Stuck on the College Waitlist? Here's What to Know

by Naomi Mannino

When students are anticipating their college acceptance letters, no one is prepared for a letter that says, “Congratulations! You made it on the college waitlist.” However, this could be a great opportunity to slow down and re-evaluate goals and options.

Kayla Montgomery, assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Azusa Pacific University, notes that getting placed on a waitlist might come as a surprise, but there’s no reason to abandon hope. “It can be initially disappointing to hear that news, but college is still an option, so I encourage students on the waitlist to keep pushing forward with their college plans,” she says.

What the College Waitlist Means

Colleges rank students who apply for admission in comparison to their admission requirements, as well as standards for grade point average (GPA), test scores, and many other variables. Not all colleges have waitlists, though.

If a student is placed on the waitlist, it means that the admissions office has reviewed their application thoroughly and the student is not the first choice to attend. The college then sends acceptance letters to its chosen applicants, but not all applicants will choose to attend the college. So, once the regular college application and acceptance period has passed and the college evaluates its vacancies, admissions personnel will move down the waitlist to see who is still interested in attending.

The Difference Between Being Deferred and Wait-Listed

When applications are deferred, that simply means the school may want more information from a student to strengthen their application. Between the time they apply and are accepted (or aren’t), it’s important for students to keep their GPA as high as possible and even take entrance exams again to boost test scores, which could help a deferred application.

Unlike deferment, a place on the waitlist is usually not affected by strengthening one’s application until after the regular admissions cycle. However, it’s always an option to call the school and ask if there’s anything a student can add or improve that will help their application. If there is, then a student’s new, higher grades or test scores will come in handy when and if vacancies open up.

Re-Evaluate Your College Choices

Montgomery advises students on a college waitlist to move forward with their other options. Assuming students applied to more than one school, it can be helpful to analyze the difference between the colleges they were accepted to and any that put them on the waitlist.

“Analyze your financial aid offers from other schools; crunch the numbers, visit each campus, and rank your new top choices,” says Montgomery. “Then, if you end up getting admitted to your wait-listed school, you will be a pro in the next steps you need to take to determine if that school will work for you and your family.”

If a student’s top two schools are more similar than different, they could consider accepting one of the current offers of admission. This way, the student will know where they will attend college in the fall—instead of standing by well into the summer to find out whether they are accepted into the wait-listed school, which can be stressful.

Students who choose a school where they are already accepted can use this time positively to research (and boost) their financial aid options, obtain housing, and plan their freshman course schedule.