You will definitely get a decision from the colleges that have wait-listed you. But what they will say and exactly when they will say it are impossible to predict. As you probably know, colleges often put hundreds of students on the waitlist, and they may ultimately admit only a handful ... or none at all. In general, the more selective a college is, the smaller the chances of a waitlist acceptance. Yet sometimes a lucky few wait-listed students do get surprising good news, even from the most sought-after schools. In 2017, for instance, Brown accepted more than 80 wait-listed students, and Stanford accepted over 30, but Johns Hopkins took only three and Dartmouth took zero. In other years, however, those figures might be reversed.
A few colleges may start admitting waitlist students even before the May 1 Candidates' Reply deadline. (This usually happens if the deposits are creeping in more slowly than expected.) But the majority of waitlist action heats up around the second week of May, once colleges have been able to review the demographics of the committed freshmen.
Waitlist offers are often made to balance those demographics. Thus, if a class seems especially short of women, or of African-Americans, or of anyone from the Southwest, it could be those students who are first culled from the waitlist. Similarly, the waitlist may be used to fill other deficiencies in the class such as a dearth of Slavic Studies majors or aspiring architects.
While you may drive yourself crazy trying to estimate your waitlist-acceptance odds, you can ask yourself what “niche" you might fill in a freshman class. If you come from a state or a country that is traditionally underrepresented in your college's student body, this could boost those odds. Ditto if you hail from a minority background or from an unusually poor (or even unusually rich) one, or if you plan to pursue an uncommon academic area. Students who can pay full freight often move toward the front of the waitlist line, too, but at the more “elite" colleges, finances really don't matter.
In the meantime, if you prefer to attend a college that has wait-listed you rather than one that has already said yes, make sure that you deposit somewhere by May 1, but also follow the suggestions that you'll find throughout cyberspace, including in this old “Ask the Dean" column here.
Above all, be sure to tell your waitlist schools that you will enroll if admitted. (It's actually okay to say this to both of the schools that have wait-listed you, as long as you inform the second one that you won't be coming as soon as you are accepted at the first.)
Most waitlist decisions are made by the end of May or at least by the middle of June, so you should hear from your colleges by then. (TIP: Increasingly, waitlist acceptances arrive via telephone. So if you see an unfamiliar number on your Caller ID, don't immediately assume it's spam!) If you aren't admitted from the waitlist, you will be told that the waitlist acceptances are over or you may be asked if you want to keep waiting through the summer. Occasionally, if a school's “summer melt" (the number of enrolled freshmen who change their minds in July or August) is greater than usual, the college may turn to the waitlist shortly before the semester starts with a new decision. However, many students don't want to live that long with indecision and say “No thanks" to lingering in waitlist purgatory.
If, by Memorial Day, you haven't gotten a decision from your waitlist colleges, you can contact the admission offices to ask about your status. In the meantime, you should take the measures described here to demonstrate your ongoing interest, but don't bug the admission folks about what or when you should expect to hear from them.
From decades of experience, “The Dean' must warn you that it's wise to allow yourself to get excited about the college you're committing to this week rather than to hang your hopes on the slender thread of a waitlist acceptance. But “The Dean" has also seen over the eons that many students who never got off the waitlist at what they thought was a top-choice school will look back later and proclaim, “Thank goodness! I ended up just where I should have been all along."
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