Being placed on a waitlist at one of your top-choice schools can be uniquely stressful. Instead of celebrating, getting the waitlist letter may make you feel like you’re stuck in limbo, wondering how long to wait, what to plan for, and whether to enroll elsewhere. And waitlists have only gotten longer. In the past few years, an uptick in college applications coupled with students applying to more schools, has made waitlists almost a sure thing. Waitlists can hold hundreds, or even thousands, of student names. For example, Brown University had over 1,000 students on the waitlist for the class of 2025.

But even though it’s unlikely to be moved from the waitlist, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Here, high school counselors share their advice on determining how long you should play the waitlist waiting game.

Ask About the Waitlist Timeline

To help you set your personal college waitlist timeline, start by contacting the admissions office at the school where you’ve been waitlisted to ask about their timeline for notifying students. Jenny Box, a junior and senior counselor at New Hope High School in Columbus, Mississippi, says, “It’s perfectly acceptable to look on the college’s website and/or to call or email and ask about their college waitlist timeline.”

While schools typically make offers to waitlisted students by the end of May, in some rare cases, it can be as late as July and August.

Submit Additional Application Materials

Once you get the waitlist letter, use the next few weeks to submit additional application materials. You can include things like a letter restating how interested you are in attending the school, letters of recommendation from your senior year teachers, and awards. Sometimes a specific skill or talent may help get accepted off a waitlist—or simply being in the right place at the right time. For example, if there are fewer applicants from a certain region,

admission officers may specifically look for students from that area to invite off the waitlist. And if you’ve gotten to know an admissions officer through the application process, it can be helpful to send them an email reiterating how much you want to go to the school.

Keep On Top Of Deadlines For Your Backup School

It’s important to have a rock-solid backup plan in place while you’re on the waitlist. Reach out to the admissions office at the backup school where you’ve enrolled for next year and find out upcoming dates and deadlines. These include sign-up, full or partial refund deadlines for housing, orientation, meal plans, classes, special programs, and scholarships.

Most schools clearly identify these dates online or in a calendar that accompanies your enrollment materials, but it’s always a good idea to confirm deadlines with an admissions representative. Box encourages students to be assertive (and polite) about asking for needed information.

The same goes for your waitlisted school. It’s okay to call and ask if they anticipate accepting more students  and if they have a deadline for when the waitlist is considered closed. “The longer a student waits,” Box explains, “the more likely they are to miss summer activities such as orientation, summer programs, or scheduling classes for the fall semester.”

You also may decide you’re not happy with any of your backup options. In that case, you may want to decide whether it makes sense to take a gap year or enroll in a few classes at community college while you make another attempt at admissions next year. But you still must act fast. Community college deadlines may also be coming up, and classes may be filling up quickly. Keep in mind, too, that being waitlisted at a college won’t necessarily give you a leg up on admissions next year and you might find yourself in the same position.

Figure Out Your Finances

Financial flexibility is another consideration as you weigh how long to stay on a waitlist. While it’s important to pay the deposit at your backup school to guarantee your spot, you also want to be clear on what money, if any, is refundable if you do get a call that you’re off the waitlist. Certain payments, such as orientation fees, likely aren’t refundable. Being admitted off the waitlist may also mean a smaller financial aid package than anticipated. If you’re receiving Pell Grants or federal student loans, it can take time to recalculate aid for a different institution. There also may be less aid from the school, so you may not get scholarships or work-study options. Talk with your parents as well about how much you can afford. If a backup school is offering a solid financial aid package, then maybe the backup school makes the most sense for your family.

Another consideration? Housing. If there isn’t a freshman housing guarantee for your waitlisted school, you might be scrambling for a place to live once the waitlist admits you. In addition, think about your proximity to the school you’re waiting for. It’s more financially feasible to move after a last-minute acceptance to a school that’s an hour away rather than one that’s located across the country. If you’re late in the game for securing affordable housing, will that make your entire freshman year more expensive? These factors can add a substantial cost to your college experience.

Maintain Perspective 

Acting as if getting off the waitlist won’t happen can make it a really nice surprise if it does. But since most students don’t get off the waitlist, making a solid plan for freshman year at your backup school can minimize disappointment and set you up for success. Jessica Ramos, a high school counselor in Indiana, recommends that students think deeply about their end game. “You’ll likely find you can accomplish your goals just as successfully at another school.”

Being on a waitlist can make you feel stuck, but the best way forward is to continue planning and stay as informed as possible, so you can start your fall semester on sure footing. Ask questions, consider your options, and plan for contingencies. Ultimately, if you don’t get an offer off the waitlist, “The key is not to see this as a failure but as a different choice,” says Box. “The right door will open at the right time.”

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