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When you apply to a college or university, you anxiously hope for an acceptance letter and dread receiving a rejection.
But often, students forget that there are two other options: You can be deferred or waitlisted.
In this guide, we’ll answer all of your questions about being deferred or waitlisted from the college of your dreams, including what you can do to increase your chances of admission.
What Exactly Is a Deferral?
When you apply to a school early action or early decision, it’s possible to be deferred to the regular decision round.
This means you haven’t been accepted or rejected yet.
- While not receiving an answer can be disappointing, try to view your deferral as a second chance.
If the school didn’t think you were a strong candidate, they would have rejected you outright.
- Instead, they plan to reconsider your application in comparison to the regular decision applicant pool.
As Yale admissions officer Hannah Mendlowitz writes:
“A deferral from Yale means one thing and one thing only: We need more time to consider your application. It’s important to understand this. You were not deferred because there is something wrong with your application. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: if you were deferred it means your application is strong enough to continue to be seriously considered by the admissions committee.”
You’ll now be considered a regular applicant, so you’re freed from any obligation to attend the school if accepted.
At this point, you can apply to other schools while you wait for the final decision.
What Does It Mean to Be Waitlisted?
Being waitlisted, on the other hand, typically occurs during the regular decision round.
If you’re on the waitlist, you may ultimately be offered a spot in the class if there are openings left.
- Basically, it comes down to how many admitted students decide to enroll.
Schools use wait lists to ensure they have enough students to fill available seats, even if some admitted students decide to enroll elsewhere.
- About 34 percent of colleges maintain waitlists, usually highly selective schools and schools with low yield rates (low numbers of students who accept offers of admission).
You should also know that schools rank you (and other waitlisted applicants) in order of priority.
Individuals at the top of the list will be the first to receive admission letters if spots do open.
- Keep in mind that your acceptance letter—if it does arrive—probably won’t come until after May 1, the date that admitted students must reply accepting or declining their offer.
By this point, you should have already paid a deposit to another school.
This ensures that no matter what happens with the waitlist, you’ve secured a spot at a college or university for the fall.
You can always change your mind after paying the deposit, but remember that the deposit is nonrefundable.
So What Are My Chances of Acceptance?
It’s difficult to give a concrete answer to the question, “What are my chances now?”
It depends on a number of factors, including the school in question, how many students have been deferred, and the strength of the overall applicant pool.
- At Northwestern University, for instance, only about 1-2 percent of early applicants may be deferred.
- Georgetown University, on the other hand, defers all students who aren’t admitted in the early rounds. There are no rejections in the initial round.
- The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), ultimately admits about 11 percent of deferred students. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech admits around 50 percent of students who are initially deferred.
Sometimes, your deferral letter will tell you the admit rate for deferrals at that school.
Other times, you may be able to find this information online or contact the school to learn more.
According to U.S. News, the 91 ranked colleges that reported data on waitlisted students accepted anywhere from zero to 100 percent of those on the waitlist.
The average, however, was about 1 in 5, or 20 percent.
In general, you can assume that your odds are better if you’ve been deferred rather than waitlisted.
- Deferred students are reconsidered during the regular decision round and should have about the same chance as other regular decision applicants.
The admission of waitlisted students, however, depends on how many spots remain open once all admitted candidates have responded to their offers.
Admission also hinges on your particular place on the waitlist.
What Should I Do Next?
First, don’t be discouraged, and don’t count yourself out just yet.
- Give yourself a day or two to take your mind off the stress of college application season.
Go out to eat with your family, catch a movie with a friend, head to the beach, or get pampered at a local spa.
Then, it’s time to get back to business. Below are the steps you should follow if you’ve been deferred or waitlisted.
Your deferral/waitlist letter should include instructions from the school.
Read this information carefully, as procedures may vary from school to school.
The instructions may contain information about what not to do.
For example, a school may request that you do not send any additional letters of recommendation.
If this is the case, be sure to strictly adhere to the school’s request. Defying these instructions may be the “kiss of death.”
(Or best case scenario: The school will simply ignore your supplementary materials.)
In the case of deferral, you may not be required to indicate your continued interest in the school.
However, if this is a requirement, be sure to let the school know if you’d still like to be considered in the next round.
- When you’re waitlisted, you will typically be asked to either accept or reject your spot on the list, usually either online or via a postcard.
If the school is your top choice, you should accept. If not, and if you’re not interested in playing the waiting game, you may wish to decline.
Follow Up: Letter of Continued Interest
Around late January or early February, send a follow-up email or letter to the school that has waitlisted or deferred you.
This is called a letter of continued interest, or LOCI.
- Find out how to write an incredible letter of continued interest here. This guide has everything you need, including examples.
They understand that a lot has probably changed since you submitted your application several months ago.
Reiterate your interest. If this school is your first choice, mention it in your letter.
- You should also explain why you still believe you’re a good fit for the school, then provide updates of anything you’ve achieved since your initial application.
- These achievements may include higher grades, any other academic or extracurricular highlights, awards that you’ve won in the meantime, improved test scores, and so on.
- You can also discuss your plans for the remainder of senior year.
In addition to this letter, the school should also receive your Mid-Year grade report from your guidance counselor.
Of course, this means it’s essential to keep your grades up—and preferably raise them even higher!
Don’t Keep Following Up
Follow up one time only.
You don’t want to annoy the school of your dreams with weekly updates or constant communication, and you don’t want to come across as desperate.
As you think of updates you’d like to send, keep a record of them. Compile this information until February, then include all of it in your letter.
- In the letter, be sure to mention only new and important information.
- The school already has your application, so you don’t need to repeat the same stats and achievements they’ve already reviewed.
One final word of advice about your follow up letter:
- Remain positive, polite, and respectful.
- Don’t question the decision the school has made.
Simply show your continued interest, send updates on any new accomplishments, and reiterate why you’re a great fit.
Retake Standardized Tests
Some students who are deferred or waitlisted try to improve their chances by retaking standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT.
If you decide to go this route, make it worth your time. B
uy a test prep book, take practice tests and evaluate your performance, and/or get a test prep tutor.
Be sure to send your updated official scores directly to the school. You can also mention this information in your follow-up letter.
Even if you’re holding out hope for a future acceptance letter, remember that acceptance to a school that has deferred or waitlisted you is far from guaranteed.
Continue your college search, and keep applying!
Perhaps there’s a silver lining to this experience, and you’ll find yourself extremely happy at a school you hadn’t previously considered.
If you’ve been waitlisted, remember that you definitely won’t be admitted before the May 1 deadline.
- This means you’ll need to pay a deposit at another school. (The key is to ensure that you have somewhere to go when the school year begins.)
- Then, if you do receive an acceptance letter, notify the other school that you’ll no longer be attending.
You won’t get your deposit back, but you will free up a space for another student that’s been waitlisted.
Conclusion: Deferred or Waitlisted & How to Beat It
We get it: Being deferred or waitlisted isn’t the response you wanted to hear.
- But it’s better than a rejection letter—it means that your application is still being considered!
Just waiting around isn’t fun, so take action to boost your chances of ultimately being admitted.
Read all directions from the school very carefully, then respond with your continued interest if required.
- Follow up only once to provide updates about your accomplishments, grades, and extracurricular activities.
- Keep your tone positive, and be sure that you don’t send any information the school has specifically told you not to send. Focus on retaking standardized tests (if possible) and raising your grades.
And of course, continue applying. Even if this is your dream school, it isn’t the only school in the universe.
There are tons of other great schools—maybe some that are even better for you!
Do some additional college research, send out some applications, and try not to stress too much about this one particular school.
Eventually, you may get the acceptance letter you’ve been dreaming of. And if not, you’ll still have a seat at a great college or university when fall rolls around!