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College Waitlists: What to Do & When to Act

College • March 4, 2020 • Chris Morrison


What you’ll learn

  • Learn what being waitlisted or deferred means
  • Learn what to do if you are waitlisted or deferred


Knowing what to do when waitlisted or deferred can be nerve-wracking. While your college application has not been rejected and is still under consideration by the admissions office, the extended period of uncertainty that comes with it can leave an applicant wondering what to do next.

As someone who has been on the waitlist before, the first thought that might come to mind is: What does this mean for me? Let me explain.

If you are “waitlisted,” the admissions office has reviewed your application and determined that you have the academic and personal credentials for admittance, but you were not selected during their first round of admissions. This is often a result of there not being enough available seats in the class to offer you a spot for registration. But, keep in mind, spots may become available down the road.

Being waitlisted is not uncommon. According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) annual “State of College Admission” report, colleges reported placing an average of 10% of all applicants on a waitlist for the Fall 2018 admission cycle – with an average of 20% of those students later being admitted.

If you are “deferred,” it typically means that the admission committee still needs more time to review your application in order to determine if an offer will be made. If you applied through “Early Decision” or “Early Action” and get deferred, your application will simply be pushed into the regular admission period for review and consideration. Therefore, you could still be accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.

As far as deferral statistics go, it really depends on the school. Sometimes the more selective institutions will defer more early applicants than others. Unfortunately, many schools do not release their deferral numbers.

So, now that we are on the same page, your second thought might be: Is there anything I can do?

Yes! In fact, here are nine things you can do after being waitlisted or deferred by a school:

  1. Accept your waitlisted offer

    First things first, be sure to accept your waitlisted status. When a school informs you that you have been waitlisted, they are essentially offering you a spot on the waitlist. Therefore, to be added to the waitlist, you must accept the offer. By failing to accept your waitlisted offer, the admissions office can leave your name off the waitlist and refuse to consider you when class seats become available.

    Often times, accepting your waitlisted offer is simply composed of completing a brief online form to tell the admissions office that you have accepted their offer to be on the waitlist and you should be considered once class spaces become available.

  2. Express your interest

    If you are waitlisted by a school that you had your heart set on, express your interest to the school shortly after accepting your waitlisted status. Doing so conveys to the admission committee that you are not only interested in this college but also, that you want to be a student there.

    Express your interest and stand out from the crowd by writing a letter to the admissions office. Use this opportunity to discuss recent academic achievements and noteworthy qualities that may sway the admission decision in your favor. And, of course, be sure to highlight your genuine desire to become a student at the school throughout the letter!

    Additionally, you can express your interest by reaching out to the admissions officer overseeing your application. Go to the college’s website to find out who your admissions officer is and how you can contact them. Occasionally colleges will outline who the admissions officers are and provide their email address for application questions. However, if that information is not publicly available, send an email to the general admissions email address requesting your advisor’s contact information.

    Then, reach out to your admissions officer via email to ask questions about your waitlisted status. Reaching out to ask questions is a great way to display interest. However, be sure you check your school’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page to make sure you’re not asking the same questions.

    As for deferred students, remember that being deferred means that your application is still being considered. So, there is no immediate need to express your interest in a written letter at that time. Instead, reach out to your admissions officer to ask questions to express your interest.

  3. Evaluate your other options

    When waitlisted or deferred, take time to evaluate your other colleges. Yes, while it may not be a rejection, there is still no guarantee that you will ultimately receive an offer letter. Therefore, use this time effectively by further investigating your other options.

    A great place to start is by reading through the offer letters and admission materials received from each school that has extended you an offer. Not only will you be able to nail down the respective decision deadlines and important admission details for each, but you can also start to consider which of your other options would be the best fit for you.

  4. Put down an enrollment deposit

    If you’re waitlisted, don’t wait on a final decision before making your move elsewhere. Waitlist timelines are arbitrary and a final decision on your application can take weeks. Therefore, once you have evaluated your different options and have decided on another school that is the best fit for you, put down an enrollment deposit!

    By making an enrollment deposit, you’re telling the school that you have accepted their offer of admission and that you plan to enroll next semester. That is not to say you must give up hope on your waitlisted application. If you ultimately receive an offer letter from a school that had waitlisted you, you can simply sacrifice the enrollment deposit and then accept the other school’s offer.

    Enrollment deposits can cost anywhere from $50 to $500 and are usually non-refundable. So, keep that in consideration as you evaluate your other college options. Ultimately, you should make an enrollment deposit when you are confident that you have found the next best alternative.

    While it is possible to make multiple enrollment deposits to various schools, it is regularly not recommended. In some instances, its seen as an unethical practice since you would be accepting multiple admission offers with the intention of only attending one school. Additionally, playing that game can easily get expensive (especially if your enrollment deposits are each in triple digits). Therefore, the best game plan is to place an enrollment deposit down at your second-best alternative. Then, if you ultimately get accepted off the waitlist at your first-choice school, you can place an enrollment deposit there and promptly notify your other school that you will no longer be attending.

  5. Send letters of recommendation

    Few things can reveal an applicant’s true character better than a strong letter, or letters, of recommendation. Whether it be from a teacher, boss, or coach, a strong letter of recommendation can provide the admissions office with important insight into who you are and why you would be a good fit. Look to those who you have a strong relationship with and can speak to your strengths.

    When you have found your recommender, provide them with details and accomplishments that you want to have highlighted in your letter. Sometimes a recommender may not know everything about you and can miss details that would have otherwise made a difference in the admission process. Therefore, coach your recommender and provide them with important insight into who you are and why you are a great fit for this school. Not only can it help ensure that your letter of recommendation is the strongest it can be, but it may also increase your chances of being admitted off the waitlist or following a deferred application.

  6. Resubmit improved grades or supplementary materials

    Demonstrating academic improvement is a great way to possibly sway a waitlisted or deferred admission decision in your favor! Whether you originally applied with incomplete grades or you’ve since significantly improved them, capitalize on your recent academic achievements to “wow” the admissions committee. Simply connect with your admissions officer and send an official transcript with your most recent grades. Doing this can demonstrate to the admissions office that you have what it takes and you want to be a student there.

  7. Retake the SAT or ACT

    Resubmitting improved SAT or ACT scores is another great way to turn the tide on your waitlisted or deferred application status. As we all know, standardized test scores carry a lot of weight in college admissions. So, if you have the time and resources to invest in improving your scores, do it!

    In addition to studying on your own, some additional options that can help you increase your score quickly include getting a personal tutor, joining a study group, or taking a prep class. Overall, taking the initiative to improve your test scores for the sole purpose of getting that offer letter is a great way to stand out from the rest of the waitlisted or deferred crowd.

  8. Follow-up

    Be sure to follow-up! If it has been a few weeks since you were waitlisted or deferred and you still haven’t heard anything back, check-in with your respective admissions officer. Ask questions about the status of your application, see if there is anything you can better clarify for the admissions office, and hear what they recommend for waitlisted or deferred students waiting to hear back. Even a simple follow-up email to ask questions can go a long way in conveying to the admissions office that you are still interested.

  9. Remain calm

    Upon receiving the news that you have been waitlisted or deferred, the best thing you can do is to remain calm. Yes, being waitlisted or deferred from a school you really like can be stressful. But you still have a chance of receiving that offer letter! Remain calm and focus on taking action to improve your chances of receiving an offer letter.

It is important to understand that, whether waitlisted or deferred, you still have a shot of being accepted. By remaining calm, expressing your interest, and taking active steps to improve your application, you can increase your chances and stand out.

Are you waitlisted or deferred? Looking to plan out your strategy and be aware of certain deadlines? Then check out Sallie Mae’s Countdown to College Checklist to stay on top of college decision deadlines and other essential planning dates!


Chris graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business marketing. An analyst for Sallie Mae, Chris is interested in all things college, personal finance, and the Washington Nationals.


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