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What Does "Waitlist" Actually Mean?

One of the most frustrating parts of the college admissions process is receiving a letter that says you have been waitlisted. You’re not quite accepted, nor outright rejected, so you’re placed in academic limbo. For this reason, the waitlist comes off as something mysterious and, because the college did not embrace you fully the first time, a bit hopeless. You may be wondering, “What more do I need to do?”

First, think about the nature of college admissions and why there’s a waitlist in the first place. The waitlist exists because colleges accept students who may not enroll, so they need a pool of applicants to choose when an initial acceptance enrolls at another college. If you are on the waitlist, the college considers you a quality student, but for whatever reason, you didn’t quite make the initial cut (or any cut). Should you feel good about your place on the waitlist? Well, you shouldn’t feel bad, because the college could have outright rejected you.

Still, there is the question of what exactly to do. MIT’s admission team has a great FAQ on its process, explaining that after May 1, when students should have accepted or declined offers, MIT reviews what, if anything, needs filling in its incoming freshman class. During the second week of May MIT reevaluates waitlist candidates and selects ones that would fulfill the needs of the incoming class. The example used, though not always the case, is that if a superstar fooseball player declines MIT’s offer, then it may look for another quality fooseball player to fill that spot. There are other key insights, such as don’t bombard the admissions office with love letters and come in person to make your case.

Is it hopeless? Well, most Ivy Leagues have incoming freshman classes the size of their waitlists. For example, last year Yale accepted 1,972 students from a pool of 31,455 applicants. Its waitlist included 1,095 additional applicants. If that number seems overwhelming, it may be because during another year with a similar waitlist size, Yale only ended up accepting 14 students.

With waitlists, there are no guarantees, and the numbers usually don’t work in your favor, so you shouldn’t wait with hope that an acceptance will happen. Instead you should enroll at another college and make preparations as necessary. Students are usually allowed to unenroll, and it is expected that if they are accepted from a waitlist that they will receive a financial aid package and housing, so don’t worry about those details.

The bottom line is that waitlists are a nice nod that you are a quality student, but you should look to your other options and seriously consider a future that will lie elsewhere. And while you may not be going to your dream school, you will still have an amazing experience--if you let yourself--if you treat a setback as an opportunity. Sure, it’s that normal feel-good stuff that we say when you feel that you've missed the mark, but we’ve been around the block, and at the end of the day, it’s not the brand of the education, it’s the quality of the pursuit.

If you have received college admissions decisions and are not quite sure what’s your next step, consider contacting our qualified college admissions staff to help you make the best choice. We are happy to help people with all parts of the admissions process, from penning essays to selecting a great school for the fall. Don’t let the waitlist get you down, realign to a better tomorrow!

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