College Wait Lists: 10 Things You Need to Know

on March 6, 2017

You might not think that being offered a spot on a college wait list is a badge of honor, but many teenagers and parents consider it an accomplishment.


If you end up getting wait listed or your child does, here are 10 things you need to know about college wait lists:


1. A wait list puts you in a holding pattern


When offered a wait-list position, you are essentially being asked to remain in the dark for weeks or even months before hearing a final verdict from a college.


Colleges routinely offer teenagers a place on their wait list when they aren’t quite ready to reject applicants. Depending on how their freshmen class is shaping up when deposits come in, the college might have vacancies.


A college might end up having too many men or too many women who decide to enroll. Or a college might not have enough history or French majors or the class’s geographic diversity could need tweaking. Administrators might also conclude that they don’t have enough full-pay students enrolling.


Building a freshman class is just as nerve-wracking for college admissions staff as it is for the students. What if too few students accept the offer of admission? What if too many do? The wait list provides the college with flexibility, just in case they need to admit a few more students.


2. A large percentage of private colleges use wait lists


According to the 2016 survey of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 43 percent of private institutions used wait lists during the 2015-2016 admission season.


Prominent colleges that turned to wait lists included:

  • Boston College
  • Dartmouth College
  • Emory University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University 
  • Vassar College        

3. State universities also use wait lists


Nearly a third of public colleges and universities (31 percent) used wait lists, according to the NACAC survey.


Popular research universities that relied on wait lists included:

  • College of William and Mary
  • Ohio State University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Michigan
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of Texas
  • University of Virginia

4. It’s difficult to get off wait lists


Roughly 16 percent of applicants received a wait-list invitation during the 2015-2016 admission season and 41 percent accepted the offer. Among applicants who landed on wait lists, about 32 percent of them ultimately were admitted.


The odds of getting off a wait list will usually be worse at institutions that enjoy nationally recognized brand names. The University of Michigan represents an extreme example.


U of M offered a whopping 11,197 applicants a wait-list invitation during the most recently concluded admission season and 3,970 accepted. Michigan took only 36 individuals from the list. That’s less than 1 percent of the students on the waiting list.


On the other extreme, Penn State University admitted almost everyone on their wait list in 2015-2016, 1,445 applicants out of 1,473 (98 percent).  


5. Why colleges have embraced wait lists


Affluent students, who aren’t deterred by the expense of applying to colleges, are the ones who tend to apply to many prestigious colleges. Students assume that the more the applications they submit, the better their admission chances. This behavior drives colleges crazy because it makes it harder for admission offices to know who truly wants to attend their institutions, which can wreak havoc with their admission yield rates.  One way that colleges handle this lottery mentality is to put more students on wait lists.


In their defense, colleges say that they need to invite many teenagers on their waiting list because admission staffers don’t know upfront whom they might need whether that be a tuba player for the marching band, a few more philosophy majors or teens from three time zones away.


6. Look up the odds


A quick way to check the odds of being rescued from a wait list is to head to the College Board’s website. In the search box on the home page, type in the name of the college and then hit its Applying link. You’ll find the wait-list figures at the top of the page.


7. Look for a wait-list pattern


For historic statistics on wait lists, you can look at an institution’s annual Common Data Sets (CDS).  The CDS is a standardized document that collegiate publishers, including the College Board and U.S. News & World Report, use to obtain admission statistics from individual colleges.


The wait list statistics will be in the section entitled First-Time, First-Year (Freshmen) Admission. To find these documents, Google the name of the college and “Common Data Set.”


Here is what I found by looking at four years of wait-list figures at Vanderbilt University. In the earlier years, Vanderbilt had accepted four percent of wait-listed applicants, but in the past two years the percentage was infinitesimal.


Vanderbilt Wait List Statistics



  • Offered wait list spot: 3,809
  • Accepted wait-list offer: 1,942
  • Admitted: 7 (0.4 percent)


  • Offered wait list spot: 5,526
  • Accepted wait list offer: 2,835
  • Admitted: 4 (0.1 percent)


  • Offered wait list spot: 3,104
  • Accepted wait list offer: 1,630
  • Admitted: 73 (4.5 percent)


  • Offered wait list: 4843
  • Accepted wait list offer: 1,864
  • Admitted:  87 (4.7 percent)

8. Universities turn to wait lists to let their alumni down easy


Sometimes a wait-list offer is a polite way to say “no.”  Colleges and universities don’t want to alienate alumni and VIPs by rejecting their children or other family and friends outright.


9. If you accept a wait list offer, here is what you should do:  

  • Respond quickly to a wait-list offer in whatever way the institution has indicated it wants to hear from you.
  • In a letter to the office of admission, explain why you want to attend this college in as detailed a way as possible. If you had contact with a specific admission staffer during the process send the letter to this individual too. Tell the college about any new developments, such as honors and awards you have won since submitting the application.
  • Ask your high school counselor to contact the admission office on your behalf.
  • Do not let your parents contact the college on your behalf. That would be a turnoff.
  • If practical, ask about the possibility of a campus interview.
  • If you are certain to attend the college if you get off the wait list, emphasize that.
  • If you don’t need financial aid, definitely mention that, since some colleges become need-sensitive when admitting students off of the wait list.

10. Move on


Don’t pin your hopes on a long shot.


Among your college acceptances, determine your No. 2 college and prepare yourself mentally for the fall. Be sure to pay the deposit on this college by the May 1 deadline and fill out paperwork including requesting a dorm. If you ultimately get into your dream college, you’ll lose your deposit, but it will have been worth the peace of mind to know you have someplace to start your college life in the fall.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on



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