Waitlisted at Your Dream School: What Your Next Steps Should Look Like

Padya Paramita

Waitlisted at Your Dream School: What Your Next Steps Should Look Like

You had been counting down the days and finally received that coveted notification that a decision was available in your portal. But as you clicked through the screens in anticipation, you were disappointed to learn that you’ve been waitlisted at your dream school. Keep your head up—this is not a rejection. The 2020-2021 application round has been a highly competitive admissions cycle at all colleges due to the pandemic and the decision for schools to go test optional.

So, you might be wondering what your next steps should be from hereon. To guide you through what to do if you’ve been waitlisted at your dream school, we have provided you with the standard procedure that can help you continue demonstrating interest at the college of your choice. Follow these guidelines, and hopefully you’ll do everything you can have done to demonstrate that you’re a worthy candidate.

Understand What a Waitlist Means

You might not be sure what exactly it means to get waitlisted at your dream school—some students think of it as a gateway to rejection, while others might be confused about what their chances are. Being on the waitlist means that the school does like your application—and you’re as qualified and compelling as other applicants. 

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 waitlist—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.

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 would still love to have you on campus and are leaving the option open if space allows.

As for your chances of getting off the waitlist, frankly, it completely depends on the school. Princeton, for example, offers a spot on the waitlist to 470–1,500 applicants In 2019, Princeton placed 1,125 students on the waitlist, 844 of whom accepted the spot. However, no students were admitted from the waitlist. This means that the number of accepted students who will matriculate at these schools met (or exceeded) the desired class size number. This gives you an idea of just how competitive spots at these institutions can be; most students who are accepted want to attend. On the other hand, that same year, Cornell accepted 164 out of 4,546 who accepted a spot on the waitlist.  

Accept The Spot

As you noticed in the data above, a couple hundred students did not accept their place on the Princeton waitlist. If you’ve been waitlisted at your dream school, it’s quite important that you let them know that you’d like to accept this spot. Many students might think that they’re automatically placed on it, but you’re usually just simply offered a place. You must accept it to maintain your contention to be accepted at a school. Colleges usually do not immediately reveal how long a waitlist is, let alone, how you’re faring against others on it, so you have no way of knowing whether you’ll be the first to hear back or the 110th. However, if you don’t accept the spot, you won’t be considered at all, so that is an easy press of a button that can help you avoid any careless mistakes.

Write a Letter of Continued Interest—Or Know What a School Expects

Next of course, comes the letter of continued interest. You’ve probably heard of this note. It’s somewhat like an appeal from your end, where you emphasize that this college really is your dream school and you would 100% attend if admitted. Now, make sure you’re honest here. Colleges will carefully consider who to pick off of the waitlist, so unless you’re uncertain about whether you’re going to attend the school or not, don’t make such bold claims. Follow everything our letter of continued interest blog advises you to do. Reiterate your interest in the school, include examples of why you’re a good fit, provide meaningful updates such as a rise in GPA, a new test score, extracurricular achievements or new awards you’ve won. Finally, end with saying thank you.

It’s important to remember that this note should be positive throughout. You shouldn’t be whining about how much you deserve a shot at attending the school, or that you’ll be completely heartbroken if they don’t say yes. In general, avoid admissions talk and focus on yourself and your love for the school. Don’t forget to include your name, Common App ID, and high school name at the end of it.

Another thing you should note is that not every school wants a one-page letter. The University of California schools don’t check for letters at all, so they won’t read yours even if you send it. The University of Michigan on the other hand, expects an essay from you, under 250 words, of why you’re a strong fit for the school and how you would contribute. Since you wrote a supplemental essay explaining why you’d choose UMichigan, you have to make sure you include new information in your essay.

Provide Another Letter of Recommendation

Another wise decision to make as you think about what to do if you’ve been waitlisted at your dream school is to ask another teacher to write you a letter of recommendation. This should be an instructor or coach who has not written you a recommendation yet, at least for this particular college. It would also be helpful if you had someone who is an alum of a particular institution vouch on your behalf. Colleges value alumni immensely and if someone who has taught you also happens to have attended the school, they can connect your personality and experiences to why you would thrive on that particular campus. 

Check if They Accept Supplementary Material

Some colleges might accept new supplemental material as you try to make a case for yourself. This can include a reel of you performing with your orchestra at a famous venue like Carnegie Hall, this can include a writing portfolio featuring all the impressive places where you’ve been published, or it might mean you provide them with a detailed research paper that you’ve worked on. Make sure you read through the school’s policies carefully. Some colleges might immediately disregard them, while others will take these into consideration.

Submit a Deposit Somewhere Else

Here’s the thing—even though you have to remain optimistic once you’ve been waitlisted at your dream school, you have to also remain realistic. There is no guarantee that you’ll be taken off the waitlist and accepted for the incoming class. So, to make sure you are going to college somewhere, you have to take note of your acceptances, and put in a deposit at one of those schools. Choose one you’ll be happy attending, with classes that appeal to you, and professors you’re excited to learn from—after all, you applied for a reason. If, after May 1, you’re accepted to your dream school, you can write a note to the school where you’d deposited earlier saying thank you but you’ve decided to attend elsewhere. Even though it might seem a bit awkward, it’s okay to do. It happens all the time—colleges will understand!

Be Respectful

Finally, respect boundaries once you’ve been waitlisted at your dream school. Don’t harass your admissions office representative 24/7 asking about when you’ll hear about a final decision. Colleges usually let waitlisted candidates know after May 1st, once they’ve received deposits from accepted students. They won’t have any answer for you, nor will you increase your chances by emailing the admissions representative every other week telling them how much you love the school. That will only reduce your chances. So, even though it’s difficult, you have to be patient. 

Being waitlisted at your dream school may seem like a nightmare at this moment, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. Either, you will be accepted when the time comes, or, you might realize that you’re a better fit at one of the schools that actually have accepted you. Either way, a dream school does hold a lot of value in students’ heart so go ahead and write a stellar letter of continued interest and let admissions officers know why this means a lot to you. Who knows, you might just receive the call in May letting you know you’re in. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely been done before. Good luck!

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