How do you handle a College Admissions Deferral or Waitlist? 

You’ve spent hours perfecting your college application. But when you receive a letter, it’s neither an acceptance nor a rejection. Instead, you are 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 admission applications right away, while other colleges may defer applicants. According to a 2019 report, 43% of colleges, primarily selective colleges, use waitlists.

In early decision/early action admissions, a deferral means you will be considered again within the regular admission cycle. Colleges must notify you by August 1 with a final rejection or admission.

Why could you be deferred or waitlisted?

You can overcome some reasons for deferral/waitlist with time or extra effort, but some reasons mean your chances of admission are slim.

  • Too many applications: Many universities receive more applications than they can review quickly so they might make quick decisions about some applicants, and 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. However, colleges aren’t precisely sure how many students will say yes. So as insurance, they put many qualified applicants on their waitlist.
  • Too few spaces: Especially if you apply later, the freshman class may be full. The admissions office uses deferral to manage enrollment by giving their top-choice students time to accept or decline.
  • Application deficiency: If your grades, test scores, activities, or essays 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. A missing core course on your high school transcript may trigger a deferral. For example, a high school may require three years of math or world language for graduation while a college requires four. Apply early to identify shortcomings, allowing time to adjust courses to cover additional application needs.
  • Courtesy: Waitlisting may be a soft rejection if your parents are alumni, donors, or employees.

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—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. It’s not where, but how you go to college.

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 want 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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