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Deferred vs. Waitlisted for College Admissions

a dad explains to his daughter what being deferred means while she reads the letter from the college on her laptop.

Waiting to hear if you've been accepted to college can be exciting- and a little nerve-wracking. But sometimes, instead of getting a straightforward acceptance or rejection, you could hear that you've been waitlisted or deferred. 

If this has happened to you, don't panic. This article will help you sort through your options. We start by explaining the differences between being deferred vs. waitlisted. Then we offer expert tips from our friend Brenda High, Scholarship & Career Coach

The Difference Between Being Deferred and Waitlisted

While both these terms mean that you've neither been admitted nor denied, they're not the same thing. Understanding the differences between getting waitlisted and deferred will help you make an informed choice for how to proceed.

What Does Deferred Mean?

If you've been deferred for college admissions, it means the admissions committee sees your potential, but they want to re-evaluate your application within the pool of Regular Decision applications. As such, deferrals can only happen if you've applied during Early Decision or Early Action

Colleges defer candidates for different reasons, but it generally means they've gotten a lot of strong applications and want to wait to see how the rest of the pool shapes up before making final decisions.

Highly selective colleges that receive many qualified applicants tend to use deferrals to manage their competitive admissions process.  

But being deferred can end up being good news. Look at it like a second chance to get your application in front of the admissions committee. A deferral also allows you to demonstrate your interest in the school and provide additional information you might not have included in your initial application.

Moreover, many experts believe the Regular Decision application pool usually isn't as strong as the Early Action or Early Decision groups. So being evaluated amongst Regular Decision applicants could give you an advantage. 

If you have been deferred, stay in touch with the college and promptly provide any information they request. Lean into the process of demonstrating interest so you stay on the school's radar. Keep your grades up, and consider applying to other colleges to keep your options open.

But most importantly, remember that it's not you or anything to do with your worthiness as a candidate that led to you being deferred. Instead, it's about the number of applicants and what the school is looking for in a freshman class.  

Jump to the final section for additional tips on handling a college deferral. 

What Does Waitlisted Mean?

If you've been waitlisted for college admission, the admission team reviewed and liked your application, but they're putting you on a waiting list until a spot opens up.  

Schools use waiting lists to deal with the uncertainty of the admissions process. Just as students do not know whether they will be admitted, admissions offices do not know how many admitted students will accept offers of admission. So they use a waitlist to manage class sizes strategically. 

If you are waitlisted, stay in touch with the college. Work to demonstrate interest, update them on any new achievements or accomplishments, and provide any additional information they may request.

In the meantime, most colleges and universities publish some statistics on the average number of students they accept each year from their waitlist. Although, waitlists usually vary yearly depending on the number of applicants and the yield (the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll) at a given school.

You might also find an FAQ section about the college's waitlist policies on its website. Check for that and published statistics to help you understand the process and the likelihood that you'll eventually be accepted. 

If you are waitlisted and unsure about your options, it's wise to continue applying to other colleges. Also, you can accept an offer from a school at any time despite being on a different school's waitlist. So don't hesitate to do what's best for you and your situation. 

Most importantly, remember that it's not you or anything to do with your worthiness that caused you to be waitlisted. It's about the number of applicants and what the school is looking for in terms of their freshman class makeup. This includes how many students they want to accept from each major. So it could be something as simple as that holding your application up. 

Jump to the final section for detailed tips on handling a college waitlist. 

Which is Better: Deferred vs. Waitlisted?

Whether being waitlisted vs. being deferred is better depends on your needs and goals. Either way, being deferred or waitlisted can feel like being stuck in a gray area. The college's admissions committee is interested in your application but not yet ready to admit you. 

Let's walk through some upsides and downsides of each situation now.  

Being deferred: The upside of being deferred is that the admission committee is interested in your application and will reconsider it later. This allows you to provide additional information or updates that could strengthen your application. So it's like a second chance.

On the other hand, being deferred means your application wasn't quite strong enough for admission within Early Action or Early Decision periods. So there's no guarantee that you'll be offered admission later on. 

Being waitlisted: The upside of being waitlisted is that the admissions committee is interested in your application. All signs point to you being accepted if a spot opens up. Being waitlisted allows you to continue demonstrating your interest in the college. In addition, you can update them on your new achievements or accomplishments, possibly strengthening your application.

However, being waitlisted also does not guarantee admission. You may ultimately be rejected if a spot does not become available.

Have You Been Waitlisted or Deferred? Here's What to Do

As promised, we have expert advice from our friend and Scholarship & Career Coach, Brenda High. Brenda has worked with students for over 20 years, helping them get into their dream schools and find scholarship money to pay for tuition. 

Brenda shared the following advice for students who have been deferred or waitlisted. 

Advice for Students Who Have Been Deferred

First, you should always communicate with the Admissions Office regarding the next steps and what additional information can be submitted. Don't just assume you know. Then be prepared to strengthen your application by submitting the following:

  • A letter of interest explaining why you feel the school is a good match for you.
  • First-semester grades and updated test scores.
  • Additional letters of recommendation.
  • Any additional extracurricular or volunteer activities.
  • Improved second-semester GPA (if possible).

Finally, you'll want to carefully follow and understand the school's policies and guidelines regarding the process. If you have questions, contact the admissions office.

Advice for Students Who Have Been Waitlisted

First, you should determine if being on a waitlist is something you really want. If you're uncertain, develop a pros and cons list. 

If you decide to stay on the list, then you should:

  • Establish a timeline for yourself to determine how long you are willing to be on the list.
  • If possible, find out where you are on the list.
  • Improve your academics.
  • Submit a letter of interest.
  • Consider options to enroll as a transfer student.
  • Submit a deposit to your backup school.
  • Find out if you will still have access to institutional scholarships.

Brenda added that in either case, you should always be polite when communicating with an admissions office. It's easy to feel confused, scared, and frustrated. But being short or demanding can harm your chances of getting in. Kindness will go a long way. 

Keeping Your Options Open When Deferred or Waitlisted

If you were waitlisted or deferred by your dream school, you hopefully have a good idea of your next steps now. It probably makes sense to review your list of safety schools and be ready to apply to them, just in case. 

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