The waitlist: one of the least understood (and least fun) places to be. For students, it feels like limbo. Here are some answers to common questions about the waitlist.
Do I Still Have A Chance?
Understandably, this is the first question I often get asked by both students and parents. The answer is yes...sort of. Technically, there's definitely still a chance you could get into the school, but many schools waitlist hundreds or even thousands of students, and take fewer than fifty from that number. Some schools, depending on the year, don't go to their waitlist at all! As an example, in 2020, Cornell waitlisted 6,750 potential members of the class of 2025, and admitted just 190 of those. To look at a somewhat less selective institution, SMU waitlisted 2,043 in the same year, and eventually admitted 340 of those people.
So, there's a chance. But the fact is that most selective--especially highly selective--institutions waitlist thousands more people than they will admit.
What Should I Do?
If you want to stay on the waitlist, you should be able to indicate this in your portal, and should do so as early as possible. Many schools will give you instructions about how to proceed: if they do, follow the instructions you're given! They may be looking for an additional piece of writing. If so, include any updates as to your achievements or grades as well as information about what you like about the school. If you would definitely enroll if admitted, make sure you say that--it's probably your most powerful card to play.
Be sure you're following the college's instructions perfectly--if they indicate they'll accept more letters of recommendation ,provide them....but otherwise, don't do so. You don't want to give them material they don't want. Make sure that whatever you do submit isn't just a generic statement of interest, but truly personalized to the college. Think of this as your last chance to sell them not just on the idea that you love the school, but that you're a great fit. How will you contribute to campus? What activities might you get involved in? These are questions to answer in your letter of continued interest.
Who Gets In?
The answer to this question varies, but there are some constants. First, unfortunately, the answer is "not many people." The best thing you can do, in fact, is get excited about the places that have admitted you. Students should assume they're not going to get off any given waitlist, no matter how great a fit they are. This includes students with a legacy connection to the school: sometimes, legacies are waitlisted because it's considered a "soft" rejection, or a kind way to say no.
Most waitlists aren't ranked, so it really depends on who accepts their offers of admission. Remember that institutional priorities for most schools are about building a well-rounded class, and the waitlist is simply a tool by which colleges and universities can ensure that they're able to do that.
That being said, students who are more likely to deposit are more likely to get in. In most cases, those will be students who can afford to pay for a school without scholarship money. While it's not entirely unheard of to get scholarship money coming off a waitlist, it is exceedingly rare. Most of the students coming off waitlists are full pay, meaning that they don't need any financial aid or merit money to make the school work for them financially.
You should also keep in mind that you may not hear from a waitlist until summer. Most notifications are rolling. If you want to pursue a waitlist, make sure you deposit elsewhere by May 1, so that you definitely have an option if the waitlist doesn't work out. If you get accepted from the waitlist, you can forfeit your deposit at the other school.
Ultimately, whether to pursue a waitlist is a decision for each student and their family, and our students have certainly come off waitlists to have wonderful experiences at Duke, UC Berkeley, and dozens of other institutions at all levels of selectivity. But students should prioritize the schools that have accepted them as they're working toward making college decisions. Those are places that want you and are prioritizing you...and every student deserves to be someplace that wants them!