Experts expect long and competitive waitlists because of the pandemic. They shared tips to help teens and parents navigate the process.

By Beth Ann Mayer
April 23, 2021
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There wasn't a ton to get excited about last spring, particularly for high school seniors who had to miss proms and graduations. But some of them got one unexpected silver lining: A better chance of getting off the waitlist to top-tier colleges.

Take Stanford. In fall 2020, 259 out of 850 students offered a spot on the waitlist eventually gained admission. It sounds small, but it represents 30 percent of the waitlist. Compare that to Fall 2019 when eight waitlisted students out of 750 gained admission.

An image of a teenager concerned at her desk.
Credit: Getty Images.

"Waitlists are basically an insurance policy for colleges," says New York-based college admissions expert Hafeez Lakhani, the president and founder of Lakhani Coaching. "COVID created the perfect storm of needing to use that insurance policy."

But Lakhani doesn't expect that to continue, though he predicts long—and more competitive—waitlists this year as schools cast wide nets to ensure they meet their targets. He and two other admissions experts share the reasons behind the long waitlists and what you and your child should do if they're waitlisted.

What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted?

Waitlists, to some extent, mean an applicant is in limbo. The college liked the student's credentials but doesn't have a space for them yet, says Carolyn Pippen, a college admissions counselor with education consulting company IvyWise and former admissions officer at Vanderbilt University. The good news is that there's a chance the student gets in. But it's not a sure thing.

Pippen says most students will find out if they got off the waitlist in May, shortly after the deadline to matriculate of May 1. If a school has open spots then, it will let the student know. But all hope isn't necessarily lost if a student hasn't heard by May.

"A handful of additional offers may happen later in the summer, but this is rare," Pippen notes. "If a student has not heard from their waitlist schools by the end of May, they should probably assume that they will not be receiving an offer."

Lakhani doesn't expect the timeline to be much different this year. Last year, some schools extended the deadline to matriculate to give students the chance to weigh their options amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, but that isn't the case this spring. "I expect it to take less time this year," Lakhani says.

Why Are Waitlists Expected to Be So Long?

Because of the pandemic, it became more difficult to take standardized tests. Nearly 1,500 schools adopted a test-optional policy. This change gave students with high grades and long brag sheets, but lower test scores, hope they could nab a spot at selective schools. "Students are applying to schools that in previous years they wouldn't have qualified for," says Pippen.

This year, applications to colleges have increased by 10 percent, according to data from Common App, a digital portal of hundreds of colleges. But Common App says the number of unique applicants only increased by 1 percent. In other words, virtually the same number of people are just applying to more schools, meaning that some students will have more options. Since each student can only choose one school, colleges may see higher decline rates.

They'll likely have longer waiting lists to give themselves a larger buffer to fill their quota. But more people on the waitlist means more competition. And last year, many schools moved to remote learning, causing many students to defer in part so they could enjoy a more traditional college experience. At Harvard, 20 percent of students decided to defer enrollment. At MIT, 8 percent took a gap year, well above its average of 1 percent. To fill spots, colleges pulled from their waitlists. With the likely return of in-person learning, fewer students will defer, and those who did take a gap year for 2020-21 will fill spots, meaning a reduced chance of getting off the waitlist.

"If 2020 was a unicorn year where students benefited from waitlists, I'm afraid to say in 2021, I expect the opposite," Lakhani says.

What Teens Can Do If They're Waitlisted

Though experts expect longer and more competitive waitlists this year, there are a few approaches your teen can take to ensure they choose a college they love if they get waitlisted for their top-choice school.

Tell the school they're still interested. If a teen is waitlisted, Lakhani suggests sending a letter of continued interest via email or snail mail. The letter should be original and sincere, and Lakhani recommends only sending it to one school.

"I want the student to be able to write, 'If I am offered this waitlist spot, I can tell you with 100 percent assurance that I would come,'" he says. He also recommends the student updates the college on what they've been up to since applying. Volunteer or civic work make for good additions.

Understand there's not much else they can do. Schools don't just have an overall quota to fill; they also have limited spots for each major. If there are a surplus of English majors and that's what your teen wants to study, that may hurt their chances. "If you were waitlisted, you were a fantastic candidate who may have gotten in another year," Lakhani says. "There are just some things that are out of your control."

Reflect on what matters. Teens should step back and evaluate their options. "They should ask themselves, 'Do any of the schools they've been accepted to excite them? Can they picture themselves attending this college or university for the next four years?'" suggests Michael Kabbaz, the Ohio-based vice president of the semester abroad program Verto Education and a former admissions counselor.

Revisit. Lakhani recommends students revisit one to two schools that did accept them. He says students may be able to do this virtually or in person with safety measures. "Some colleges are saying that you can do a self-guided tour," he says. "A student ambassador might meet with you outside for 15 minutes."

Take action. Students may hear back from their waitlisted school later on, but most colleges require a deposit by May 1. "It is important for every student to complete a deposit at a school they were accepted to, even if they are waitlisted at their number one choice," Kabbaz says. Otherwise, they won't have anywhere else to go if they do not get accepted off the waitlist. But keep in mind, these refunds, which are typically a few hundred dollars, are usually not refundable.

How Adults Can Help

Watching teens get waitlisted to their dream school may be hard. Experts say there are ways to support your teen.

Read their letter. If your teen is sending a letter of continued interest, offer to look at it—and not just to ensure spelling and grammar are correct. "Colleges get a lot of these letters," Lakhani says. "It needs to be genuine and specific."

Let them grieve. Disappointment is natural. "Give them time and space to be upset about it," Pippen says. "Tell them, 'Yes, it is completely understandable and valid that you are upset. Let's talk about that.'"

Celebrate the options they do have. Though your teen may not get into their top-choice school, they still have a bright future. Encourage them to look into other choices. "Let the student get excited about these colleges and the incredible next steps they are going to take," Lakhani says. "It's important for the young person to get validation."