More colleges are using waitlists as part of their enrollment strategy, yet most applicants don’t understand how they work.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of waitlists and what you can do if you find yourself on one.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Waitlists for Students?

Unfortunately, almost 99% of the time the benefit of a waitlist goes to the college, not the student.

However, for the student, being placed on a waitlist means that technically you have not been denied admission. The school thinks you are an excellent candidate and that you would do well at their institution. The bad news is that they just don’t have any room for you right now. If you find yourself in this gray area between “admit” and “deny” you may ask:

“Should I wait and hope a spot opens up or should I start looking at my other choices?”

It can be a tough choice. Unfortunately, hundreds of students can be waitlisted at a college or university each year.

Why Do Schools Use Waitlists?

Think of the waitlist as an insurance policy for the college. Even the most selective colleges will admit more students than they are expecting will attend. Why? Because they know people apply to multiple colleges and, and even if admitted may choose to go to another school. The admissions office, in turn, must be careful with setting enrollment goals. If they enroll too many students, they will not have enough classroom space, instructors, dorm rooms, etc. If they enroll too few, then the college may take in less income from tuition and struggle to afford all the great resources they have for current students. It is a difficult balance to achieve for Deans and Directors of Admission.

Are There Disadvantages to Colleges?

The waitlist gives a college a pool of potential students as a backup in case the school does not reach their enrollment target that year. However, admissions officers don’t like having to rely on waitlists because they’re risky. Even if the college needs just a handful of students to meet their enrollment target, the college may have to go deep into the list before they find enough students who decide to attend. By the time the admission office calls students on the waitlist, many have committed to another college.

So What Can Students Do?

Although it’s frustrating to be on a waitlist, there are several things students can do if they still want to get into their school of choice.

  1. Write a thank-you letter to the college for being considered and explain why you are interested in attending. Be specific, tying in how your background, experiences, and goals make you a strong candidate.
  2. Reply to any phone calls or emails sent by the college.
  3. Consider visiting the college once if you have not done so already. However, please know that the cost and time required to visit a college may not always pay off in terms of getting off the waitlist.
  4. Check in once-a-week until you know they have made a final decision. This should be a brief email or phone call.
  5. Don’t go overboard! College admission offices are busy, and the last thing you want to do is bother them.

Is There Anything Else Students Need to Know?

There is one important fact students need to know when it comes to being waitlisted:

Once they are on the list the decision to get off is, for the most part, outside of their control. There are many internal factors colleges must consider such the number of students admitted to a particular major, have financial need, or can pay the full tuition.

If you find yourself on a waitlist, first congratulate yourself and then follow up with the college. However, it’s time to move on. You should accept the unlikelihood coming off the waitlist. It is time to seriously consider the colleges to which you have been accepted. If you eventually get off the waitlist, consider this an unexpected gift! However, from my experience, in the fall when starting college all the frustration you may have felt from dealing with a waitlist will seem like a distant memory.

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