drill even though getting admitted to a top-tier institution from a waitlist is a long shot?

Last year, over 600 institutions had a waitlist, including many of the most selective institutions, and about 150,000 students accepted a spot on one of them. Over a recent four-year period, colleges admitted about 33% of waitlisted students, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC). NACAC noted, however, that among those schools with admissions rates of less than 50%, the waitlist admission rate was only 17%. The most highly selective schools admit an even lower percentage — an average of less than 10% of waitlisted students. Every year, a few elite schools admit none of their waitlisted students, depending upon how strong their admissions yield is that year (Yield is the percentage of admitted students who go on to attend the school).

The odds against admission from an elite college’s waitlist are shown in Table A, below, which represents a small sample of results for the Class of 2022.

Table A: Class of 2022 Waitlist Results for a Sample of Elite Schools

Institution Applicants Invited to WL Number Who Accepted WL Admitted from the WL % Admitted from WL
Cornell 3583 2231 81 4
Georgetown 2184 1249 149 12
MIT 652 575 52 9
Northwestern 2614 1452 43 3
Princeton 1207 818 39 5

The Money College Planner put together a list of institutions that are consistently among the lowest in waitlist admissions. Each school’s percentage of students admitted from their waitlist is also provided.

  • Michigan – 2%
  • Baylor – 3%
  • UC Davis – 1%
  • Vanderbilt – 5%
  • University of Virginia – 1%
  • UMass-Amherst – 2%
  • Rensselaer – 3%
  • Carnegie-Mellon – 5%
  • UC San Diego – 2%

If you decide to be on a school’s waitlist, IvySelect strongly advises you to be proactive. Here are the steps that IvySelect recommends you take to boost your chances.

  1. Get a sense of your chance of admission. Contact the admission office to find out if the college ranks waitlisted students. If so, most schools will let you know your rank. Next, research the yield rate for the school over the last several years. If the school is realizing a lower than average yield rate this year and you have a high rank on the waitlist, your chance of admission should improve. You can find the waitlist odds of a school by checking for it on the website of the College Board. 
  2. Write a brief email to the admission office. Although you should submit your email soon after accepting waitlist status, you should allow time to confer with your IvySelect consultant to make sure that you hit the right notes in your letter. It shouldn’t be simply a reiteration of the main points that you made in your application, but it can’t contradict any of those points. In the letter, briefly update admissions on recent significant academic and nonacademic achievements that weren’t on your application. Emphasize your strong desire to attend the college and make the case for why you’re a good fit. Tell them that you’ll enroll if they admit you.
  3. Don’t slack off academically. If you’re waitlisted, you may be reassessed based on your 3rdand 4th quarter grades.
  4. Consider sending a new letter of recommendation from a 12thgrade teacher or outside recommender that provides new positive information about you. This assumes that a specific school will accept a new letter of rec.
  5. Stay in touch with the admissions office, preferably the person who read your application. Don’t overdo it! The admissions office wants to see that you’re genuinely interested in their school, but they don’t want to be pestered by emails and calls. Occasional, well-chosen contacts are the rule.

The most important thing to do is to consider the colleges that have accepted you. If you would be happy at one of them, send in your deposit and plan to attend that college in the fall. If you’re later admitted to your favorite school from a waitlist, you can confer with your IvySelect consultant and reconsider your options at that point.

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