How to handle a holding pattern: What happens if you’re waitlisted or deferred?

College Waitlist

By Ester Bloom

“No” is the wrenching response to a college application that every applicant fears. But what about “Maybe”?

Every year, tens of thousands of applicants to colleges are not given a definitive answer and instead are waitlisted or deferred. Although these answers both amount to “maybe,” the subtleties are pretty different.

The Gory Truth About Deferrals

Deferrals come in response to an early decision application or, more rarely, in response to a regular decision app. If you applied early decision and have been deferred, you have been told that although your first choice college appreciated your application, it wants more time to consider whether you’d be a good fit by looking at you in the context of the regular decision applicant pool.

While unpleasant, this is hardly a cause to break out the sackcloth and ashes. At MIT in 2007, to give one prominent example, 3,493 people applied early, of whom almost 400 were admitted, over 400 were rejected, and a whopping 2,638 were deferred. That makes deferral the most common response to an early application at a prestigious school.

When you apply early and get deferred, you are just being considered as a regular decision applicant. The school is asking, fairly, for more time to think about you. But when you apply regular decision and are deferred, the school is dithering. Feel free to respect it less for this.

The More-Gory Truth About Waitlists

Waitlists were created to fill the gaps left when accepted students from the regular decision pool turn down College Mediocre for College Spectacular. In these Boomer Baby days, however, even College Mediocre is flush with applications, so waitlists are becoming increasingly obsolete.

A third of all colleges—the Spectaculars—continue to keep these artifacts, at least for now. While in 2005, for example, Harvard took 28 students off the waitlist, in 2006 they took less than half that number. Georgetown took one-seventh as many as it had the previous year. And Princeton and OSU won this round of the selectivity game by taking none at all. This means, if you have been waitlisted, your chances are, sadly, pretty slim.

Courses of Action


  • A waitlist is an actual list and you might be toward the top or toward the bottom. You are within your rights to call and ask what your status is and to politely withdraw yourself from consideration if you feel you are too far down to have a real chance.


  • If you want to remain on the waitlist, contact the school to let it know you’re still interested. But, whether you’ve been waitlisted or deferred, don’t bombard the admissions office with calls, emails, letters of recommendation, questions, or testimonials from family friends. There’s a fine line, as everyone who’s been on a date knows, between being persistent and seeming like a stalker. If you win some new accolade, ask your high school admissions officer to call them on your behalf. The news will seem more significant coming from a third party.


  • Keep your grades up. In both cases, schools will continue monitoring your academic progress.


  • If you are offered a second interview, take the opportunity. You may be able to communicate your enthusiasm better in person.


  • Don’t panic. Think of this situation as finding yourself in deep water. If you flail around out of fear, you’re more likely to drown. Keep moving. Pick a direction: apply to more or different schools, for example, or tour the schools at which you have been accepted and decide among them. 


  • Don’t pray for some terrible accident to befall an admitted student so that you can be bumped off the waitlist to take his or her slot. It’s bad karma.


  • Remember that sometimes the unexpected thing can be the best thing. Most people can be happy most places, just as most unhappy people will be unhappy anywhere. 


  • How do you deal with the uncertainty? Give yourself a strong dose of the opposite. Pretend that the answer instead of “Maybe” was “No.” Act accordingly. That way if you do get off the waitlist or hear from your preferred school in early June, it’ll be an exciting surprise. Or, who knows? By that point, you might even have moved on.


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