How (and When) Do Colleges Pick Students off the Waitlist?


Are people picked off the waitlist on a first come, first serve basis? If not, how do colleges decide who gets taken off and when?

Colleges typically use their waitlists to fill shortfalls in the freshman class, as well as to meet other "institutional needs." A "shortfall" occurs when admission officers check the demographics of the students who have already enrolled and find that they are lacking females ... or males ... or students from the Southwest ... or Midwest ... or African-Americans or Native Americans ... or humanities majors or math majors. You get the idea.

"Institutional needs" would encompass those categories above, but may also include more mysterious ones ... those that the rest of us outside the closed admission-committee doors can't guess. For instance, a reputedly liberal college might be seeking more conservative students to increase diversity on campus, and the stories about the demand for oboe players or bassoonists aren't always myths!

The majority of colleges (although not the most hyper-competitive ones) often move full-pay students (those who aren't seeking financial aid) toward the top of the list. Some colleges that are "need-blind" during the initial part of the selection process (meaning that they don't look at financial requirements when making acceptance decisions) are no longer need-blind if they use their waitlist and may give priority to those who can cover costs without assistance.

As you've probably heard, colleges usually put far more students on the waitlist than they will ever accept — often hundreds or even thousands more. So "The Dean" always counsels wait-listed students to focus on the places that already said "Yes" rather than to hang too many hopes on good news from waitlist limbo. I also suggest that waitlist students ask themselves, "What niche do I fill? Is there an enrollment shortfall or institutional need that I might correct?" If so, I recommend that the student emphasize this putative niche in a Letter of Continued interest.

Above all, the Dean also counsels students who are on a waitlist at a top-choice school, and who will definitely enroll if admitted, to be sure to say so loud and clear. Particularly this year, with the COVID-19 virus wreaking havoc in admission offices (and everywhere else), enrollment managers can't rely on past data to predict how many accepted students are likely to show up in September. They realize that some high school seniors who accepted an offer of admission in April will have to say "Nevermind" in August, if family finances suffer too greatly in the pandemic. So I am advising wait-listed students who know already that the pandemic will not affect their ability to pay for college to make this crystal clear to the schools where they are waiting.

In a "normal" year — which this, of course, is not — colleges that needed to use their waitlists might start accepting students from it even before the May 1 Candidates' Reply Date, and then most of the waitlist action would heat up by mid-May. In the past, colleges commonly notified those still waiting by mid-June that the class had filled. This spring, however, all bets are off. Admission officials can't predict if international students — both those just admitted along with others from older classes — will be able to attend in the fall (assuming that colleges actually open!). And they can only guess at the numbers of accepted (and previously enrolled) students who will bail out at the eleventh hour because of money matters or due to fear of traveling too far from home. College folks also anticipate that an unprecedented number of prospective students and current students will request a gap year, as uncertainty about online versus on-campus fall classes prevails. Thus, waitlists are likely to not only be longer than ever before but also last longer.

So, if you're on a waitlist now, read the advice you can find on College Confidential (and elsewhere) about how to proceed, but then expect the unexpected. If you're willing to hang on right through the summer, tell admission officials that you'll still be waiting ... then be sure to keep checking that stodgy, sanitized, official email address you created for your college accounts, even if you never bothered to install it on your phone!

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at

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