You’ve spent hours trying to perfect your college application. But when you get a letter, you don’t see an acceptance or even a rejection: you’ve been deferred or added to the waitlist. What do these statuses mean? And how do you use them to make decisions about your collegiate future?

How do college admissions deferrals and waitlists work? 

Some universities approve or decline applicants for admission right away, while other colleges may defer applicants. According to a 2018 report, about 40% of colleges used waitlists. In early decision/early action admissions, a college admissions deferral means you will be considered within the regular admission cycle. In regular admissions, you would be offered a waitlist placement, which you can either decline or accept. The length of the waitlist may vary by school, and from year to year. Generally waitlist applicants are admitted if openings exist in the freshman class after April 1, or the deposit due date, and colleges must notify you by August 1.

Why could you be deferred or waitlisted?

There are a few reasons you might receive a college admissions deferral or waitlist. Some you can overcome with time or extra effort, and some might mean your chances of getting into that school are pretty slim.

  • Too many applications: Many universities receive more applications than they can review quickly so they might make quick decisions about some applicants, then defer others. Students are applying to more schools, and colleges often want high numbers of applications, so their yield (number of students admitted/number who apply) can add to the school’s prestige.
  • Too few spaces: Especially if you apply later, the freshman class may not have room for you. The admissions office uses deferral to manage their enrollment by giving their top choice students time to accept or decline.
  • Application deficiency: If your grades, test scores, activities, or essay were not quite as good as the school’s top candidates, the admissions office may want to see if your application can improve with another semester. Or applications can be deferred due to a missing core course on the high school transcript: a high school may require three years of math or world language for graduation, while the college requires four. Applying early can identify shortcomings, allowing time to adjust courses to cover additional application needs.
  • Courtesy: If your parents are alumni, donors, or employees, waitlisting may effectively be a soft rejection.

What should you do after being deferred or waitlisted?

First, decide if you want to wait for your dream school, while you put down an enrollment deposit (typically $300) at another school. Notify the college of your decision by their deadline, often May 1. If you proceed with the college admissions deferral or waitlist:

  1. Make a deposit somewhere else: Accept the admission offer, enroll, and pay the non-refundable deposit at the next best-fit college on your list.
  2.  Emphasize your interest: Write or email the admissions office where you are waitlisted, declaring your continued strong interest.
  3. Share positive updates: Be creative, providing new information about spring and summer achievements as you illustrate your continued strong interest—about once or twice a month. Have fun with your updates. Consider retaking the SAT/ACT, but only if the school will accept a higher score.
  4.  Focus on your grades: Senior Spring grades now count for those on a waitlist. Share second semester transcripts and any improved test scores.
  5.  Visit, if possible: If you haven’t already been to campus, visit to ensure the college is still your first choice. Visiting also shows demonstrated interest and might boost your application status.
  6. Stay positive: You will find a best-fit school! Your college experience is largely the result of effort.

What affects your chances of being admitted from a waitlist?

Colleges accept an average of 25% of students who choose to stay on waitlists; selective colleges average a 14% acceptance rate for waitlisted applicants. Criteria that can affect your chances include…

  • Academic major: certain programs or majors may have more room than others.
  • Diversity: Geographic, ethnic or other factors may impact desired representation in the class.
  • Your passion: Some colleges give preferred status to those who rank the school first.

Understanding deferrals and waitlists can be an important part of the college application process, especially if you are looking to get into a more selective college. Knowing more about these application statuses can help you make changes to positively impact your chances of getting into your dream school.

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