How to Get Off the Waitlist and Into Your Dream College

Proven strategies for what to do if waitlisted, plus a successful UC Berkeley waitlist letter sample

Your child can improve their chances of getting off the waitlist by sending a carefully constructed waitlist letter to the admissions committee

Your child can improve their chances of getting off the waitlist by sending a carefully constructed waitlist letter to the admissions committee

Introduction

Being stuck on a college admissions waitlist can feel like purgatory. Your child’s dream school seems just within their grasp, yet still just beyond it.

You likely have tons of questions. What are your child’s chances of leaving the waitlist? How many people are on this mysterious list? Are they ahead of your child? Behind them? Should your child hold out for their dream school to turn that maybe into a yes, or should they move on? And is there anything your child can do to improve their odds, in the meantime?

This guide is designed to answer those questions and cut through your anxiety. We’ll explain how admissions committees handle waitlists, how your child can maximize their chances of being admitted off one, and how your child can plan for a successful college career while they wait for the admission committee’s final decision.

What does waitlisted mean?

When your child applies to colleges via regular decision, they will generally receive one of three responses: a yes (accepted!), a no (rejected), or a spot on the waitlist. (This is distinct from the three possible responses your child might get when applying early action or early decision.)

Being placed on the waitlist typically means that your child’s application was good enough, but didn’t land in the definite yes pile when the admissions committee met, whether due to too few spots, a particularly competitive applicant pool, or some other reason. Regardless, your child’s waitlisted application might be reconsidered if too few admitted students accept the college’s offer.

When do waitlist decisions come out?

Waitlisted applicants usually hear back sometime after the May 1 deadline for high school seniors to submit their deposit and confirm their attendance at the college. It’s not uncommon, however, for decisions on waitlisted applicants to stretch on into the summer. This means your child might have to submit a deposit for another institution while holding out for their first choice school to call them off the bench.

What are the chances of getting accepted after being waitlisted?

You might assume that a spot opens up for a waitlisted applicant as soon as an admitted student rejects a college’s offer of admission, but this is rarely the case. Usually, hundreds of students have to reject an offer of admission for a college to turn to its waitlist.

Why is that?

Every college dreams up an ideal number of students for its incoming class. Wanting to avoid falling too far under this target, colleges usually distribute far more admissions offers than they expect or even want to be accepted, like when airlines oversell seats, knowing that some people will miss their flights.

This means colleges are always estimating how many admitted students will actually enroll in their college (that number—how many students say yes to a college’s offer of admission—is known as the “yield”). If a college has overestimated its yield, it’ll typically dip into its waitlist to reach its ideal class size—though a college will never rescind an offer if it’s underestimated its yield.

Does that mean it’s impossible to get off a waitlist? Not at all. But it does mean that the number of waitlisted applicants who receive offers of admission varies greatly from year to year, since colleges don’t always estimate their yields perfectly. Harvard, for example, admitted zero waitlisted applicants to the Class of 2021, but admitted 63 into the Class of 2022.

Nevertheless, waitlist admission rates are low, and even lower at the most competitive schools. Last year an average of about one in five waitlisted students across all colleges were granted offers of admission, according to U.S. News, while the most selective universities typically admit between zero and six percent of applicants. You can find data for the waitlist admissions rates of specific colleges here.

How do colleges decide which waitlisted applicants to admit?

It’s often said that admissions committees could put together highly qualified classes from their waitlist pool alone—so choosing which of those applicants should get one of the few spots available to waitlisted students is a near-impossible task. Admissions committees handle the challenge in different ways.

Some rank their waitlists and immediately admit their highest-rated applicant as soon as a spot opens up. Most, however, do not. They instead reconsider the entire pool of waitlisted applicants, admitting students who are qualified and who compensate for the non-academic qualities which, the committee feels, were lost among the students who rejected their offer of admission. That means that, in theory, if tons of future art, music, and theater majors chose another school, a given college might look for artists in their waitlist pile, even if a number of future computer scientists are equally qualified.

Gender balance and diversity of backgrounds and interests therefore factor into selections from the waitlist, just as they do in regular admissions.

But since colleges are keen to fill up the open spots in their class, they also give greater credit to applicants who have demonstrated interest in attending their university—maybe even citing it as their first choice in short answer responses on supplemental applications or in update letters/letters of interest. This is especially true for the minority of students who had an excellent application, but were waitlisted because the admissions committee felt that they might go on to another, more selective college.

How to get off the waitlist

Follow the university’s directions

If a school asks your child to accept or reject their spot on their waitlist, your child should do so as soon as possible using whatever method the school specifies. It’ll help demonstrate your child’s continued interest in their institution.

Make sure, however, that your child puts some thought into that decision. Your child might, for instance, be waitlisted at multiple colleges and not want to stretch themselves too thin through applications.

If your child does decide to accept their waitlist spot, they should start arranging any supplemental materials that the school may have asked them to send—be they recommendation letters, new test scores, spring semester grades, or a “waitlist letter” describing new developments in your child’s life and their continued interest in the school.

Big schools, such as NYU, typically ask for fewer supplemental materials, since they have more waitlist applications to sift through. But if the school to which your child is applying hasn’t explicitly asked for a document that would improve their application, it wouldn’t hurt to call or email their admissions office and ask if they’d accept it. (Your child, however, should not send them anything that they’ve explicitly told waitlisted applicants not to submit.)

All of these documents should be mailed or emailed to the admissions committee in one comprehensive package, unless the school has distinct online forms or instructions for each.

We’ll explain how your child can maximize the effect of these materials in the sections to come.

Identify application weaknesses

Your child should start reflecting on the weaknesses of their original application, and how their supplemental waitlist materials could compensate for them. Some admissions committees might be willing to share those weaknesses with your child, if contacted directly or through your child’s guidance counselor. But most of the time, your child will have to rely on their own introspection, and feedback from a school counselor or a trusted teacher.

The most common reason students are waitlisted is that their original application didn’t tell a clear and compelling story about who they are. Other applicants might have accomplished this by telling actual stories from their personal lives in the Common App Personal Statement (PS)—something that most teenagers haven’t experienced, or at least thought about in quite the same way—or by structuring their essay around some sort of memorable theme.

A clear and compelling personal story tells the college that your child can contribute something unique to their student body, while also keeping your child from being forgotten in the mass of applications that admissions officers must sift through. If your child’s original application lacked a compelling narrative, they should brainstorm ways to address this in their waitlist letter.

Your child should also request an alumni interview if they didn’t have one already. Having someone associated with the admissions process meet your child in person can be a huge help in turning your child from a piece of paper to a full personality in their eyes.

Note that your child should not rewrite their PS or try to create a brand new narrative about themselves. What they have now is the chance to convey a new anecdote or personal experience. No admissions committee wants to field hundreds of students asking for a second chance on their PS.

The reason your child was rejected could, however, be more mundane. Perhaps you failed to demonstrate an intense, multi-year commitment to some pursuit. In that case, your child should reflect on what new progress or accomplishments they’ve made in one of the activities mentioned in their original application, and list them in their waitlist letter. (This is a reason not to neglect extracurricular activities too much, even during the fun of senior year.)

Perhaps academics were your child’s weak point. In that case, your child should ensure that they have a perfect second semester, and consider retaking the ACT or SAT. Make sure that the college they’ve been waitlisted at is willing to review new test scores.

Finally, your child should ask any new recommenders to provide an update on your child’s life since January, and to address one of these weaknesses. Just like the materials your child will submit, new materials from a recommender should enhance the original application rather than rehash its contents.

If your child’s weakness was academic, they should obtain a reference letter that will speak to their academic determination or improvement, over time. If it was extracurricular, your child should find a reference who will speak to their personal depth and growth.

And what if your child doesn’t know? Maybe they’re thinking: if I knew what my weaknesses were, I would have addressed them in sophomore or junior year!

In that case, your child should think carefully about the most meaningful experiences they have had, academically or extracurricularly, since submitting their original application. Count up key classes, leadership positions, new travels or community service, or new awards and achievements. Take a step back and consider what those new parts of your application say about your growth, and discuss those in your waitlist letter.

What your child shouldn’t do to try to get off the waitlist

The anxiety of being waitlisted often pushes students to find novel ways of demonstrating their commitment to their dream school, beyond following the instructions that have been given to them. These efforts can, unfortunately, hurt the applicants more than they help, annoying admissions committees or even creeping them out.

The New York Times featured an article in 2013 about exactly this—waitlisted students who bombarded admissions committees with calls and emails, endorsements from community leaders, or glitzy, personalized videos. A few even set up camp inside campuses and ambushed admissions officers for impromptu interviews. The colleges, unsurprisingly, were not charmed.

Your child should not bombard admissions committees with update upon update, send an overly long waitlist letter, camp out, or otherwise push too hard.

How to write a waitlist letter

(Note: If your child applied to a college via early action or early decision and has been deferred to the regular decision applicant pool, they can follow the same guidelines below to submit an update letter that will be added to their application file and considered during regular decision review.)

Goals of the waitlist letter

As we’ve laid out, an effective waitlist letter should:

1. Demonstrate continued interest in the college;

2. Address the weaknesses of the original application—e.g., the lack of a personal X-factor, academic underachievement, weak extracurricular commitment, etc.

Your child should also try to frame the letter around a unifying story or theme, to make sure it’s interesting and memorable. Obviously this could be a bit difficult, given how much disparate information you may have to get through—but try your best!

For instance, your child might tell a college that after a natural disaster in your town, they’ve dedicated most of their time to a community service project helping those affected. Or, in a less extreme case, they could point out that the varsity sport season began after they submitted their application, and now their team is headed to the state championships. In each of those cases, honing in on the specifics of the update—service, athletics—is more valuable than providing a scattershot view of every new course taken or club joined.

Structuring the waitlist letter

1.      Introduction

Your child should briefly thank the admissions committee for reconsidering their application and reiterate their commitment to the school. They should mention that it’s their first choice, if it is.

2. Mention new accomplishments not included in the original application

This is where your child would, ideally, address the weaknesses of their original application, by describing things that they’ve accomplished since they submitted their original application.

If your child worked hard at a subject in which they previously struggled, or improved their standardized test scores, they should mention that. For instance, Julie consistently earned B’s in Spanish, but began tutoring Spanish-speaking children in December and found her conversational Spanish vocabulary quickly improving. She’s earning a solid A in senior spring semester.

If your child redoubled their commitment to an extracurricular in which their previous commitment was less intense, they should mention that. Omar’s upcoming state championship soccer game would land in this category, but so too would Julie’s aforementioned tutoring gig.

If your child remembered a personal story or learning experience which would make their application memorable, they should mention that—but in a way that highlights their accomplishments since submitting their original application. For instance, Omar just spent a memorable Winter Break with his grandfather, who lives abroad. He got to know his family member better and learned that they both share a passion for soccer. He was already interested in international studies for college, but now he can see himself studying abroad and volunteering in this particular college’s international youth soccer program.

The accomplishments your child mentions should not span more than 1-2 general themes, so that there is enough space to explain them thoroughly. And your child should be careful NOT to reiterate information that their original application already contains. The admissions committees already know all that!

3. Your child’s interest in the college

Your child should describe what aspects of the college appeal to them. They should talk about the general mission and spirit of the university, if they’ve gotten a feel for it through alumni or a current student, and cite specific academic and/or extracurricular programs. Julie might mention the alumni interview she had a month before receiving her waitlist notice. Hearing about her dream school’s residential housing system from someone who organized social events in the houses for three years only convinced her further that she’d be at home in this college’s community.

Furthermore, your child should make sure to explain why these things resonate with them, their identity and their values. This is the perfect spot to reference or introduce a unique personal story or learning experience, concisely. It would give the admissions committee something to remember your child by, and actually prove— rather than just state — that your child would be committed to this institution, if admitted.

Additional tips for the waitlist letter

•   Write concisely.

•   Make sure the tone is positive and respectful, rather than sullen or petulant about not being accepted earlier.

•   If anything kept your child from being as excellent or as busy as they could have been—either since their original application, or when they were writing it—they should mention that, if it’s actually significant. (Examples: your child was seriously ill, or they had to care for a family member.) But in general, it’s not useful to make excuses that don’t provide narrative depth. (Ideally, your child would have included any issues within their original application’s Additional Information section.)

Waitlist letter sample

Here’s a fantastic waitlist letter example, which follows the structure outlined above, from a student who was placed on the UC Berkeley waitlist:

To the UC Berkeley Admissions Committee:

I hope you are well. First and foremost, I want to thank you for considering my application. I am also writing to share with you my accomplishments since the application deadline, why UC Berkeley is the perfect school for me, and how I hope to make an impact on UC Berkeley’s campus.

I continue to serve as an intern in the office of Congresswoman Wendy Dixon, where I interact with constituents amidst the vote on net neutrality, the police shootings of two unarmed men in Los Angeles, a government shutdown, and the debate to end DACA. I started a second internship with the Republican Party where I write press releases and introduce speakers at town hall events in the Los Angeles area.

Finally, I am currently working on the campaign of a candidate running for California's 30th Congressional District. Political involvement allows me to connect with people in my community, as well as address current events that affect the community. If offered admission to UC Berkeley, I intend to continue my community involvement by participating in student government, political discussion groups, and student organizations.

UC Berkeley is the ideal institution for me as I move towards a career in public service. I value an education that, alongside research and instruction, promotes discussion and debate as means of exposing students to new ideas and opposing opinions. At UC Berkeley, I see such an opportunity at the Institute of Governmental Studies, to study alongside distinguished researchers at the Critin Center of Public Opinion.

Additionally, I hope to participate in research with Professor Vinod Aggarwal whose work on international negotiations and political economies correlate directly with my interests in government relations. These opportunities will provide me the foundation to become an effective leader.  

Finally, UC Berkeley offers opportunities to further my political involvement on- and off-campus. I hope to run for ASUC student government to identify, facilitate, and address the needs and concerns of students on campus. For example, in regards to the invitation of the controversial speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, I intend to bridge the gap between students with opposing views by fostering an environment in which disagreements prompt discussion rather than violence. The opportunity to contribute to society has always been my central motivation to pursue politics. I am eager to attend UC Berkeley to receive a world-class education and to inspire change through political involvement, and to become a competent leader in a turbulent political climate.

Many thanks for your time,

Todd Williams

Let’s break down why it works, section by section.

I hope you are well. First and foremost, I want to thank you for considering my application. I am also writing to share with you my accomplishments since the application deadline, why UC Berkeley is the perfect school for me, and how I hope to make an impact on UC Berkeley’s campus.

Here Todd checks the boxes for an introduction, without wasting too much space—thanking the admissions committee and emphasizing his commitment to the school.

I continue to serve as an intern in the office of Congresswoman Wendy Dixon, where I interact with constituents amidst the vote on net neutrality, the police shootings of two unarmed men in Los Angeles, a government shutdown, and the debate to end DACA. I started a second internship with the Republican Party where I write press releases and introduce speakers at town hall events in the Los Angeles area. Finally, I am currently working on the campaign of a candidate running for California's 30th Congressional District. Political involvement allows me to connect with people in my community, as well as address current events that affect the community. If offered admission to UC Berkeley, I intend to continue my community involvement by participating in student government, political discussion groups, and student organizations.

Todd has obviously been busy since he submitted his original application, and describes his accomplishments and their significance concisely. He also demonstrates his genuine passion for politics—either redressing a weakness in his original application (e.g., the lack of a multi-year extracurricular activity) or doubling down on a previously mentioned strength.

UC Berkeley is the ideal institution for me as I move towards a career in public service. I value an education that, alongside research and instruction, promotes discussion and debate as means of exposing students to new ideas and opposing opinions. At UC Berkeley, I see such an opportunity at the Institute of Governmental Studies, to study alongside distinguished researchers at the Critin Center of Public Opinion. Additionally, I hope to participate in research with Professor Vinod Aggarwal whose work on international negotiations and political economies correlate directly with my interests in government relations. These opportunities will provide me the foundation to become an effective leader.  

Todd gives detailed reasons why the college’s academic program appeals to him—even mentioning a professor by name. He also starts to tie these programs to who he is as a person—saying that new ideas and opposing opinions are things he values—which he dives even deeper into, in the next paragraph:

Finally, UC Berkeley offers opportunities to further my political involvement on- and off-campus. I hope to run for ASUC student government to identify, facilitate, and address the needs and concerns of students on campus. For example, in regards to the invitation of the controversial speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, I intend to bridge the gap between students with opposing views by fostering an environment in which disagreements prompt discussion rather than violence. The opportunity to contribute to society has always been my central motivation to pursue politics. I am eager to attend UC Berkeley to receive a world-class education and to inspire change through political involvement, and to become a competent leader in a turbulent political climate.

Here, Todd succeeds in tying the spirit of the university to who he is as a person. By showing an interest in recent intense public disputes, he depicts himself as someone who’s really reflected about whether that campus is the right place for him, and whether he could contribute to it. Berkeley has a long history of dissent and discussion, and the admissions committee knows that. Todd has connected to that, which serves as an implicit “why us” question.

This is all particularly useful for Todd since UC applications don’t require supplemental essays the way Common App schools (i.e., most private colleges) do. It means he hasn’t had a chance to address the specifics of Berkeley yet.

Overall, this letter is successful because every paragraph contributes to a single theme: the applicant’s passion for ideas, debate and politics. This letter will be remembered because it communicates a clear and compelling image of the applicant.

What should your child do while waiting for college admission decisions?

Once your child has perfected their waitlist letter, they should turn their attention to making sure that their upcoming college experience is a great one, wherever they end up going.

Your child should research all of the universities they’ve been accepted to, select the one they’d be the happiest attending, and make sure to submit their deposit before the May 1 deadline. Since waitlist decisions aren’t usually released until after that date, they’ll lose the deposit if they end up attending the college that waitlisted them—but that’s better than having nowhere to go next fall.

If your child doesn’t make it off the waitlist and remains committed to attending their dream school, they should consider transferring there after one or two years at another university. They may also consider taking a gap year, collecting new experiences, and reapplying next fall. But often it’s better for high school students to dive right into school rather than waiting in hopes of being picked by their dream college the next year. If your child got in somewhere they could be happy, they should begin there, and reassess the next year.

Most importantly, remember that rejection from your child’s dream school is not the end of the world. Your child can still have a fulfilling college experience and go on to achieve their educational and career goals.