application process

Is Waitlisted Better Than Rejected?

What is waitlisted, and why does it happen?

Getting waitlisted from a college is being put in between an acceptance and a rejection. You have neither gained admission nor been denied acceptance. However, that waitlist always turns into either an acceptance or rejection. The college/university will follow up at a later date and inform the student on whether they were accepted or not. 

But why would a college/university waitlist a student in the first place? There are many reasons, but most fall under the obvious category of a college/university not wanting to lose their chances with you. 

  • Do you really want to attend the school? When you get waitlisted, you are given a choice to either continue on the waitlist or basically pull your application out of the waitlist (so you probably will never know if you would have gotten accepted or not). If you choose to stay on the waitlist, you are essentially showing the college that you are very interested in them. Think of it as a sort of final test just to make sure you’re serious about going to their college/university. 
  • The college/university likes you, but they want to wait to see how many accepted students decide to enroll in their school. Schools have a limited amount of students they can support (in terms of housing, financial aid, class-size, etc.), so if the number of students that decide to enroll in the college/university that year is lower than the college’s carrying capacity, then they start accepting students off the waitlist and vice versa. 
  • Going off of the previous reason, colleges/universities have a very important stat: yield. Yield is the ratio of students who enrolled to the students accepted. For every ten acceptances (I am making up numbers), how many students enrolled? 1? 2? 5? The higher the yield, the better and, I guess you could say, more desirable a college looks. Accepting students off the waitlist helps increase the school’s yield.

Side note: A few months ago, I became aware of a new thing that colleges are doing: waitlisting/rejecting overqualified students. This is a problem amongst less selective schools. Do you need to have a perfect GPA, take 15 AP classes, start your own non-profit organization, and research cancer biology to get accepted into a school with a 60% acceptance rate? No.

There’s nothing wrong with a school with a 60% acceptance rate, but in all likelihood, you do not need to be as impressive to them as you would to a very selective school, such as Duke, Northwestern, UChicago, or Vanderbilt.

And because of this yield stat, moderately selective schools are rejecting overqualified students because they can almost bet that they are not the student’s first choice.

So these schools may either put you on the waitlist to test you or just reject you. When I interviewed college coach Mark Stucker, interestingly enough, he said this wasn’t a problem up until a few years ago.

  • I don’t think this happens often, but colleges could just waitlist you to ease the blow when they eventually reject you. Since waitlist acceptances are low in general, getting rejected after a waitlist is seemingly less painful than a flat-out rejection. 

Is waitlisted better than rejected?

Being waitlisted is better than being rejected because you still have some chance of getting into the school. According to the NACAC survey, the average acceptance rate across all institutions for those who choose to stay on the waitlist is 20% and 7% for selective institutions.

Image: Approved vs. Rejected

What are the chances of getting accepted after a waitlist?

Waitlist acceptance rates can vary drastically from school to school, so here is a table with some numbers from different schools:

I am using the numbers from the last normal school year (2019-2020) because COVID caused a change to multiple stats that colleges release.

For example, in the 2019-2020 school year, Stanford waitlisted 750 students and ended up accepted 8 (1.4% acceptance for those who choose to stay on the waitlist); in the 2020-2021 school year, Stanford waitlisted 850 students and accepted 259 (36.6% acceptance for those who choose to stay on the waitlist).

# of students waitlisted# of students who stayed on the waitlist# of students accepted off of the waitlistAcceptance rate of students who stayed on waitlist 
Stanford75058081.4%
MIT460331175.1%
Princeton9026681.2%
UPenn293120511014.9%
Northwestern30671482553.7%
UNC Chapel Hill557237171564.2%
UVA548629698.3%
George Washington University514122383.1%
William & Mary393719891869.4%
UGA154289715016.7%

Difference between waitlist and deferred?

In both cases, the college is unsure, but with deferred, there are two scenarios: 1) you applied early to the school, and they push you into the regular pool, and 2) they want you to send more information in before they make their decision. 

For those who aren’t familiar with applying early to a college, it is exactly as it sounds. Regular application deadlines are usually in the beginning of January, but early application deadlines are sometime in November.

There are two kinds of early applications: early decision (ED) and early action (EA). ED is binding, which means you agree to go to the college if accepted, whereas EA is not. Decisions for early applicants come out sometime in December, so students who apply early can get into a college before some people have even submitted their application(s). 

Anyways, a college, instead of rejecting an early applicant, can push them into the regular application pool. Now that’s early application deferral. Deferral can happen in the regular pool mainly because the college wants you to submit something else before they make up their mind.

Most of the time, they want to see your grades for that semester, but they can also ask for things such as additional recommendation letters. 

Can you accept multiple waitlist offers?

You are allowed to accept multiple waitlist offers, but there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding if you should accept a waitlist and how many waitlists to accept. 

  • National Decision Day is on May 1st, and that’s when you decide which college to accept. When you do make your decision, you have to submit a deposit of usually a few hundred dollars. You make the deposit to secure your spot in the college, but you aren’t officially enrolled. 
  • Waitlist decisions come AFTER the May 1st deadline. Wait… so how does this work? Aforementioned, the deposit doesn’t mean you’re enrolled, so if you were to put a deposit down for a school but then decide to go to another school after they accepted you off the waitlist, you lose the money you put into the deposit. 
  • So make sure you secure a deposit at another school even if you truly want to wait for that waitlist decision. 

When do waitlist results come out?

Waitlist decisions come after the National Decision Day (May 1st) deadline, however, there is no national waitlist decision day. Your waitlist decision can come out a couple of weeks after the May 1st deadline or a couple of months after the deadline.

If I’m not mistaken, in my interview with Ami from Lehigh University, he was accepted off the waitlist for Lehigh a couple of weeks – a month before the start of the school year.   

How do colleges decide who gets off the waitlist?

As a general rule, colleges have a certain number of spots to fill for the upcoming class. After that May 1st deadline, they are able to see exactly how many students choose to enroll in the college/university. If there are spots still available, then they look at the waitlist. 

Another important factor regarding available spaces is a certain college/major falling short of students. It’s not only a general number that the university expects to have, but also professors and other faculty expecting a certain number of students to take their class.

Let me explain with an example:

Northwestern has six colleges: Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, McCormick College of Engineering, School of Communication, Medill School of Journalism, School of Education & Social Policy, and Bienen School of Music.

Within these schools, you have different majors as well. 

Let’s say that there are plenty of people in all but one college: the McCormick College of Engineering. There’s not going to be a drastic deficiency in the people who are in the McCormick College of Engineering, but there is a little room to add more students.

Admissions officers would then look at the waitlist and decide amongst students who applied with an intended major that is found in the McCormick College of Engineering. 

Beyond that, the college looks at the waitlisted students like they do other application pools. They rank students within the waitlisted category based on the different parts of a college application to find the strongest candidates. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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