The Ivy Coach Daily

March 22, 2023

Is Accepting a Position on the Waitlist Binding?

A Princeton University building is featured behind a set of trees.
Over 79% of students offered the chance to join the Princeton Class of 2025 waitlist chose to accept spots.

Students who are neither accepted nor denied in the Regular Decision round are offered the chance to be placed on a college’s waitlist. But it’s not as though students are automatically placed on a college’s waitlist. Instead, they must opt to join the waitlist. So when should students opt-in, when should they opt out, and what are the rules surrounding college waitlists?   

Is Accepting the Waitlist for a College Binding?

Students who opt-in to a college’s waitlist are not bound to attend if offered admission. While students are not in the wrong to de-commit to a school if they subsequently earn admission off a college’s waitlist and wish to attend that school, they’re under no obligation.

Why Colleges Waitlist Students

Colleges waitlist applicants in the event their yield (or the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll) fails to meet expectations.

When thousands of applicants are denied admission to highly selective schools, these institutions will unquestionably not keep a seat in the incoming class vacant — not when tuition dollars are at stake! Waitlisted applicants thus meet institutional needs by filling any potentially open seats resulting from a lower-than-expected yield.

The Majority of Students Opt-In to Waitlists

Yet do most students offered an opportunity to join a highly selective college’s waitlist typically opt in, or do they cut bait? As the data bares out, most students offered the chance to be placed in limbo choose to enter limbo.

Below is the data for the top national universities of 2023. Schools, like Harvard University, that did not provide The Common Data Set the number of students waitlisted to the Class of 2025, and those who accepted a place on the waitlist were not included.Below is the data for the top liberal arts colleges of 2023. Schools that did not provide The Common Data Set the number of students waitlisted to the Class of 2025, and those who accepted a place on the waitlist were not included.

College/University2023 US News & World Report Best National Universities RankingNumber of Students Waitlisted to the Class of 2025Number of Students Who Accepted a Place on Waitlist to Class of 2025Percentage of Students Who Accepted a Place on Waitlist to Class of 2025
Princeton University#11,2651,00079.1%
Stanford University#375058077.3%
University of Pennsylvania#73,9332,75370%
California Institute of Technology#931223575.3%
Dartmouth College#122,6692,12079.4%
Cornell University#177,7465,80074.9%
University of California, Los Angeles#2016,97911,16965.8%
Carnegie Mellon University#228,7925,31960.5%
Georgetown University#223,2772,54377.6%
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor#2517,80513,06373.4%

Below is the data for the top liberal arts colleges of 2023. Schools that did not provide The Common Data Set the number of students waitlisted to the Class of 2025, and those who accepted a place on the waitlist were not included.

College/UniversityUS News Best Liberal Arts Colleges 2023 RankNumber of Students Waitlisted to the Class of 2025Number of Students Who Accepted a Place on Waitlist to Class of 2025Percentage of Students Who Accepted a Place on Waitlist to Class of 2025
Williams College#12,37192939.2%
Wellesley College#52,5781,30450.6%
Carleton College#61,36758042.4%
Claremont McKenna College#985053863.3%
Washington and Lee University#112,2071,15052.1%
Vassar College#131,52663441.5%
Haverford College#181,33174155.7%
University of Richmond#183,89188622.8%
Wesleyan University#183,5852,03156.7%
Bates College#252,4731,24550.3%

When Students Should Accept a Spot on the Waitlist

Only some students offered a spot on a college’s waitlist should accept those spots.

If a student would prefer to attend the institution that kicked the can down the road on their candidacy over all the schools they’ve already earned admission to, accepting a spot on the waitlist makes perfect sense.

If a student might prefer the school that waitlisted them over the schools that have accepted them, they should also take a spot in limbo while they figure things out, potentially visit schools, and consider their options.

When Students Should Not Accept a Spot on the Waitlist

Some students should not accept spots on a college’s waitlist. 

And even though it’s so easy to check the “yes” box, it’s ok to check “no.” After all, the tables have turned in the college admissions process once colleges have notified applicants of their decisions.

If, for instance, a student has already earned admission to a school they’d prefer to attend over the one that has kicked the can down the road on their candidacy, that student should not accept a spot on the waitlist.

This student should decline the waitlist for two fundamental reasons: (1) they have no intention of attending and are thus only collecting feathers for their cap, and (2) accepting a place on the waitlist only hurts other waitlisted students.

A Student’s Obligation If Admitted Off the Waitlist

Students are not obligated to attend a college that accepts them off the waitlist — no matter what admissions officers may tell you to the contrary. Accepting a spot on a college’s waitlist is not binding — students do not need to attend if ultimately admitted.

Often, admissions officers will call waitlisted students to ask if they would enroll if accepted off the waitlisted before they offer them admission from the waitlist. But even if students pledge to attend, they have every right to change their minds.

College admissions officers have waited months to render a decision. Students thus don’t have to decide instantaneously. The college will give students a deadline to accept the offer off the waitlist, but it will not be the day they learn of their admission.

College Waitlist FAQ

Should a waitlisted student secure their spot at another school?

Yes! A student should secure a spot at another school rather than rely on earning admission off a waitlist. A student should accept the offer of the school that offered them admission that they most wish to attend.

If the student subsequently gets off a college’s waitlist and wishes to matriculate to that institution, they’ll have to forfeit their enrollment and possibly housing deposits. But these fees typically aren’t too substantial). Also, there’s nothing wrong with de-committing since colleges understand how waitlists work. Students should not feel guilty!

Is checking “yes” on the waitlist form enough, or should students do more if they hope to get off the waitlist?

No! Students must submit a compelling Letter of Continued Interest tailored to each school that placed them in limbo. If students merely check “yes” and don’t submit a powerful letter, it’s the equivalent of telling rather than showing.

What should students do after they accept a spot on a college’s waitlist and effectively demonstrate their interest in that college?

They can ask their school counselor to make an advocacy call. But, beyond this lobbying call, students should forget about the school that waitlisted them — unless they get off that waitlist — and focus on getting excited about the school they pledged to attend.

What happens if a student gets off the waitlist and wants to attend? Will the student lose their deposit at the other school?

Yes, while it depends on the school, most students who accept a spot at a college after earning admission off a waitlist will forfeit their deposits at the school they previously pledged to attend. However, these deposits are typically only a few hundred dollars.

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Waitlisted Candidates

If you’re interested in optimizing your chances of admission off a college’s waitlist (or multiple college waitlists), fill out Ivy Coach‘s free consultation form, indicate that you’ve been waitlisted, and we’ll promptly be in touch.

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