US Universities: what is a waitlist, and what do you do if you end up on one?

This is the time of year when the dreaded Waitlist appears. You haven’t been offered a place but the hope of eventually getting one is held out, tantalisingly. So, in this situation, what should one do?

The first thing to understand is why universities run waitlists. Unlike in admissions in many other countries, students in the US could be holding 5, 10 or 15 other offers. Universities can make educated guesses (and use big data) to work out how many students they will enrol from the number of offers they make, and ensure that they fill exactly the right number of spots that they have. That’s not just an abstract figure, but comes down to how many dorm beds they have, how many spaces in labs, how many students in each class. So, to ensure that they can hit that number if too few students take up their offer of a place, the waitlist is there.

However, it gets more complicated if the university also wants to make sure that the group of students that enters in August also covers many different categories. They might need to make sure that they have a balance of subject interests, gender, ethnicity, country of origin, extra-curricular interest, and the like. So the waitlist needs to have many more people on it, to cover each eventuality. If a female engineer from Dubai decides not to enroll, a male artist from Idaho is not necessarily what the university needs to replace her with. As a result, these waitlists can sometimes be very big.

Indeed, at some universities, there are more students on the waitlist than offered spots of admission. In 2018, the University of Michigan had over 11,000 students on their waitlist. At other colleges it’s much smaller, and the chances of getting off the waitlist are much higher.

So, what do you do? Well, firstly you’re going to have to pay a deposit to go somewhere else before the May 1st deadline, so you do at least have a place. Then you’ll have to decide how much you’d like to perhaps go to somewhere else. If you do, then research the statistics (or ask a specialist to help you do this - get in touch if you need assistance) and work out what the chances are at that college to get off the waitlist. Bear in mind that it can also be quite late in the process that an offer would be made; a lot will come through in May when colleges know the numbers who have deposited, but for others it could be July (following IB resuts) or even later when spots open up.

All-in-all, being on the waitlist is a tough situation to be in. It can, however, be a process worth going through for some students.

USADavid Hawkins