My Dream School Waitlisted Me...What Do I Do Now?

Acceptance letters are rolling out, along with dreaded rejections and often even more stressful waitlist notices. With Ivy Day (March 28th) creeping up, there will be more waitlisted students than ever before. Why? Well, it isn’t only because there are a ton of students applying to college, and that the average student is applying to more colleges than ever. Sure, that’s part of it, but there’s a lot more going on than just millions of kids competing for coveted spots. You see, college admissions is a game — and not just for the applicants.

There are three numbers that college admissions offices obsess over: the number of applicants, the number of students they accept, and the number of accepted students who actually enroll. During the admissions process you hear a lot about the number of people who apply to a school, and the often-frustratingly-low number who are accepted, but the number that is much less talked about, but absolutely crucial to the waitlist game, is that last one: the enrollment number.

Colleges want a high number of applicants, a low admissions rate, and then high enrollment rate, meaning that a large percentage of the applicants they admit decide to go there. And, again, it’s a game, because they can get themselves into trouble in the hunt for a high enrollment rate. In May 2017 the University of California at Irvine got caught in this trap when 850 more kids said “Yes!” to their offer of admission than they expected. Two months before the start of the fall term, they rescinded admission from 500 students — an unprecedented decision that rightly pissed off a lot of people.

The primary purpose of the waitlist is to avoid this. Colleges let some kids in, see who says yes, and then can admit off of the waitlist to fill the remaining spots. Which leads me to the question we are answering in this post: what do you do if you’re waitlisted?

Well, if the waitlist serves as a holding tank for possible admits that they want to be sure will say yes if they let them in, then you have to make it absolutely clear to the school that you will go there if you are admitted. If you’re not sure that you’d go there, please stop reading now because trying to convince a school to let you in off of the waitlist just to massage your ego is actually taking a spot away from a kid who really wants to be there. A bump to your ego isn’t worth the bad karma.

If you DO know for absolute certain that the school that waitlisted you is where you want to be, read on.

Step 1: open a Word doc.

Step 2: start drafting an email.

Why, you ask, are you writing an email in Word? Well, the spelling and grammar checker is better, and you won’t accidentally press send on the email if it isn’t an email yet.

Step 3: Ok, well maybe this is actually step 1, but you need to compile the names of 2-3 people at the school who you’ve (ideally) communicated with. If this really, truly, wholeheartedly is your top school, you should have a record of communication (demonstrated interest). At least one should be an admissions officer, but another could be a regional rep or a professor who has agreed to put in a good word for you. The email should be sent to each of these people individually, but it can be the same words (minus the salutation) in each one.

Step 4: Write the email, and write it to a human.

The email needs to include four things:

  • A salutation that directly addresses the recipient in a professional way. “Dear” is appropriate. “To whom it may concern” probably isn't great for this — you are not writing an email to a robot.
  • A tone that is totally passionate without feeling plastic, fake, or overdone.
  • An explicit statement that says that, if accepted, you will absolutely 110% attend the school.
  • 2-4 reasons, not given anywhere else in your application, that the school is where you want to be.

Here’s a bit of an example:

Dear Name of an Admission Officer,

I recently found out that I am waitlisted at Dartmouth, and I am absolutely devastated. Dartmouth is my dream school. As an aspiring environmental studies major with a passion for the White Mountains region, I am hoping to be able to gain expertise on the local forest ecosystems — something I won’t be able to get in an environmental studies program elsewhere, even where the coursework may be comparable.

I am also an avid Nordic skier and was hoping to be able to engage in the outdoor program first as a participant, but later as a leader. It is this overlap of my interests, academic and outdoors, that drew me to Dartmouth in the first place and remains the reason that Dartmouth is where I want to be. I remember the first time I visited the White Mountains and felt the crisp cold air. Unzipping my tent, I should have shivered, but something about the area made me fall in love. I want to be able to immerse myself in these mountains, protect these mountains, and serve these mountains, and Dartmouth is where I will be able not just to learn the skills I need but to set out on that path.

If admitted to Dartmouth, I will accept the offer. Dartmouth is currently and has always been my dream school. I hope you will reconsider my application, as the top of Moosilauke is where I’d like to be.

Best wishes,


(P.S. Don’t dare try to copy this verbatim. It is only here to show an example of style and form. You found it through Googling, so can an admissions officer. Plagiarism will not get you in.)

Now, of course, you’re asking: will this certainly work? No. Of course not. We cannot promise that it will work. However, we can promise that not writing them will not work for you either. If you don’t reach out, there is almost no way that you will get in. Going back to our original rant at the top of this post, colleges want high enrollment rates. If you don’t tell them that you’re a total yes, you’re a risk. If you tell them you’ll go, you’re a safe bet.

Also, waitlists aren’t ranked. You aren’t at number 3, 30, or 300. The college is waiting to see who enrolls, and what gaps in their class they need to fill. Advocate for yourself, tell them why you want to be there, and take control of your future in a situation that can feel totally out of your control. Don't hold back how passionate you are. 



I wrote this because, less than 24 hours ago, we received an email that asked what to do if you get waitlisted. She asked, so we’re trying our best to answer — and fast! If you have questions that apply to many people, send them our way. We’ll do our best to help you out.