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How to Get Off the College Waitlist or Deal with Deferral

In 2021, college waitlists were longer than ever. And since many accepted students deferred admission due to COVID-19 and virtual learning, many colleges experienced a significant drop in their yield rates. The yield rate is the percent of accepted students who choose to enroll at a particular institution, and admissions offices play a tricky game in predicting who exactly might accept their offer. Places with large application pools tend to accept fewer people outright than they can actually accommodate and instead offer certain students a place on the waitlist in the event that a spot opens up.

Nowadays, with the volatile state of the world, colleges are having a harder time figuring out what their yield rates will look like. For schools that are struggling to attract applicants, some are even employing more aggressive recruitment strategies, according to H&C CEO Pierre Huguet, such as offering free classes, parking, football tickets, vehicle registration, meal plans, and more. But at top schools, because of an increasingly large and competitive applicant pool, many qualified students are thrown into the “waitlist limbo.” The same is true for many students who went through Early Action and Early Decision programs, only to find out that they had been deferred and would be considered in the context of Regular Decision applications.

The usual advice you may hear as a waitlisted or deferred student is to send updates to the school to remind them that you are still busy, achieving, and, most importantly, going to accept an offer of admission if it comes your way. However, considering the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s admissions process, you would do well to consider all of your options when it comes to increasing your chances of success.

Decide what is best for you.

First, figure out what you actually want and/or are able to do. If it doesn’t make financial sense for you to turn down another time-sensitive offer, you should seriously think about what will benefit you most in the long run. Schools turn to their waitlist usually after May 1st, but you might possibly be waiting until late May or June — and sometimes as late as July or August — to finally hear a yes or no answer.

Would your energy and money be better spent on another school? Look into other places that you’ve already been accepted, and see if there are any better alternatives to your top choice. You should at least make a deposit at another school before May 1st so that you ensure you have a spot somewhere come August.

Figure out how their waitlist or deferral process works.

Once you’re sure that you want to remain on the waitlist, review the waitlist guidelines. Some schools advise students not to send any additional information or letter, or to fill out their online form. Most schools send detailed information on their processes and have FAQs specifically for waitlisted students. Others leave it relatively open-ended as to what you can do, but just be certain that you aren’t breaking any of their protocols.

Many schools rank the students on their waitlists, and at some schools, you can ask the admissions office where you stand so that you can get a better idea of your chances. You won’t have to do this at extremely competitive schools, but they do publish information about how many students there are on the waitlist.

If you’re deferred, you are still in consideration for acceptance, but you won’t know how many applicants you’re up against until later on in the process. You can follow the steps below to help increase your chances.

Write a letter of continued interest.

If it’s allowed, write a letter of continued interest to your admissions officer. Our Master Admissions Counselor Racquel has written a great blog post detailing the kinds of things you should include in this letter — academic updates, extracurricular successes, and athletic victories. Do not repeat information, and be selective in what you say. If applicable, confirm that you would accept an offer of admission if given the opportunity.

When it comes to sending the letter, follow the school’s guidelines. Some schools have an online form or physical mailing address that they’d like you to send it to, but for other schools, you can look up your admissions officer and their contact information based on where you live. Admissions officers usually handle different regions of the country and the world so that they can consider your application in the context of your available resources. They will be the people who will vouch for you in the final decisions.

Request another or a first interview (if possible).

If you haven’t had an alumni interview and the school allows waitlisted students to request an interview, you should. This can contribute another positive evaluation to your folder. Make sure that you have clear and specific answers to the “Why this school?” questions that you will likely be asked so that you can reiterate your enthusiasm. But if this isn’t possible, don’t worry about it — this is just something that is worth looking into in the first place.

Keep your grades up.

You’re not out of school yet, so don’t assume that your classes are “over” once the college admissions process is nearly wrapped up. In fact, if you’re waitlisted you will likely submit your second-semester senior year grades, so it’s important that you keep your academic performance consistent. Study hard for any AP tests because those scores could help you in the long run.

Demonstrate interest in the school.

Some schools track how much you engage with their resources, visit, etc to predict whether or not you would accept an offer of admission. These are smaller schools with smaller application pools that have more time to look into their applicant’s profile to estimate whether or not they might accept an offer of admission. However, many top schools explicitly state that they don’t do this, largely because they can’t track tens of thousands of applicants’ interests.

But just because they’re not tracking interest does not mean that it isn’t worth reaffirming your interests in other ways, like through a letter or a visit. Admissions officers love to see a genuine interest in their schools, and while they don’t track or measure the interest of the student per se, your efforts will carry weight in the application process.

My personal experience

I was deferred from Yale’s Early Action program in December of 2015, but I was accepted come March 2016 because I took some of the steps above. For me, showing genuine interest in the school looked like a five-minute conversation in the lobby of the Yale Admissions Ofice in February of 2016. On top of the hard work that I put into my application and the letter of continued interest I had already sent, this effort made all the difference in my college acceptance. Granted, I was extremely lucky and privileged to be able to travel across the country without the guarantee of even meeting my admissions officer in the flesh (we had only corresponded briefly over email about me visiting campus again), but I was willing to do whatever it took to stand out.

After that surprisingly casual conversation, I became a person, not just an application, to my admissions officer, a recently graduated Yale student. It was exciting to hear that he actually remembered parts of my application and letter, such as the theatrical production I was doing at the time and a summer program that we had both been a part of in our respective states. After all, admissions officers are people too, and they actually remember who they’re reading about! I even stayed in touch after I enrolled. He sent me the nicest email the day after I received my offer of admission, confirming to me that our very brief encounter was extremely influential in the outcome of my application and that the decision to attend was the right one.

Obviously, this is not a universal experience, and I recognize that this is not possible for a large number of people, especially in the current state of the world. But I hope that it can provide some kind of hope to students who are feeling defeated aren’t sure whether or not their efforts will be in vain. The odds may not be in their favor, but it’s worth it to try. And if it doesn’t work out, then it wasn’t meant to be and you’ll end up where you belong. It sounds cheesy, but it really is true.

You’re up against a lot of competition, even more so this year, but the situation is not completely out of your hands. The waitlist and deferral experience can be frustrating and exhausting, but if you take the steps above, you can rest assured knowing that you did what you could to put your best foot forward.

Not sure what to do next? We can help! And our Ivy League admission consultants are always here.

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