Wait Listed or Deferred? Your Guide on What to Do Next

being waitlisted

Wait Listed or Deferred? Your Guide on What to Do Next

Published on August 18, 2023

being waitlisted

If your top college has “wait listed” or “deferred” your college application, what should you do next? This guide will explain what waitlisted and deferred mean, how colleges make these decisions, and how you can improve your chances of getting accepted.

What’s a Wait List?

A college waitlist shows qualified applicants who haven’t been initially accepted or rejected for admission. If a college offers you a waitlist spot, your application is in a holding pattern. Being waitlisted doesn’t ensure entry but signifies potential acceptance if spaces open up.

What’s a Deferral?

A college deferral is when a school postpones its admission decision on an applicant, typically from early admission rounds to regular admission timelines. It means the college needs more time to review the application amid the larger candidate pool. A deferral doesn’t equate to rejection; it signifies a delayed decision.

>>Related: Complete Guide to College Deferrals

Waitlisting vs. Deferral: How Do They Differ?

Waitlisting and deferral are different processes occurring at different admission stages.  Understanding these differences can help students better navigate their next steps and manage their expectations. 

Here’s a breakdown.

Stage of Admissions

Deferral: Typically happens when a student applies for early action or early decision. Instead of accepting or denying the application, the college defers the decision to a later date, usually the regular decision cycle.

Waitlisting: This occurs after the college has reviewed all applicants, including those in the regular decision pool. Students on the waitlist might get admitted if spots in the incoming class become available.

Implication for Admission

Deferral: A deferred application will be reconsidered, meaning there’s still a good chance for acceptance during the regular decision cycle. You’re essentially back in the pool for another review.

Waitlisting: While there’s still a chance for admission, it’s contingent upon how many accepted students decide to enroll. The number of students taken off the waitlist can vary significantly from year to year.

Response Required

Deferral: Typically, no immediate action is needed, although students should check if the college requires further documents or grades. However, expressing continued interest can be beneficial.

Waitlisting: Most colleges require students to confirm if they wish to remain on the waitlist. Additionally, some may appreciate updates on recent achievements or a letter of continued interest.

Binding Commitment

Deferral: If you applied under an early decision (which is binding) and get deferred, you’re released from the binding commitment. If accepted later during the regular decision cycle, you can choose whether or not to attend.

Waitlisting: Being on a waitlist is never binding. You can enroll or decline the offer if you’re on the waitlist.

Understanding these distinctions can help students strategize their responses, manage their emotions, and make informed decisions about their college future.

When Are Waitlist and Deferral Decisions Made?

Most colleges finalize their waitlist offers for first-year applicants by May 1, which is National College Decision Day. Some colleges may extend decisions into August or before the school year starts. Most colleges send letters to notify applicants on the wait list when the class has been filled.

Applicants who applied for early admission and received a deferral letter move into the regular enrollment time frame. Since the application moves to the regular admissions pool, students aren’t held to the rules of early decision and are free to attend another college.

Why Are Students Waitlisted or Deferred?

Students can be waitlisted or deferred for admission due to various reasons. The college may wait to see how many students complete enrollment and in what programs. They may want to gauge your interest further or see if your test scores improve, among other factors.

Here’s a more detailed list of reasons for students being waitlisted or deferred:

  • Capacity: Admissions offices must estimate the number of admitted students who will enroll. Predicting this number is challenging, so waitlists act as a backup.
  • Demonstrated interest: Deferral can give colleges more time to gauge a student’s interest in attending. Colleges may ask some students to provide additional information or express their continued interest. (For more information, download our demonstrated interest guide.)
  • Balanced cohort: Colleges aim to curate a balanced and diverse incoming class. If they receive a surge in a particular major, skill set, or demographic, waitlisting can help adjust the mix later.
  • Second look: A deferral allows the admissions committee another chance to review an application in light of the full applicant pool, usually in the regular decision timeframe.
  • Academic improvement: Colleges might defer a student to allow them to showcase improved grades, test scores, or other significant accomplishments during their senior year.

Remember, being deferred or waitlisted doesn’t mean rejection. It’s essential to stay proactive, consider other options, and communicate continued interest if the school remains a top choice.

How Often Are Waitlisted Students Accepted?

Being put on a waitlist is not uncommon. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), 43 percent of colleges and universities reported using a wait list in 2019. On average, 20 percent of students who remained on the wait list were accepted.

The likelihood of a student getting into the college or university from a waitlist depends on a few key factors:

  •  How many applications the college received
  • How many spots the college needs to fill for the freshman class overall
  • How many spots are available for the major you selected
  • How strong your college application is in comparison to other applicants

How Can I Assess My Chances of Still Getting Accepted?

Many students ask how to assess their chances of getting accepted from a waitlist.

One of the most important things you can do is be your own advocate. After agreeing to be put on the waitlist, contact the admissions office periodically to provide updated information, including grades.

What to Do If You’re Wait Listed or Deferred

Deciding to stay on a school’s waitlist can add additional challenges, but it may be worth it if the college is your clear top choice. Here are steps to take if you’re waitlisted or deferred.

Contact the admissions office for more information.

  • The wait list offer or deferral letter you receive from the college may list different steps to take or requirements to meet. Ask the admissions officer questions to make sure you understand their waitlisting or deferral processes. 
  • Ask the college why you were waitlisted or deferred and how you might improve your standing.
  • Ask what happens if you accept the waitlist or deferral offer. What limits, if any, will there be on putting backup plans in motion

Formally accept the waitlist offer if you decide to proceed.

If you decide to continue with the application, you must officially accept the waitlist offer, usually through a notarized letter or an online portal. You typically don’t need to “accept” a deferral.

Have a backup college.

Considering the relatively low waitlist acceptance rate, you need a backup college. Reassess how your number one college choice compares with other colleges on your list and whether you are waiting for other offers. Identify a college as your clear second choice.

Keep in mind the admissions deadline is May 1. Families will have to make a non-refundable deposit to a second-choice school as an option if they don’t get in.

Increase your odds.

While being on a waitlist can be disheartening for students confident in their application, they still have ways to boost their likelihood of getting accepted into their school of choice.

  • Send the school a letter of interest to affirm you want to attend. Show enthusiasm by highlighting skills and achievements in your letter.
  • Send additional letters of recommendation.
  • Send additional materials regarding your academic performance or extra-curricular activities.
  •  It is also important for students not to let their grades suffer before the end of their senior year. (Students on a waitlist will be in fierce competition with each other, so a strong academic performance in the final days of high school could make a difference.)
  • Consider retaking the SAT or ACT if possible
  • Remain active in extracurricular or community-related activities that may stand out.

How to Deal With the Emotions of Being Waitlisted or Deferred

Being waitlisted or deferred can evoke a range of emotions, from disappointment and uncertainty to hope and anxiety. It’s crucial to understand and address these feelings healthily. 

Here are tips on navigating the inevitable emotions of being waitlisted or deferred:

  • Accept your feelings: Understand that it’s natural to feel disappointed, frustrated, or even rejected. Permit yourself to feel these emotions, but remind yourself that being waitlisted or deferred does not reflect your worth.
  • Stay positive: While it’s not an outright acceptance, it’s also not a rejection. Colleges see your potential; otherwise, they would have denied your application. There’s still hope!
  • Keep things in perspective: The college admissions process is complex, with many factors influencing decisions. Sometimes it’s less about your qualifications and more about the institution’s specific needs for that year.
  • Seek support: Talk to friends, family, or counselors who can offer a listening ear, share their experiences, and provide encouragement. Sometimes, just voicing your feelings can be therapeutic.
  • Stay proactive: Use this time to research other colleges you’ve applied to or been accepted into. Consider the benefits each offers, such as programs, location, culture, and financial aid. This can help shift your focus from what you’re waiting for to new exciting possibilities.
  • Reflect on your journey: Remember the hard work, growth, and achievements that have gotten you to this point. College admission is just one phase in your life journey, with many more opportunities and challenges ahead.
  • Manage anxiety: If the uncertainty gets too overwhelming, consider strategies like meditation, exercise, journaling, or pursuing hobbies to help you relax and remain centered.
  • Prepare for all outcomes: It’s essential to hope for the best but also prepare for other possibilities. If you eventually don’t get off the waitlist, remember that where you go to college is just one factor in your success and happiness. Many paths can lead to your goals.

Ultimately, while the waiting might be tough, it can also be an opportunity for growth, resilience, and exploring alternative exciting paths for your future.

How Parents Can Help Their Student

Going to college is often the first step in becoming an independent adult. If applying to college and getting accepted is a little bumpy, it could be the first time your child has dealt with a situation like this.

This can be overwhelming for you and your family, but the experience can also provide good insight for the future by helping them evaluate what they’ve learned. Ask your child questions to help with critical thinking such as “What would you do differently if you had to go through the process again?” and “What did you learn from selecting a school to going through the application process?”

>> RELATED: How Parents Can Help Students Handle Admissions Decisions

How R2C Insights Can Help You Find the Right Fit

Road2College’s R2C Insights is a college comparison tool to help you build your college list and narrow it to your top choices. It offers personalized recommendations based on your situation – and the ability to compare colleges based on numerous data points, including:

  • Admit rates
  • Merit aid offerings
  • Average test scores
  • Majors
  • And much more

You can easily filter the information that’s most important to you and your student as you work together to build the perfect college list. Create a free account to get started.

Wait Listed FAQs

Is it good to be waitlisted?

Waitlisted is better than being rejected. But if you have been waitlisted, you need to choose a backup school.

Is waitlisted better than rejected?

Yes, waitlisted is better than being rejected, as you still have a chance to be accepted.

Does waitlisted mean no?

Waitlisted does not mean no. It means your application is in a holding pattern.

What does being wait listed mean?

If you were waitlisted, the college has reviewed your application but didn’t select you for admission in the first round of students.

You Might Also Like

What Is a College Deferral?

How Parents Can Help Students Handle Admissions Decisions

Early Decision vs. Early Action: Ins and Outs, Pros and Cons, and How to Choose




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