What Does Waitlisted Mean for College and What You Can Do about It?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Landing on the waitlist means you met admissions requirements for a college, but they don't currently have a space for you in their incoming class. Use this guide to learn more about being waitlisted and what you can do about it.

[Featured Image] Two students sitting in a lounge with their laptops and tablets discussing their options after being waitlisted.

Preparing to get into and apply to the college of your dreams takes a lot of hard work, and you should always be proud of yourself for putting in that effort. Sometimes, that effort leads to a straightforward acceptance response; however, other times, you may receive word that you've been waitlisted. The great news is that this means you meet the admissions requirements, but the school is waiting for a space to open up for you. If a learner who earned a spot decides not to attend that college, a learner on the waitlist can usually take their spot. Luckily, if you do find yourself on a college waitlist, you have options you can take to improve your situation and focus on your long-term goals. 

This guide answers the question, "What does waitlisted mean for college?" and what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?  

What does waitlisted mean for college? 

Being waitlisted means you met a college's requirements for admissions, but it can't currently offer you a spot in its incoming class. This is usually due to the number of students who applied compared to the number of spots available. With increasingly more students applying to college, landing on a waitlist is a very likely possibility for any applicant. When this happens, you must decide whether to accept the spot on the waitlist or attend another school. If another accepted student decides not to attend that school, it opens up a spot for the next person on the waitlist. 

Waitlisted vs. deferral 

The words "waitlisted" and "deferral" are two concepts related to the college application process. Finding yourself on a waitlist means you met the college's admissions requirements, but it doesn't currently have a spot for you in the incoming class. When you receive a deferral, it usually means you applied for an early decision, and the admissions committee hasn't yet decided whether to admit you. This could mean that the committee needs more time or that they want to give you more time to improve or maintain your grades and test scores. The committee will defer your application and decide on a later date. If you receive a deferral, you can still find yourself waitlisted if accepted, but if you're waitlisted, you have already been accepted and therefore won't receive a deferral.   

Odds of getting into a school after it waitlists you 

Earning a spot on a waitlist typically means you're a competitive candidate for that school, and you still have a chance of earning a spot in the class; however, actual statistics for admittance rate after waitlisting vary by school. Factors like the size of the incoming freshman class or the class you're transferring into, the number of applicants that meet certain desirable demographics, and how well you've demonstrated a strong interest in attending the school can impact your chances. 

The Daily Princetonian looked at data from eight prestigious colleges and universities in the United States to see what percentage of students on the waitlist were eventually accepted to the schools between 2003 and 2020. Averages were typically low but varied by school. For example, Cornell had a 4.4 percent average waitlist acceptance rate, while Northwestern had an 8.9 percent average waitlist acceptance rate [1]. 

US News and World Report analyzed data from 98 schools from its Best National University Rankings. They determined that the average percentage of students admitted off the waitlist was 39 percent for all of the schools in 2020. However, some schools admitted as few as zero waitlisted applicants. The odds were lower for liberal arts colleges on the list, with an average of 17 percent of students admitted off the waitlist [2]. 

Steps to take after you're waitlisted

Now that you've been waitlisted, it’s helpful to understand that this isn't necessarily negative. You can still potentially attend your dream school and take some steps that may increase the potential of admittance. 

Accept your spot on the list.

Once a school offers you a spot on its waitlist, determine if you want to accept it. If this is the college you want to attend, go ahead and accept the spot. If you'd be just as happy at another school that already accepted you, consider being courteous and rejecting the waitlist spot. This usually frees up the opportunity for another student. If you're having trouble making the decision, think about your needs. For example, most waitlisted students won't find out if they're accepted until after May 1, and that decision could come just before the fall semester starts. The late acceptance date can prevent you from getting financial aid if you need it. Determine if that is a realistic timeline for you.  

Advocate for yourself.

Once you've accepted your spot on the waitlist, it's time to become your own biggest advocate. Strive to convince the school that you want to attend by writing a letter to the admissions committee explaining why that school is your top choice. Assure the committee that you plan to attend if admitted. Sending your letter via email is usually a good option. You can also talk to an admissions counselor to better understand what the school wants from you and how you can best convey your interest. 

Have a backup school.

While you still have a chance of attending your top school, it's not a guarantee. Unless you plan on taking a gap year, choosing a backup school is important. To do this, choose a school that accepted you and put down a deposit by the deadline to show that you plan to attend that school in the fall. Remember that you will not likely receive that deposit back if you do earn a spot at your first-choice school. 

Continue improving your academic portfolio.

Some schools accept additional academic materials after you've submitted your application, especially if you're still attending high school. If your high school transcript was incomplete when you originally applied, submit a completed one when you graduate. Consider retaking the ACT or SAT to see if you can improve your scores. If you only took one of them, take the other one.  

Send supplemental materials.

In addition to new academic materials, consider sending in any other accolades you may have.  Obtain letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, employers, or supervisors from volunteer work. If you won an award for academics, talent, or contributions to your community, submit that information as well. If you find out that your school will not accept additional materials, mention these accomplishments when writing a letter expressing your interest. 

Stay on top of communication.  

Stay in communication with the school. If a school representative calls or emails you, respond in a timely manner. The school may request additional information or materials; you'll want to send them in as soon as possible. If the school offers you a spot in the class, respond promptly to the offer. Many schools expect to hear from you within a few days, if not sooner. Remember to keep communication brief and respectful.

Focus on your long-term goals. 

Continue to foster your long-term goals while you wait to hear about your waitlist status.  Take courses that challenge you. Study and strive to earn good grades. Stay involved in your community and extracurricular activities. After your freshman or sophomore year, you can reapply to your top school and try again with a fresh perspective if you decide you want to. 

Getting started with Coursera 

Improving your academic performance may help you get into your dream school, and taking courses online can look great on your college applications. On Coursera, you'll find many options offered by some of the top schools in the world that can help prepare you for your postsecondary academic career. Some options include Academic Listening and Note-Taking, offered by the University of California, Irvine, U101: Understanding College and College Life, offered by the University of Washington, and Study Skills for University Success, offered by the University of California, Irvine. 

Article sources


The Daily Princetonian. "We looked at waitlist acceptance rates for Princeton and seven highly selective schools. Here’s what we found, https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2022/02/princeton-waitlist-acceptance-rate-data-ivy-league-admissions-college." Accessed March 18, 2024. 

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.