The Waitlist essay, also known as the Letter of Continued Interest, is an optional supplemental essay that students can submit as part of their college application. Colleges may ask you to submit this essay when they determine that you are competitive enough to be part of their incoming class (i.e. they don’t want to reject you) but other factors are holding them back from admitting you right now. If some of the admitted students choose not to attend the school, then you might be able to take their spot.
At Prompt, we are seeing more students waitlisted this year than ever before! The purpose of this guide is to support those in this process.
Why Colleges Waitlist
Colleges want to ensure that their yield is high (i.e., the number or percentage of accepted students who eventually enroll). They often project their yield by looking at historical data across a number of variables. Some of these factors include a student’s demonstrated interest, likelihood of a student getting admitted to a more competitive school where they eventually choose to attend, their major(s), how far they live from the university (e.g. in-state versus neighboring states versus out of state), and financial aid package. Colleges have an internal model that looks at each of these variables to calculate the likelihood of their accepted students committing.
Let’s put this into perspective. If a school is targeting a class of 2,000 students and they know that 50% of their admitted students historically accept the offer to enroll (i.e. yield rate is 50%), then the school will choose to admit around 4,000 students..
A primary reason that colleges waitlist students is because they feel the student is likely to get into another “more desirable” school. It isn’t always clear that this is your situation but if you know that a school measures demonstrated interest in admissions, then it will be important to lean into that. The rule of thumb (if this is true for you) is unequivocally stating that you intend to enroll in the school if admitted.
For some schools, especially those that are highly selective, this may matter less because they know they have a competitive offer and don’t track demonstrated interest.
Uncertainty in 2020-2021
Due to COVID-19, test optional and test blind policies, virtual learning, schools are waitlisting many students this year as there is a lot of uncertainty in the admissions process. As the Georgia Tech admissions blog puts it, “the pandemic has thrown all kinds of curveballs into the equation, including issues around finances, health, willingness to travel great distances from home, and so on.”
A school that admits fewer students than previous years is likely employing a strategy where they are cautious about who they believe will matriculate. This means they might deliberately waitlist or reject candidates who they think are likely to choose an offer from a more competitive or higher ranked school. The result could mean more students admitted off the waitlist because the school chose to be conservative with who they initially admit.
Let's discuss an example.
For fall 2020, UCLA received almost 110,000 applicants and accepted around 15,500 students (roughly 14.4% acceptance rate). This year for fall 2021, UCLA received almost 140,000 applicants which is an increase of 28% from the previous year!
How many did they accept? Just under 9%, which is roughly 12,500 students. This implies that UCLA strategically accepted 3,000 fewer applicants likely due to their concerns about yield. UCLA's situation is something that we anticipate seeing across the majority of schools who are waitlisting record numbers of students likely due to the uncertainty from COVID-19, and presumably, accepting more students off the waitlist than previous years.
All things said, a school that admits more students than previous years may not necessarily mean the chances of you coming off their waitlist is less likely. With new testing policies playing a big role, some schools have sought to increase their yearly capacity and admit more students. They may be anticipating a lower yield and could bring similar or more students off the waitlist than previous years.
A good place to research is the Common Data Set where schools will list their historical demographic data on their enrollment, acceptances, and waitlists. You can use the percentage they admit off their waitlist as a proxy for comparison but take those numbers with a grain of salt given the uncertainty in college admissions this past year.
What is the goal of the letter of continued interest?
Letters of Continued Interest serve two primary purposes: (1) confirm your level of interest in the school and (2) share new (or additional) information that will make you a more compelling candidate.
1. Confirm your interest in the school
Waitlist essay prompts often encourage students to demonstrate that the school is their top choice, or at least very high. Here are some real prompts from 2021.
- Brandeis University - Our wait list is not ranked in any particular order. However, the Admissions Committee does find it helpful to know why Brandeis University remains high on your list of potential colleges. Please feel free to include this or any other additional information in your response below.
- Denison University - Considering your other options for college, we would like to know more about your interest in Denison. Please tell us a little more about why you would like to remain on our waitlist. Responses are limited to 200 words.
Schools want to admit students that are highly likely to attend. As such, when writing out your deferral letter, you want to make your intentions regarding the university clear. For example, you may write, "<school name> is my top choice. I am excited to attend if admitted." Although, you should add a bit more personality and enthusiasm to the message. One approach – write it almost like a love letter. Describe particular traits at the school that mesh well with your goals and personality.
You may want to consider doing some additional research on the school to more accurately describe why you want to attend the school. Your goal is to continue proving you are a good fit for the school and the school is a good fit for you. Try to reinforce and expand upon items you may have included in a supplemental "why us" or "why major" essay. Consider including content about the value you feel you'd bring to the school's community (i.e. how will you engage with other students and why will that be valuable to them). Just make sure the content isn't too repetitive with other essays you wrote.
Note: Do not say the school is your top choice if it is not. You can use language that is a bit more vague if you want. For example, "<school name> is a top choice of mine. I am likely to attend if admitted."
2. Share new (or additional) information
There are two types of information you can share: new and additional. New information are items that have occurred between when you submitted your application and when you are sending your letter. Additional information can be other details you did not share or were unable to share in your original application. Ideally, any information you share should be compelling and relate to the five traits: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, and diversity of experiences.
New information. There may be both academic and extracurricular updates to share.
For academic updates, perhaps you meaningfully improved your grades and can write about what you did to accomplish this; perhaps you improved your standardized test scores (or now have scores); perhaps you won an academic-related award. You should only share academic updates that are meaningfully different from the standard you set on your application. For example, if you earned mostly straight As before you applied; it isn't particularly relevant news that you continued to earn straight As (admissions officers will have access to your recent transcript if you send it anyways).
For extracurricular activities, you should consider how you spend your free time – has it meaningfully changed? Are there new intellectual pursuits in which you are engaged? Are there any new communities or organizations you are a part of? What skills have you found yourself improving that may not have been mentioned on your application? Have you had a meaningful and different impact on an organization you are a part of (i.e., took the initiative or contributed in some way)? The key here is to focus on things you've done that will add to the reader's understanding of what you can accomplish as your past experiences prove you will be successful in college and beyond.
Additional information. You may not have been able to include everything important about you on the application. Now is a good time to provide other details about experiences or activities you touched on in your application or different ones you weren't able to expand upon within the application's essays. Work to make sure this information adds new insights into who you are. It's fine if these touch on similar traits you cover in your application – it is important to reinforce your strengths. You may also want to consider creating a video or web-based writing and image-based portfolio (a website URL). These methods are especially important for makers or creators that want to showcase what they've built or created. If you do this, don't just show the end product but also talk through (or write about) the process you underwent to create it. You should cover any challenges you came across and how you went about solving these challenges – this will highlight your intellectual curiosity.
Use a very straightforward structure. The introduction should provide a clear overview of what you will cover in your letter. State your intention with the school (top choice or a top choice) and that you will (or would likely) attend. Then, provide an overview of the new information you will cover in the letter.
The body of the letter should focus on the new and additional information. The body may be multiple paragraphs. When writing about these items, you should use a straightforward approach to writing it. What was the situation, what was the outcomes (quantify if possible), and what actions did you take to achieve the outcomes. A good way to think about it is "I accomplished [x] as measured by [y] by doing [z]" (although not using those exact words). Each piece of information you include should be 2-4 sentences.
The end of the letter should focus on your continued interest in the school. Work to expand upon why you want to attend, what you'll get out of the school, and what the school (and school's community) will get out of you.
Good luck on writing your letters of continued interest!
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