Moving Off the College Admissions Waitlist

Shutterstock 524512270
Shutterstock photo

After battling through the epic journey of the college application process, with all its emotional twists and turns — the torturous anticipation, the potential heaven of acceptance or hell of rejection — judgment day has finally arrived. Your high school senior tears open the envelope and frantically scans the letter for a telling phrase. “You have been offered a spot …” — so far, so good … “on the waitlist.” Ugh. Welcome to admissions purgatory.

The Good News

Colleges do not place students on the waitlist to soften the blow of rejection or to spread false hope. The waitlist exists as a useful tool that provides institutions with a safety net against tough-to-predict yield rates. A growing number of top-tier schools have opted to drop early decision, which makes pinpointing how many accepted students will actually enroll an even more unpredictable science. Thus the percentage of students plucked off the waitlist varies greatly from year to year.

For example, during the last decade the number of applicants accepted from Brown University’s waitlist has fluctuated between zero and 196 students. It’s quite possible that your student will luck into a good year for being on the waitlist.

The Bad News

The odds are not exactly forever in a student’s favor. Stanford University’s waitlisted students stand somewhere between a 0-5 percent chance of receiving an offer, depending on the year. Acceptance rates for those waitlisted by juggernauts like Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University and Middlebury College average under 4 percent.

In the 2015 cycle, Emory University students fared slightly better, with 8 percent eventually gaining acceptance. Students on Claremont McKenna College waitlist had a banner year (in a very relative sense), getting in at a 17 percent clip. Less inspiring is the news that out of the 429 students on California Institute of Technology’s waitlist, not a single one ended up with an offer of admission.

Bottom line: In a good year, your chances may be half-decent. In a bad year, your odds are more on par with the chance of survival as a participant in “The Hunger Games.”

What Your Student Can Do

Carnegie Mellon University offers students the option of joining its “Priority Waitlist,” which means students pledge to attend if admitted. While this will improve your student’s odds, it’s worth pointing out that only four of 2,800-plus students on this waitlist were offered spots in Carnegie Mellon University’s freshman class last fall.

For all other schools, the number one thing students can do while on the waitlist is communicate clearly, firmly and respectfully to the admissions office that, if offered, they will accept a spot at the school. Admissions officers like knowing that they have students who will enroll if called upon. A sincere letter to the admissions office and an occasional check-in from a guidance counselor will suffice.

Waitlisted students who obsessively pepper the dean of admission’s inbox with crazed inquiries typically do not do themselves any favors. Remember, colleges are looking for the next productive member of their freshman class, not the next stalker.

Of equal importance to expressing a student’s intentions is, not surprisingly, maintaining strong academic performance. Spring grades, another teacher recommendation or a recent unique accomplishment can still sway an admissions committee.

If the call off the waitlist never comes, allow your student to grieve as he or she must, then move her on and get her ready to thrive at her second-choice school. After all, the second-choice school surely has a waitlist full of people stuck in their own purgatory who can only dream of being in your child’s shoes.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at