What Does it Mean to be Waitlisted or Deferred From a College

Quenosha Payton

Reviewed and edited by Tyson Schritter : 28 March, 2024.

After all the frantic work of putting together an application, waiting for an answer can seem to take forever. Most applicants assume that eventually, they will receive a letter with one of two simple outcomes: acceptance or rejection.  Yet there are actually other possible outcomes – as if there weren’t enough confusion already in the college search process!

You may be informed that your application has been “waitlisted” or “deferred.” What does this mean? Should you be concerned? The answer depends on a number of factors.

Waitlists and deferrals are two different things, but they share some similarities. While neither is an outright rejection, they both mean you will have to wait longer to see if you will be admitted.

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What Does it Mean to be Deferred From a College

Being deferred can mean a wide variety of things. In most cases, the college has not completed its review of your file and is “deferring” their decision to a later date.

Why Do Students Get Deferred

The reason students get a deferral typically falls into two categories:

  • You applied under the Early Action or Early Decision plan and have been pushed back into the regular pool. This may be frustrating but also has an advantage.  If you are accepted into the college/university under regular decision, you are not obligated to attend as you would have been if you were accepted under an Early Decision plan (Early Action is non-binding to begin with). You may feel free to consider offers from other schools.
  • You have applied under a regular decision or rolling admission and the college/university would like to have more information in order to make a decision about your application. In almost every case, a college or university would like to see more grades from the senior year or new test scores. If a school receives the information they want, they could admit you earlier.

What Does Waitlisted Mean

Being waitlisted is unlike being deferred and means the college has finished reviewing your file and made a decision to put you on a waiting list for admission.

  • Being on a college waitlist typically means that you are placed within a “holding pattern” of sorts. The admissions committee may or may not admit students from the waitlist. And unlike a deferral situation, new information does not usually change a waitlist decision.
  • If you are placed on a waitlist, you can usually find out if the school has gone to their waitlist in the past and if so, how many students they admitted from the waitlist. In some cases, your chances of eventually getting in are very good; at other colleges, waitlisted applicants are almost never admitted.
  • It is always wise to apply to another institution and ensure that you have a place somewhere. Do not pin your hopes on a waitlisted college; this is the time to make plans with one of your backup schools.

Whether you are deferred vs waitlisted, avoid the temptation to begin a flood of recommendation letters and phone calls to the admissions department. In almost every case, this can have an adverse effect on your chances for admission.

Some institutions even state in the letters that they do not take any additional letters of recommendation or phone calls on the student’s behalf.  If the admissions office does need more materials, they are generally interested in concrete information (test scores, grades, etc.) rather than personal testimony or recommendations.

Remember that if you have been waitlisted or deferred, it does not mean you have been rejected admission. It’s as if you have been asked to stay in the waiting room a little longer, pending an ultimate decision. As with any waiting period, use the time wisely. Improve your grades or test scores, or simply continue your good academic performance.

Make sure you have alternate plans with another school, and don’t despair. Being waitlisted or deferred is frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world, or of your college search.

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