What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted?

Padya Paramita

What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted?

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. It can be confusing to figure out where you stand and why this has happened. Are you doomed? To help you get a better sense of the question of what does it mean to be waitlisted, we’ve gone through why students are waitlisted, chances of getting off the waitlist, and a sample letter of continued interest.

Why Do Colleges Waitlist Students? 

What does it mean to be waitlisted? You have probably heard about how universities want to maintain a certain yield rate, which is the 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 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.  

What being waitlisted means is 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.

What Does It Mean for Your Chances? 

Once you’ve understood the answer to “what does it mean to be waitlisted,” you might wonder what qualifies one student over the others to be taken off the waitlist. While you can gauge what the outcome of each school’s waitlisted students will be based on previous statistics, it’s hard to predict accurately because you don’t have any way of knowing the likelihood that accepted students will choose to matriculate.

You may wonder if some students have been placed higher on the waitlist than others, and therefore have a better chance of acceptance. Whether a waitlist is ordered or not depends on the college and what a school’s priority might be when the time comes. By May, they know which admitted students have submitted their deposit. According to InGenius Prep’s Zak Harris, who worked as the Director of Admissions at Regis College, as well as in the admissions offices at Johns Hopkins, Bowdoin, and George Washington, “There can be thousands of names on the waitlist, so no, the entire list isn't always reviewed,” he said. “Usually, within the waitlist, there are people that are put there that an admissions officer might say "if they decide to stay on the waitlist they'll be admitted if we have spaces available. For the most selective schools, they might not even go to waitlist at all. It just depends.”

Remember that colleges are looking for a well-rounded class rather than a well-rounded student. So, if your application theme demonstrates involvement in extracurriculars or interests that the school believes they need out of their students that particular year, your college waitlist chances could end up being higher than your peers’.

What to Do If A College Doesn’t Accept Letters of Continued Interest from Waitlisted Students

If a college explicitly asks students not to send letters of continued interest or additional supplemental material, this means that there’s either a ranked waitlist or they’ll take students who fit criteria that are missing based on the students who say yes after being accepted. For example, if colleges need more chemistry majors or tennis players, they’ll try to fill those gaps with students from the waitlist. 

Most of the time there’s not much that students can do, except maybe send a letter to their interviewer (if they had one) saying that they got waitlisted and they’re still interested. 

Letter of Continued Interest Template

It’s very important to continue demonstrating interest in the college in your quest of understanding “what does it mean to be waitlisted.” 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.

Letter of continued interest template:

Dear [School Name] Admissions Officer,

My name is [Student], and I was recently deferred as an Early Decision applicant. I am sending this letter to express my enthusiasm for [School Name] and update you on my recent activities.

Express love for the school for example: From the [name landmark] statue to the [name landmark/campus highlight], I loved X University the moment I laid eyes on the campus. During my recent visit to campus, I imagined taking X Course and conducting research on [your area of interest] under Professor Y, as well as learning from friends from diverse backgrounds through student organizations such as XYZ club.

Updates:

Senior Year Grades and Curriculum: [have your grades been steadily improving? Was there a particular subject you were struggling with that you’re doing better in now?] For example:

  • I have continued to maintain straight “A’s” in all subjects. My current GPA is 4.425.
  • As part of the mentorship program at X Company, I have completed the senior research in one semester—normally taken in two semesters. For my mentorship, I stayed in school for 2 days a week and for the other 3 days attended X Institute for research.
  • Due to this schedule, it was impossible for me to take higher-level classes such as AP Physics (a yearly course). I have now taken all Biology courses that my school has to offer.

Any new standardized test scores to report

Research/independent projects, for example:

  • I have made progress in my cancer research at X University. I am now working with my mentor to write a paper on the results.

 

  • We have found a promising lead to cure the X neurodegenerative disease. More specifically, I have been exploring… (add specific examples of your work)

Any evolution of your interest in a particular subject (something new you’ve read or tried, something new you’ve interacted with)

Volunteering, clubs, leadership, and other activities with tangible and measurable results you can share: EMT Volunteer Work [note that you can include other materials to demonstrate your achievements, and also mention how you’d like to contribute to activities and community at the college], for example:

  • I am currently volunteering at the local Fire Department for 30 hours a month. I recently turned 18 and received my national EMT certification, which I included with this letter for your reference.
  • I am currently learning how to drive an ambulance and expect to be certified to drive within the next month.

 

[Add any certifications and awards you have received in this particular activity]

How you’ll contribute to the school: I look forward to adding value to the [Name of School] community through research, volunteering with MERT, promoting STEM by extending my Funbotics non-profit robotics camp, making friends, and cheering on the people around me.

Mention any contacts with alums, coaches, Admissions Officers etc. at the school

Conclusion and expression of commitment (make sure they know this is still your first choice): Your university remains my top-choice school, and if admitted to X University’s class of 2026, I would absolutely commit to attending! Thank you for your continued consideration of my application.

Sign-off: GO [Insert School Mascot]! Sincerely,

[Name]

Common App ID [Number]

[Name of High School], Class of 2022

Note what is NOT in this letter:

  • There is not too much elaboration. Keep it concise and neatly organized, with bullet points and a clear purpose in each section.
  • There is no discussion of admissions.
  • The tone is positive, not negative. It’s about highlighting achievements and expressing enthusiasm, not disappointment or inquiry about the school’s decision to defer or waitlist you.

It can be hard to feel hopeful even after you figure out the reasoning behind “what does it mean to be waitlisted.” Whether the odds are in your favor depends on a number of factors, from yield rates to how many students a school is able to accept off the waitlist. Don’t automatically assume you’ll get off the waitlist just because your application is strong. But you should definitely do all that you can to convey your commitment to the school. Wishing you all the best!

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