Office of Admissions
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April 17, 2023
By now, high school seniors have probably received the college admissions letters they've been waiting for. While you may have gotten into one, two or several of the colleges on your list, you may have also received a different kind of decision: one that's placed you on the waitlist.
Many colleges take advantage of waitlists in the admissions process, giving certain applicants who weren't admitted in the first round a shot at still attending the institution.
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're peeling back the curtain on how college waitlists actually work – from the factors that might lead to being waitlisted to how students can navigate Decision Day while awaiting an offer.
Our guest is Candace Leake, associate director of admissions for access & outreach at Bucknell.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email email@example.com.
[0:00:07] BT: If you're a high school senior, by now, you've probably received the college admissions letters you've been waiting for. Congrats, by the way! While you may have gotten into one, two or several of the colleges on your list, you may have also received a different kind of decision — one that's placed you on the waitlist.
[0:00:24] BHA: Many colleges take advantage of waitlist in the admissions process, giving certain applicants who weren't admitted in the first round a shot at attending the institution. But like most aspects of the college journey, the road to being placed on the waitlist — and coming off of it — is complex. I'm Becca Haupt Aldredge from Bucknell University. In this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're peeling back the curtain on how college waitlist actually works.
[0:00:48] BT: I'm Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell. Today, we'll figure out what factors might lead to being waitlisted, how students can navigate Decision Day while being on a waitlist, what questions students should ask about the process and more.
[0:01:00] BHA: Here to guide us through is Candace Leake, associate director of admissions for access & outreach at Bucknell. Candace is a familiar voice on the podcast. She's joined us before in our episodes about when to apply to college, college location and how to shine through application. Welcome to the podcast.
[0:01:18] CL: Thank you for having me back.
[0:01:19] BHA: Candace, can we get a refresher on your work at Bucknell?
[0:01:22] CL: Sure. I've been at Bucknell now for almost eight years. My current position is one where I'm really focusing on recruitment strategies, particularly for students from underrepresented backgrounds. That includes programming; coming up with strategies, again, for how we can relate to different students; how we can interact with different students and get a lot of different types of students interested in Bucknell. I also am one of our territory managers, meaning that I work with students from a particular region and focus on my actual recruitment there, which includes Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware.
[0:02:01] BT: So as we dive into this episode's topic, let's start with the obvious question. What is a waitlist in college admissions and why do schools have them.
[0:02:11] CL: So the waitlist is really a tool for colleges to be able to solidify their enrolling class with the last few spots that they need. To avoid over enrolling the class, sometimes, colleges will hold off on just a few of those final spots to make sure that they don't end up enrolling more students than they intended to. Also, so that they can have control over who actually takes those final spots. So if there are some deficiencies in the class in terms of balancing out majors or locations, or different talents or skills, or things that students are bringing to the table, the waitlist provides an opportunity for colleges to say, "Okay, there are many more students than we were able to offer an admission initially who are actually students we would want to consider and who would be great at our institution. So we keep these lists to give us that go-to of where we can find those other students that we need when we're looking to make a few more offers of admission."
[0:03:19] BHA: To clarify, being waitlisted doesn't necessarily say anything negative about a student's performance in the application process. It comes down to a complex process of trying to shape the incoming class according to what the school is looking for. Is that right?
[0:03:33] CL: That's absolutely right. Again, there are definitely, in many, many cases, far more students who institutions really are interested in, who show themselves well on the application and who the schools would be really excited to have. But unfortunately, there just is not enough space to offer admission to all of those students. And so the waitlist really provides an opportunity for just what you said — to shape the class, to secure those final few spots for the class coming in. But those students who are on that waitlist really could be admissible. Again, it's just a matter of there not being enough space for all of the students who really qualify and who would be great at our institutions. There just aren't enough spots outright from the very beginning.
[0:04:16] BT: When we're talking about those final few spots, what does that volume actually look like? In other words, how many students might be on a waitlist? If I'm a high school student, am I “competing” — for lack of a better term — with hundreds of other students or could it be even more than that?
[0:04:33] CL: That's a really fair question, Brooke. I think, maybe, after many, many episodes of this podcast, you've probably heard a lot of us use the idea of, "It depends,” when answering a lot of questions about college admissions because it really does depend on the institution. The list could be a few students. It could be 100. It could be several hundred. It could be even a thousand or more in some instances.
But I think what's important to know is that, typically, the list will start out much larger than what colleges are actually utilizing once it becomes time to start making some of those offers. Even though a college has offered you a spot on the waitlist, all of those students don't necessarily opt in and choose to stay on it. So once the initial kind of cutting down of the list occurs, where students have the opportunity to say, "Thank you for the offer, but I'm not interested in being on the waitlist,” then colleges have a real sense of, "Okay. Now, maybe we have a couple hundred students who are actually still in play, if you will, to be considered or who have demonstrated or said that they're interested in actually potentially taking a spot off of that list."
[0:05:42] BHA: So now, we have this waitlist of dozens, hundreds or more students. Is that list ranked or ordered in any way? Could student A be second in line for their acceptance, while student B is 100th on the list?
[0:05:54] CL: Becca, I think that's a really good question. I think that's a common misconception about the wait list — that it's this long list, and students are numbered one to however many, and that's how they're taken off of the list. But it really doesn't work that way. Honestly, it's more about the priorities of the institution and what they still need at that moment.
That might be more ranked. For example, it could be, “Okay, we're really low on biology majors. When we go to the waitlist, we're going to prioritize biology majors.” We might also be short on students from a particular region, if we're looking to round out a class. Or students that have other demographics. If I could get three different demographics from one biology major, that might be the student that I call, granted that student has also already said, "Yes, I'm still interested in being on the waitlist."
It's this really complicated process of trying to identify what are actually the remaining needs for the class, and then trying to figure out the students who are potentially still interested in taking that spot but also trying to match those two of who's still interested, who do we actually still need and then going from there.
There's also a matter of financial aid and the ability of students to be able to pay, potentially, without maybe having a scholarship offer or without the institution maybe being able to offer any sort of financial aid at that point. So that might be an additional factor that is considered when looking at students to take off the waitlist. Maybe that biology major – just to keep the same metaphor going here — maybe that biology major also didn't apply for scholarships or indicated that they weren't necessarily applying for financial aid. Maybe at that point in the process, when we're taking students off that waitlist, we might not have aid to offer. That might be a student that we are able to choose from that waitlist, rather than another student who potentially was interested in scholarships and would need that sort of assistance in order to be able to accept the offer.
[0:07:53] BT: Those are a lot of really dynamic moving parts. What it sounds like is that, this process of building a waitlist really starts with the application process and who applies to the school kind of in the first place, and, and schools being able to round out their class with the applicants that they've received. Is that kind of what I'm hearing?
[0:08:11] CL: I think that's very fair. Again, you know, it will depend, like I said before, on the institution, and what they're looking for. Some schools have a very holistic admissions process in terms of the application itself, and so they're able to glean a lot of different information about students to help them shape the class. But also, some school's admissions processes might really consider major in the admission process like we do at Bucknell, versus some other schools that maybe don't necessarily look at the major that a student is applying for. Maybe that is not one of the criteria that they're using in that waitlist shaping of the class. Maybe they're looking more for establishing more students enrolled, maybe, in particular programs, like an honors program or some kind of specialty program there. Or maybe it really is more about diversity and having different types of demographics of students, and maybe that's what they're looking to round out.
It really can depend on what the school, like you said, from the beginning, from the admission process, what they value and what they're looking for in the process in the beginning. Then trying to figure out as we get to the waitlist, how do we continue pushing forth those priorities and finding students to help us fill them?
[0:09:25] BT: That's a really great clarification. Thanks, Candace. Let's talk about timeline a little bit. When does a student typically find out that they've been waitlisted? Earlier, you mentioned that that waitlist might start out big, but then get kind of culled down as students opt in or don't. I'm guessing that this is not necessarily an automatic thing that the school does.
[0:09:44] CL: Correct. I would say, in terms of waitlist, in many instances, this would be one of your admission outcomes potentially. When you apply for admission, some of the range of options could be an accept or an admission, it could be a denial or it could be a waitlist. In some cases, it could also be a deferral, and that's a whole different podcast. But I would say with the waitlist, that is considered your admission decision.
Typically, students will get that notification at the same time as admission decisions are being sent out. That would be once that release date comes out, whether it's a virtual sort of notification, or if it's a physical letter that comes in the mail or combination of both. But typically, once you're logging in, or doing whatever the process is to find out your admission decision, you're finding out at that time if waitlist is where you've landed.
[0:10:35] BHA: So you've mentioned once a student receives a waitlist decision, often, they'll have to opt in or opt out of remaining on the waitlist. What are some things that a student should consider before opting into a waitlist?
[0:10:47] CL: That's a great question, Becca. I think that students oftentimes will initially just immediately say yes. They're opening their decision, they're getting it for the first time — especially if it's a virtual decision — and opting in is nothing more than clicking a box that you see right in front of you. Once you see that decision, it's very easy to say, "Yes, I was interested. I wanted this, so my immediate reaction is, ‘Yes, I would like to opt in.’ ”
That might not be the case everywhere. It might not be as easy as a little button. It might be an email that you need to send or maybe a phone call. I would imagine that's probably not the most prominent way that folks are asking for students to opt in. But usually, some sort of an in-writing process that schools can use to document what that student is expressing in terms of their interest.
So you should definitely as a student, considering this, try not to make that quick emotional reaction without thinking about it for a little bit. Because when it comes down to it, schools are asking you about your intention of being on the waitlist so that when they start making those calls, they're not going through that full list to try to find the few students who actually are still interested.
But things that you'll want to consider, aside from just a motion in your immediate reaction of "Okay. Should I opt into this list or not?", is, again, kind of the idea about the financial aid and the scholarships. Assuming that, right now, that might not be an option for you if you were to get a waitlist offer. There might not be additional funding for you. Would you still feel comfortable saying yes to that? How invested are you actually still in this school? Is it still your number one school? Is it the school that you really, really, really were hoping for a positive admission for? Or is it just another school that you're considering, but there are some others that are higher on the list? If that's the case, and you have a positive outcome from those schools, then maybe staying on this other schools' waitlist isn't necessarily useful for you.
You want to, in the same way that schools want to notify students as soon as they can if they're no longer in the running, it's also kind for students to also notify schools that they're no longer in the running so that they can move on and take you out of their list of potential students to consider further.
[0:13:08] BT: On the opposite side of this coin, when might a student hear if they've been taken off the waitlist, or in other words, formally offered admission to the school? In what way would that happen? Is that digitally? Is that a phone call?
[0:13:21] CL: That is another “it depends” kind of question. But typically, in most cases, the offer of admission from a waitlist will be really close to the national candidate response day, which typically is May 1, is when most schools ask students to commit to their institution and submit that deposit.
Honestly, colleges don't necessarily know what their needs are until they get really close to that deadline because students have all the way through then to officially accept their offer. Colleges oftentimes will use data from previous years and say, "Like year to date, normally, this any students have responded to us and said yes or no." So they're using that data to say, "Okay, two weeks out from the decision date, we typically have this many students who have said yes to us. Maybe we're looking like we're a little bit down. Maybe there's a significant drop off of what that trend typically looks like, so maybe we might need to move in a little bit faster on the waitlist. So maybe, rather than waiting until April 25, maybe we'll make a few calls on April 21 or a few days earlier to try to get students before they've already committed other places. To let them know that this is potentially an option."
It's great when you're able to get those offers before May 1, but honestly, most of them will probably be after May 1, which is a whole other issue that we'll talk about in a bit. But knowing that, it's possible that you may already submitted a deposit somewhere else and choose an option based on what you know is available to you come May 1. But it's very, very possible that some of those waitlist offers you won't start getting until after that initial deadline has passed.
[0:15:09] BHA: Knowing that, let's talk about that in-between period, from decision release through that national decision day of May 1. You might have a student who's received multiple offers, but maybe their dream school is the one that they were waitlisted from? Is it a gamble for them to wait to see if they're going to receive a spot?
[0:15:25] CL: Becca, that's a really tricky question. It is a bit of a gamble because, on one hand, you're trying to hold out hope to see if perhaps an offer comes in at the school that you really, really were interested in. But at the same time, I think it's really important to be excited about the options that you do have.
Because that can take away from the excitement of the experience if you can only think about, "Well, I didn't get this one offer." It takes away from all of the other amazing offers that you do have. It also takes away from you really committing in your mind to some of these other places in ways that might manifest in doing a final visit, another visit, maybe your first visit perhaps. Or maybe it's a finalizing visit at that school's admitted student event or different programs that they may have for students who have been admitted and are still thinking about whether or not to enroll. If you're so focused on this other school, you might turn down some of those other opportunities to visit or to get involved, to do some of the programming. I think it really is a gamble to kind of put all your eggs in this one basket of “maybe,” instead of really looking at the options in front of you that you know are solidified ones.
[0:16:45] BT: After considering all of these really strong offers that a student might have gotten from several other institutions, and they decide that they're actually going to go with one of those, should that student know that they're not going to be taking a waitlist offer from an institution that they're waitlisted at?
[0:17:02] CL: Brooke, I think that comes down to a little bit of a gut kind of move there in terms of how you want to go forward. I think it's really healthy, and honestly, highly recommended that you do make a choice by that deadline of May 1 and feel good about it, feel confident in your decision there. That doesn't mean that you can't necessarily keep in the back of your mind, this option potentially looming until you know for sure that is no longer an option for some of the schools that you might be on the waitlist for still. But I think it's trying to strike that balance of feeling confident in the decision that you've made, feeling good moving forward, getting excited, participating in all of the things that are looming about housing, and potentially Pre-Orientation programs, and registering for classes and all that fun stuff that comes. And still, perhaps in the back of your mind, be willing to entertain a waitlist offer should it arise.
I think the key there is trying to strike that balance of not being overly hopeful to the point of not being able to move forward with the option that you have selected. But knowing in your mind that potentially, there could be an offer there, and try to think through what your decision might be or what are the terms of what would allow me to say, "Yes.” Is it, “I can only say yes, potentially, to that waitlist offer if I have the chance to visit again?” Or, “I can only say yes if there is some sort of financial assistance being offered?” I think it's okay to think through those things. I think it's actually a good idea to think through those things before that call potentially comes. But I think it's also very helpful and healthy to be happy with your choice, and move forward as if that is the final choice.
[0:19:01] BHA: We've said a few times that this is a complex process. Candace, you've done such a great job illustrating that. Can you tell us about what the offer might look like when and if it comes? What is that process? When are you presented with the answers to some of those questions? ”Am I eligible for financial aid? Will I be able to visit the institution again?”
[0:19:25] CL: That's a great question, Becca. Honestly, things move really quickly. There might be an initial contact of some sort, whether it be a phone call, or a text message, or a voice message left, or even an email that someone from the institution will reach out to you. Typically, it's not something that they want to convey in an email, the actual offer from the waitlist. That's something that they typically want to have a live conversation with you about. So they might send you an email saying, "Hey, just wanted to chat about your waitlist status. Please, let us know when you're available.”
Then once you're able to schedule that contact, then that's when you get all of the terms and conditions, if you will. So they'll let you know if there is a spot available for you. They'll let you know what the timeline is in which they need you to respond. They will also be able to offer you any insight about scholarship, or potential financial assistance that's being offered to you, or if there are any terms that might be a little unique. For example, at Bucknell, sometimes, we offer students admission to their second choice major that they applied for. That would be something that is also discussed in that conversation. “All of the chips are on the table, this is what we're offering you, this is when we need to know.” Then the student is able to then process that and make a decision.
Typically, schools will give you a chance to make a decision and know that it's not a decision that you need to make alone. So give you a chance to confer with your parents or guardians and have a few days. But it really might just be a few days and not a week or two weeks. It's something that typically needs to happen pretty fast.
[0:21:06] BT: We have a number of questions being answered with that offer. But I wonder, are there any others that students should kind of have ready for their institutions when they come off the waitlist that they might not think about, especially if they're working on a little bit more of a compressed timeline?
[0:21:20] CL: Well, I would think that hopefully students will have had a chance to really reflect beforehand, knowing that a waitlist offer is possible. So if they needed to do any additional research about the institution, that they're ready to really make a decision, knowing that they've done their due diligence, they've had another visit potentially.
Or maybe, you do need to have another visit, so you would also need to be ready to do that quickly, right? If a school offers you that waitlist spot and, say, you are across the country, and you haven't done a visit more recently, and you would really need to do that in order to make that final decision comfortably…if it involves a flight, and you can't just book a flight tomorrow and be at that institution, then maybe this is not an offer that you really realistically should consider.
Those are the types of things that you want to be, I think, prepared for beforehand, knowing that a waitlist offer is potentially coming my way. What do I need to do to be ready for that potential conversation and feel that I have the information that I need to be able to make a decision once or if it is presented to me?
[0:22:33] BHA: There are really so many factors to consider here. With the waiting game in college admissions being challenging enough, tacking on several more weeks or months of uncertainty could certainly be anxiety producing for many. How do you recommend students navigate the many emotions that might come up during this time, if they're on the waitlist?
[0:22:52] CL: I would say trust your gut. When you made your list for the colleges that you were applying to, hopefully, you did so thoughtfully and in earnest, and you chose schools that you were really interested in, and you've done your research about them. So you really should feel really good about all of the options that you have. I think it's easy to think about what you don't have or something that might potentially be an option, and, again, do so at the expense of the excitement of knowing that you've made a decision already and should be trying to be excited about that.
It's also often that students might feel flattered. They might be excited when they get that offer in the initial moment in the same way that you were quick to say, "Yes, keep me on the waitlist when you first got that offer." Then after thinking about it a little bit more and letting that initial excitement die down some, really think about, “Okay, well, this is the decision that I've already made. Why did I make that decision? Did I feel good about that decision when I made it?” And start to do maybe a little bit of comparison of the potential offer versus what you've already accepted, and really be thoughtful about the next steps going forward. If you really wish to entertain this other option, or if you really want to be excited about what you've already chosen and move forward there.
As it gets later in the process, the farther away from May 1, more likely it is that you'll start to actually do things for this institution that you are choosing to enroll at, or that you've indicated that you're enrolling at. That could be beginning to have advising conversations. It could be starting to pick housing and all those sorts of things. It's hard to get excited about that when you're still too attached or highly attached to other options.
[0:24:46] BT: I love the reminder that you gave us Candace, that students really have done all the hard work to curate their college list and apply to schools that they feel like they would be good fits at. No matter what comes back in that decision, students can feel confident that they are going to make a decision that's best for them.
[0:25:02] CL: I think that's a fair statement, Brooke. You should trust yourself, trust that you've been doing all of the right things throughout the process and feel confident about your choices. Remember to be self-aware. You are at the helm of this process. Ultimately, whether you have 10 acceptances or two, you're only going to pick one school. You can only enroll at one. Don't get caught up on how many of different decisions I received, but really focus on the options that you have, knowing that you were very thoughtful about those being even in the running from the very beginning of the process. And just feel really awesome about the decision that you've made. Trust your gut.
This is not the most important decision that you're going to make, nor should it really be the peak, or the penultimate sort of decision that you're making throughout high school. There's so many other exciting things happening in your life at this time, so many other transitions. So you really don't want this potential waitlist decision — or even just the college process — to put a damper on the culmination of what you've done throughout high school. Just remember that you are awesome, that you're amazing, that whatever choices you make are going to be the right ones.
If not, it's never too late to change course if you need to make another decision. Maybe initially, you said yes to that waitlist — “Keep me on the waitlist.” As time has gone on, even in just maybe two weeks or so, you've really shifted and changed your mind, and you're like, "You know what? I'm really happy with the decision I've made." You know what? That's totally fine and that's awesome. Let the schools know that, "I really appreciate this offer, but I think I'm going to stay where I am,” and feel really good about that.
[0:26:57] BT: Well, thanks Candace for chatting with us about all the ins and outs of the waitlist process. I hope that our listeners are feeling really confident going into Decision Day.
[0:27:08] CL: Thank you, Brooke, and Becca for having me back.
[0:27:11] BHA: We also want to thank everyone out there listening. If you're a fan of the podcast, please take a moment to rate, subscribe and share this episode with the students in your life.
[0:27:19] BT: College Admissions Insider will be back with another episode in a few weeks. In the meantime, send your questions, comments and episode ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. We read every note you send.
[0:27:30] BHA: Finally, you're invited to follow Bucknell on your favorite social media apps. Just look for @BucknellU on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. You can also follow our student-run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell.
[0:27:44] BT: Until next time, keep on reaching for your dreams and your dream school.
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