Everything You Need to Know About College Waitlists

Padya Paramita

Everything You Need to Know About College Waitlists

As you see an email from your favorite college pop up in your inbox and rush to open the message, your heart sinks when you have been offered a place on the waitlist. Here’s the thing—it’s not a rejection. You’re still in the running, but you’ve got some work to do in order to convey your continued interest to the admissions officers. Naturally, being placed on the waitlist can come with a lot of questions. Why do college waitlists exist in the first place? What does it mean for you? Are you completely doomed? In case this email has left you in a state of panic, breathe. In this blog, we will dive deeper into why schools waitlist students in the first place alongside a step-by-step guide to writing a letter of continued interest that can help maximize your chances at your favorite colleges.

Why Do Colleges Waitlist Students?

You have probably heard about how universities want to maintain a certain yield rate, or percentage of accepted students who actually end up attending the school. Because the number of spots at every college is limited and schools want a high yield, not only do they wish to admit strong applicants, but they also typically hope to accept candidates who they believe are likely to say yes back to them. 

But practically speaking, 100% of the students who are admitted to an institution never all say yes. Not even at the most competitive schools in the world. This is why schools have predictive formulas and admit more students than they actually have room to accommodate. This calculation is complex on all sides. Schools have alternate students on the college waitlists—where they place candidates who are absolutely qualified to attend the school and benefit from its resources, but they don’t know if they have room for them yet. If they have space after the students they admitted don’t accept their offers, some candidates from the waitlist are then sent “yes” letters.  

Being on college waitlists means that the school does like your application—and you’re just as qualified and compelling as other applicants. During the application process, admissions officers have to make tough decisions, and sometimes make adjustments on who gets admitted and who gets waitlisted right up until letters are sent out. Admissions officers still want you on campus and are leaving the option open if space allows. 

Next Steps

Once you know you’ve been waitlisted, that’s not the end of it. You’ve got more work to do. If you’re excited about the school, accept your place on college waitlists—students have to confirm this with the school, usually through the admissions portal. If the college isn’t your first choice though, you should consider declining the spot because there will be others who are more dedicated to attending if accepted.

It’s very important to continue demonstrating interest in the college if you hope to get off college waitlists. While you can send an additional letter of recommendation and updated grades and extracurricular achievements, the most important component is the letter of continued interest. Remind the admissions officers why their institution is a top choice for you, and if it’s your number one choice, let them know. Admissions officers take statements like “I will attend if accepted” very seriously when deciding who to admit off the waitlist. In your letter, talk about what you could bring and how you would be a good fit. But don’t bombard the admissions office with phone calls! Let’s take a closer look at this letter.

Writing the Letter of Continued Interest

The Format

Try not to exceed one page (single-spaced) in length. Make sure the letter is addressed to the admissions office, or better yet, to the specific admissions officer who oversees your region, if that information is available. Use a formal tone, with a greeting of “Dear Admissions Committee,” followed by a brief introduction that includes your full legal name as well as your Common App ID, date of birth, and the high school you attend.

Start the letter with a positive tone, asserting that, although you were deferred or waitlisted, you hope that your application will be further considered. Do not dwell on your disappointment or other negative emotions, and never try to question the admissions decision! Instead, show how you continue to look forward to the future and the possibility of joining your dream school.

Commit to Attending if Accepted

If the college you are writing to is your absolute top choice and you are dying to get in, be upfront about that feeling. Would you go to this school over all the others? If you were accepted, would you be able to confirm your attendance in a heartbeat? If so, use statements like the following to express the depth and sincerity of your commitment:

  • As my top choice school, I would fully commit to attending [School Name] if accepted.
  • [School Name] has always been my dream school, and if accepted, I would make a commitment to attend by promptly withdrawing all my other applications.
  • I am most passionate about attending [School Name] and can confidently promise to commit if accepted.

Colleges do care about yield when considering deferred or waitlisted candidates, so be forward if this is how you feel. For schools that are not your first choice but perhaps come in at second or third, do not make false promises. Regardless of whether these kinds of statements are tracked by different schools, it is disingenuous to claim that more than one school is your absolute favorite. Say something like “I remain strongly interested in [School Name] and am so excited about having the chance to become a student there,” making your interest loud and clear without explicitly mentioning if you will attend or not. Stay honest in your letter of continued interest!

Reiterate Your Interest 

After your opening paragraph, write a few concise sentences that confirm your passion for the school and your intended major or program, as well as any other unique features that still capture your interest. Be careful not to regurgitate information that you have already provided in your supplemental essays. Reword, rephrase, and start fresh by pointing out something completely new you have discovered based on further school research.

Avoid vague statements that could apply to any college. Instead, be specific about how (and why!) you hope to take advantage of special resources within your area of interest. Emphasize not only what you will gain as a student of this college, but what you have to contribute and what value you foresee bringing to campus. Use this space to concretely show why this school is still your #1.

Provide Meaningful Updates

More so than reiterating your interest, the bulk of your letter should focus on what tangible achievements you have made in your academic life and extracurricular activities since applying. What has changed and how have you further developed or challenged yourself within the past few months? To make it easier on the reader, try splitting these up into bite-size sections with bold or italicized headers such as “Senior Year Grades,” “Senior Year Awards and Honors,” “Personal Programming Project,” or individual school club names like “Mu Alpha Theta Club.” Beneath each heading, use a blocked-off paragraph or bullet point list that includes your most impressive updates.

Say Thank You

Again, stay positive at the end of the letter, restating your excitement and why the school is a perfect fit for you one more time. Close off with a straightforward statement and show of gratitude: “I am dedicated to [School Name] because of X, Y, and Z, and sincerely thank you for your continued consideration. I look forward to hearing back from you soon.” Your signature should include your name, Common App ID, as well as your high school name and the year of your graduating class.

Being placed on college waitlists can be frustrating for students. However, with the right fit and dedication towards showing your commitment things can work out. If you really do hope to attend the school, don’t give up now. You’ve got this!

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