Waitlist Limbo: Should Students Do the Dance?

Waitlist Limbo: Should Students Do the Dance?

John applied Early Decision to his first choice school. He eagerly waited until 5:01pm on notification day to check his application portal as his parents paced around the kitchen behind him.


“Did you get in?”

“No, I was deferred. It says that they want to admit me but that they have to wait until they consider the regular decision application pool.”

“Well it is not a denial! And you can update them with your great grades and your new job!”

“Yep, it says I can do that on the portal and that school needs to send them my Midyear Report.”


John sits at the kitchen counter opening college decisions on his laptop as notifications ding. It’s a bit of a roller coaster but mostly good news. Four admits and one deny. He saved his first choice for last.


“They waitlisted me.”

Mom: “Well forget them! You have other amazing offers from colleges that want you!”

Grandad (on Zoom): “Let John decide what he wants to do.”

What should John decide? ROOT’s advice to John would depend on what college waitlisted him and where else he was admitted. Here is how we would follow up.

How is John feeling about his options?

Usually students respond with frustration about being waitlisted, conflicted about denials, and proud about admits. There is often a bit of questioning about the why of decisions.

Families sometimes use words like rejected, not wanted, not good enough. We have the advantage of navigating these feelings each year so we suggest using words like deny, unable to offer, want to admit as we explain using data that shows the impact of institutional need on admission decisions.

Does John want to stay on the waitlist?

There are often strong feelings about this. It depends on the student, their path to this moment, and their other options. “No!” “Yes!” “I will check the box to stay on the waitlist but that is it.” (Usually from emotionally spent students.)

Since being waitlisted, has John taken a deeper dive into the colleges that have admitted him? If so, has anything changed?

Students must accept an offer of admission and deposit by May 1st. Touring and evaluating colleges offering admission is key during the month of April so that the student and family can make an informed decision. While doing this, many decide to remove themselves from a waitlist as they find their happy match elsewhere.

How long does John want to dance?

Let’s say John decided to give part of his heart to the waitlist. He is excited about the campus he deposited to and is moving forward with housing and orientation there but he still wants to see what happens with his original first choice by remaining on their waitlist.

John cannot decide how long he wants to commit to the waitlist without context. Answering the following questions can be helpful:

  • How many students were offered a waitlist spot?
  • How many students accepted a waitlist spot?
  • Does this college allow waitlisted students to share additional information?
  • How many students are typically admitted off the waitlist each year?
  • When does the waitlist move each year?
  • When is the class considered full each year?

Some colleges are known for going deep into their waitlists most years. This can be a strategy for colleges to control yield (how many students actually enroll) and protect their selectivity. Other colleges are known for maintaining huge waitlists with no intention of taking more than a small fraction of students on the list. Some colleges do not take students off the waitlist.

We have seen all different kinds of scenarios play out during waitlist limbo. Our goal is to always keep the student facing forward, engaged with current options while aware of the chances of being admitted from the waitlist. Staying grounded in the reality provided by historical data gives the student and their family concrete reasoning and control over how they focus on potential outcomes and let other potential opportunities go as they move on to their celebratory graduation season.