The Admission Office’s Perspective

First, the use of a waitlist at any given school can vary dramatically from year to year. A school might take 100 students from the waitlist one year and zero students the next. In general, more selective schools are less likely to use their waitlists because they will have a high percentage of admitted students who accept their offers of admission. They’re therefore much less likely to suffer from a shortage. For all schools, how they use the waitlist depends on the number of students who accept their offer of admission, and that’s not a question they’ll have answered until very close to or after May 1.

What this means is that it is unlikely to hear about coming off a waitlist until after you will need to have deposited at another school. Right now, your task is to identify the school you’d most like to attend from among the group of schools where you have been offered admission, and to make a deposit at that school. You want to proceed as though this is the school you will attend in the fall, by filling out necessary forms for housing and beginning to connect with other students on admitted student groups and through other emails. (You also want to get excited! This is a school you wanted to apply to and attend, even if it’s not your absolute first choice. Commit to it!)

Meanwhile, you can accept a place on a waitlist at any school where you remain interested, keeping a couple of things in mind:

  • A space is unlikely to become available until after May 1.
  • Schools rarely have an opportunity to offer any kind of financial aid for students admitted from the waitlist.
  • If you are offered a space from the waitlist, you typically have a very short period of time to decide whether or not to accept it.
  • If you accept an offer to be admitted off the waitlist, you will forfeit the deposit you made at your first institution.
  • You may not learn that you have been “released” from the waitlist until as late as July.

Finally, if you’re really enthusiastic about one of the schools where you’ve been waitlisted, you can send a letter of continuing interest to the admission office that restates your commitment to the school and confirms that you would accept an offer if it were made, only if this assertion is true. You can also provide any relevant updates to grades that might have come through since you applied in the fall.

Using Data to Understand Waitlists

The Common Data Set (CDS) is another amazing tool you can use to analyze and better understand how colleges utilize their waitlists. Every year, colleges across the country report a broad range of data (from admissions and enrollment statistics to facts about academics and student life) that ultimately get passed along to higher education publishers such as the College Board and U.S. News & World Report. Within the CDS (which you can usually find online by searching for “[name of college] common data set”) you’ll find a section headed First‐Time, First‐Year (Freshman) Admission. And right there, at line item C2, colleges reveal* not only the total number of first year applicants who were offered a spot on the school’s waitlist, but also how many of those students accepted a position on the waitlist and then were ultimately admitted. (*Note that not all colleges are as forthcoming with their admissions data as we would like. Some colleges opt not to publish their CDS for public consumption, while others may choose to hide specific numbers – like waitlist statistics – within their online posts.)

Let’s imagine you are waitlisted from Boston University this spring. You will likely ask yourself “What really are my chances of getting in?” When looking the 2018-19 CDS for Boston University (see image below), you will discover your prospects as a waitlisted applicant are rather slim. Note that BU reports only admitting one waitlisted student last year, representing a tiny fraction of the 3,446 students who accepted a place on the waitlist! But at other colleges, waitlist acceptance rates are far more generous. Consider Clemson University, where 39 percent (or 449 students) were admitted off the waitlist last year. Even at the University of Michigan, were only 7 percent of waitlisted students were admitted last year, that number still translates to a relatively healthy 415 students!

Common Data Set 2018-19 for Boston University

Common Data Set 2018-19 for Boston University

Bonus tip: Love data and want to learn even more about waitlist stats on the CDS? Many colleges post multiple years of historical CDS data on their website, allowing you to dig a little deeper into past years’ waitlist outcomes to identify common trends.


Written by College Coach
College Coach® is the nation’s leading provider of educational advising, offering expert guidance from the best college admissions consultants on the college admissions and finance process. Our goal is to help each student maximize his or her chances of success through services focused on their personal desires, goals, individual strengths, and accomplishments.