Everything You Need to Know About Being Deferred or Waitlisted

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: December 14, 2023

As shared in the post about early admissions, if you apply to college during Early Action and Early Decision cycles, you will face a lot of competition. When more students apply early, you’re also likely to be deferred from at least one college. And when colleges have more applications to read in the regular decision round, this will lead to more students being waitlisted. Have you been deferred or waitlisted from college? 

There is no doubt that after working hard on college applications, you may be disappointed to discover that your dream college has deferred or waitlisted you. If you have been deferred or waitlisted, it can be an emotional roller coaster as you wait several months to find out what the ultimate decision will be. The mixed emotions you feel—sadness, disappointment, anxiety, and uncertainty–are understandable. But most importantly, you may even be confused about what deferral vs. waitlisted means. 

Deferrals and waitlists are two very different statuses that you could receive when applying to college. The main difference between the two is that a deferral means that your application has been put on hold, while a waitlist means your application has been neither accepted nor rejected.

 Unsure of the difference between a deferral and a waitlist decision? Want to know what you can do to make your application more attractive so that you ultimately get admitted into your dream school? Read on to find out! Colleges may offer deferrals and waitlists during their admissions process, but they are not the same. We will go over what each is, plus provide tips for making your application as strong as possible for either option.

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Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

What is Deferral?

Deferral means that the college you applied to, as an Early Decision or Early Action applicant, has decided to delay a decision until it reviews regular decision applicants. A deferral is not a “no.” Instead, it’s “let’s take another look and we’ll decide later.” Also, deferral does not mean that you did anything wrong. There are various factors we’ll discuss below that lead colleges to defer students until the spring.

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Why Do Colleges Defer?

Deferral is a possible outcome when you apply to college as an early decision or early action applicant. Since 2020, the number of students applying during early rounds has increased tremendously. Last year, more than 450 colleges offered an early admissions plan, and colleges saw record applications. You can expect the same in 2023. Many students believe that applying early leads to better admissions chances. The reality is that colleges have not increased open slots. Therefore, competition for early admission is fierce, and most applicants will be denied or deferred until the spring.

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In 2020, more than 450 colleges offered an early admissions plan, and colleges saw record applications.

Deferral Statistics

If you applied early and received a deferral letter from your dream college, you are not alone. College data shows that admissions offices are routinely doling out more deferral letters than acceptance and denial letters combined. For example, Harvard deferred 80% of the 10,086 students who applied for admission to the Class of 2025. Also, last year, 15,081 students applied Early Action to MIT. Of those applicants, 719 secured admission. The MIT admissions committee deferred 71% to the Regular Decision round. That’s 10,673 students! Georgetown, which only admitted 11% of early applications, deferred the other 7,751 applicants not accepted to the regular decision round under the early admissions program. 

While statistics change yearly, social and economic factors can impact deferral statistics. When the University of Chicago adopted a test-optional policy in 2018, deferral numbers increased as the University saw record applications, growing to 34,900 and yielding an overall acceptance rate of 5.9%. Other colleges experienced higher deferral rates during the pandemic due to increased applicants from test-optional policies.

What is Waitlisted?

Applying to college comes with the possibility of being placed on a waitlist, meaning that you have met all the qualifications, but the school is unable to offer you a spot at that exact moment. Being placed on a waitlist is not a rejection, but means the college couldn’t find you a spot. In 2019, National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), conducted a survey and found that over 82% of selective colleges use a waitlist.

Why Do Colleges Waitlist?

In the admissions process, colleges often accept more students than they can actually accommodate. There may not be enough spots for everyone, so a waitlist is a tool that colleges use to ensure that the college gets the desired number of enrolled students. When accepted students decline their offers, the college can fill any remaining slots from the waitlist. For some colleges, particularly more competitive colleges, the waitlist is a courtesy to lessen the blow of being flat out denied to highly qualified applicants.

What Are My Chances of Getting Off the Waitlist?

Out of all those who accepted a place on the waitlist at these universities, 7 percent received an admission offer. 2020-2021 admissions stats showed a decline in waitlisted applicants being accepted. Only 15 percent of waitlist applicants were accepted, compared to 32% of those waitlisted being accepted for the Class of 2024. 

However, for the most selective universities, it can seem nearly impossible to get off the waitlist. According the US News, there are 10 schools in the US that admitted less than 3% of applicants from the waitlist. Schools listed include:

  1. Chapman University (California) – 1.5%
  2. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) – 1.8%
  3. Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) – 2.6%
  4. Renssalear Polytechnic University (New York) – 2.8%
  5. Case Western University (Ohio) – 3.7%
  6. Carnegie Mellon University (Pennslyvania) – 3.9%
  7. Villanova University (Pennsylvania) – 4.0%
  8. Southern Methodist University (Texas) – 4.2%
  9. University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) – 4.2%
  10. Cornell University (New York) – 4.4%

Deferred vs. Waitlisted: Which is Better?

There is no such thing as one being better than the other.  They are two different outcomes that are related to when you apply. Being deferred happens after you apply in the Early Action or Early Decision rounds and the college decides it cannot provide a decision right now. Your application has been deferred to the Regular Decision round and you will be considered with a larger pool of applicants.

Being waitlisted generally happens only after the Regular Decision round, when your application has been considered alongside of all of your peers, but all the spots of the incoming class are  full. 

Both outcomes will create uncertainty for you. You may be hesitant to move forward and commit to another school that has admitted you, until that college has given you a final decision.

Why Was I Deferred from College?

As more students apply to college during the early admissions cycle, you can expect to be deferred or waitlisted from at least one of the colleges you apply to.

The admissions committee is delaying their decision until they have examined you against regular admissions pool applicants. Being deferred from college doesn’t mean the school will not eventually accept you in the regular admissions round. The admissions committee may have additional questions about your candidacy or too many students of your profile type and want to make sure they have considered other candidates before returning to your file. This comparative evaluation allows them to make a more informed decision about your potential fit within the incoming class.

Importantly, being deferred does not equate to an outright rejection, and there are several reasons why colleges opt for this path, including:

  • Yield: Refers to the number of students who, if admitted, are likely to accept the offer of admission and actually enroll at the institution. Admissions committees aim to admit students who are genuinely interested in attending, as high yield rates are favorable for the college’s reputation. If they are unsure about your commitment, they might defer your application to gauge your level of interest.
  • Value: What unique qualities, experiences, or perspectives do you bring to the incoming class? Admissions committees seek to create a diverse and well-rounded student body. If they feel that they’ve already admitted a sufficient number of applicants with similar profiles to yours, they may defer your application to ensure a more balanced class composition.
  • GPA and other qualifications: Sometimes, colleges defer applicants because they may have questions or concerns about specific aspects of your application, such as your GPA or qualifications. They might want to see your senior year grades, additional standardized test scores, or any updates to your academic or extracurricular achievements. This extra information can help clarify their decision-making process.

Despite the initial disappointment that comes with being deferred, it’s essential to remember that this isn’t the end of the road. Resist succumbing to negative thoughts. Consider it an opportunity to enhance your application and improve your chances in the regular admissions round. Use this extended time period to continue excelling academically, pursue meaningful extracurricular activities, and perhaps even submit supplementary materials that strengthen your candidacy.

Additionally, crafting a compelling Letter of Continued Interest (which we’ll discuss later) can address any concerns the admissions committee may have regarding yield and value, ultimately increasing your chances of securing admission when the final decisions are made in the spring or late summer. So, while the wait may feel like a period of uncertainty, it’s also a window of opportunity to bolster your application and position yourself for success.

Harvard deferred 80% of the 10,086 students who applied for admission to the Class of 2025.

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What To Do After Being Deferred or Waitlisted from College?

It’s important to follow the steps below to maximize your chances of admission after being placed on the deferral list.

Read the deferral or waitlist letter

If you receive a deferral letter from a college or university, it can be disheartening to hear that your application has not been accepted or rejected outright. However, it’s important to follow the instructions provided in the deferral letter to ensure that you give yourself the best chance of admission.

One important thing to keep in mind is that each college or university may have different instructions for what to do next. Some deferral letters may explicitly state that you should not send additional materials or information. In this case, it’s important to follow these instructions carefully and resist the temptation to send anything new. Sending additional materials could actually hurt your chances of admission.

On the other hand, if the deferral letter does allow for additional materials, carefully consider what you want to include. 

Send additional materials

Sending additional materials to a college after being deferred can be a strategic move, but it’s crucial to be selective and thoughtful about what you include. You should only send materials that will significantly enhance your application and show the admissions committee something new or noteworthy about your candidacy that you were not able to include in your initial application. Here are some examples of materials you might consider sending:

  1. Updates on Academic Achievements: If you have achieved any significant academic accomplishments since you submitted your application, such as earning high grades in challenging courses, receiving academic awards or recognition, or scoring well on standardized tests, be sure to include this information in your letter.

  2. New Extracurricular Activities: If you have taken on new leadership roles or participated in new extracurricular activities since applying, it’s worth sharing this with the admissions committee. Highlight how these experiences have contributed to your personal growth and your continued commitment to making a positive impact in your community.

  3. Demonstrated Interest: Share any additional ways that you have demonstrated your interest in the college since you submitted your application. This could include attending a virtual information session, participating in a virtual campus tour, or connecting with current students or alumni.

Decide where the school ranks on your list

While you may have fantasized about attending what you thought was your dream college, now that you’re deferred, there may be other schools you previously overlooked. This experience may have brought more clarity of your school choices. There is still plenty of time to apply to colleges as deadlines can go as late as February 1. Many others have rolling admissions, which means there is no deadline, so they take applications as long as seats are open. Take advantage of this time to open up your options. You may end up preferring another school over the one that deferred or waitlisted you.

Write a Letter of Continued Interest

If the deferral or waitlist letter does not discourage you from sending materials, write a Letter of Continued Interest (LOCI). Many schools invite students to send a letter of continued interest. The letter of continued interest that you write should not be about your disappointment in not being admitted, not seeing yourself anywhere else, or how wonderful you are. Instead, an effective letter of continued interest is a love letter to the college that pulls at the heartstrings of the admissions officer. It’s a statement of how well-fitting you are, speaks specifically to the college, and reiterates your admissions as an opportunity to invest in a young person with a lot of promise if attending the right institution.

Beef up your resume

The college may also allow you to share additional materials. I recommend students share a resume with any updates since application submissions, live links to YouTube channels or digital portfolios that showcase unique talents, as well as fall grades and standardized test scores.

Take more standardized tests

And when it comes to standardized test scores, reporting scores to colleges that value test scores can help. Even if they have extended test-optional policies, highly selective colleges want high test scores unless you fall into a category of students who are a recruitment priority. So here’s an important word of caution: only submit scores if you fall in the middle 50 percent range of last year’s incoming admitted class.

Ask for a recommendation letter

You may also benefit from additional letters of support to describe your match for the college. The college may have recommendation letters on file, so try to find another perspective. Ideally an alumnus of the school, you’ll want someone who can speak to your fit and passion for the school and the academic promise you show. If you cannot find someone affiliated with the college, then a recommendation letter from someone familiar with your alignment with the college can be effective.

Visit the college

Also, if possible, visit the college, especially if you have never stepped foot on campus. While many colleges don’t track demonstrated interest, it’s easier for admissions to move past concerns that you won’t attend if you’ve actually visited and can speak concretely about your fit for the college. Finally,  if offered, set up an interview to meet with a campus representative to express your enthusiasm for the college.

Connect with your admissions officer

Unless discouraged in the deferral or waitlist notification letter, until the college posts their final  decision, keep in touch with your admissions officer. To get started, you can thank them for reviewing your application and inform them you have followed instructions shared in the deferral or waitlist letter. On a monthly basis, send an email to stay on their radar as a student who’s very excited about the institution.

Keep up your As

This should go without saying, but you must keep your grades as high as possible and show incremental improvement through the end of the first semester. Colleges may require a grade report as part of your continued interest package. Academic performance will matter until the end, so don’t slip in your classwork.

Sample Letter of Continued Interest #1

Dear Admissions Committee:

My application was recently deferred to the regular decision application pool for the class of 2026. I am writing to express my continued interest in the University of Notre Dame. I have been very particular in my college search, utilizing every avenue to learn about Notre Dame, from online research, a deep dive into the school's website, and a virtual tour. Also, last summer, I participated in a summer program and visited campus in August 2021. I have learned enough about Notre Dame to know that it checks every box. I am looking to attend a school that will provide a rigorous education deeply rooted in the Catholic faith–where academic inquiry and pursuit of excellence drive professors, students, and a spirited community. I find it difficult to picture myself anywhere else but in South Bend.

Notre Dame offers the intense undergraduate-focused education I am looking for–passionate professors, extensive research opportunities, and a collaborative environment. Last summer, when I participated in the Intro to Engineering Program, I had the chance to work closely with several Notre Dame professors, including Dr. Ramzi. His enthusiasm and passion for the school and for my peers and me were beyond evident. Dr. Bualuan carefully led us through how to use our Arduino kits, teaching the fundamentals of programming, voltage, and currents, mixing in his passion for salsa dancing along the way. As an electrical engineer, this activity was easy for him, but he put himself in our shoes, answering my basic questions carefully. Dr. Bualuan, as with other Notre Dame professors I met over the summer, showed that they love to learn and care about the success of their students.

Notre Dame's commitment to scholarly research as a critical part of the undergraduate experience is evident given the clear path to begin even as a first-year student. I would participate in the Biology department's Introduction to Undergraduate Research course to get started in the laboratory working on an actual research project and learning how to analyze and present data. The department has a large faculty pursuing many different research interests, but I am particularly intrigued by Professor D'Souza-Schorey's research into cell signaling and the progression of invasive cancer. I would be thrilled to join her lab, collaborating with her and my classmates to make a larger impact on the world, even as an undergraduate student.

When I first stepped foot on Notre Dame's campus, I noticed the school's big campus feel and that students genuinely looked happy. I loved the joy that Notre Dame students shared by naming campus landmarks like "touchdown Jesus" and "God Quad." Coming from a large high school, I know that size and reputation translate to opportunities, diversity, and vibrant campus life. I look forward to joining the Bandlink club to share my passion for music with local elementary students as well as the festivities of An Tostal when my first year draws to a close. At Notre Dame, I would join a class of over 2,000 students from diverse backgrounds, bringing together new perspectives and experiences to initiate open discussion and foster creativity. I would easily find communities to interact with and grow as a person, the first being my dorm community. I look forward to participating in dorm traditions from the Badin Breakdown to Totter for Water.

Notre Dame's school spirit and deep sense of community are truly unmatched. At the beginning of the fall semester, while grabbing a smoothie at the Eddy Street Purely Pressed, I remember watching students returning to campus for the first time since the pandemic. I could feel each student's enthusiasm for Notre Dame and the relationships this community builds, all starting from a shared love for the school. The students came together as if no time had passed, even though they had been apart for a year. Next year, I imagine myself as a Fighting Irish—cheering at football weekends, joining the Band of the Fighting Irish, and rock climbing at Duncan Student Center.

Most importantly, Notre Dame provides opportunities to help me grow in my Catholic faith through the many offerings of Campus Ministry. I'm excited to participate in the First Year Retreat with my new classmates at the beginning of our university experience. I look forward to attending Mass in my residence hall chapel as I continue my faith journey and work toward discerning God's will for my future. At Notre Dame, I know I can feel safe exploring my Catholic identity while also learning about and supporting other peers' belief systems.

Given my strong desire to attend Notre Dame, I can only assume that my initial application had not fully captured my excitement. So, now I am writing in the hopes of conveying the honor it would be to attend. If accepted, I have the utmost confidence I would enroll. Please know that I would not take enrollment lightly. As a student, I would be among scholars and traditions that capture the passion for pursuing an education centered around Notre Dame's core values of academic freedom, service, and respect for religious inquiry. Every day, I will remember this and do my best to excel in all I pursue at the university.

Also, since I submitted my application, I have some updates I would like to share: (1) Marching Band: We won the state championship under my direction as drum major. I have added a link to my marching band highlights video to the portal. (2) School Orchestra: I was also selected to perform in my school's pit orchestra in our rendition of the musical Les Miserables with a 900 member audience per night. (3) AP Physics C class: This is the hardest class at my school, and it certainly has been a challenge as I failed my first test on kinematics. Since then, I have raised my overall grade to a B+. In my dedication to learning the material, I have proven to myself that I can learn highly abstract and technical information, persevere and succeed.

The updates are included in my resume, as well as a research paper on COVID-19 vaccine development where I placed 3rd in the State of New Jersey.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing Notre Dame's decision this spring.


Sample Letter of Continued Interest #2

Dear Admissions Officer:

I am writing to express my continued interest in attending Fordham University. As one of my top choices for college, Fordham's academic programs, location, and commitment to service align perfectly with my goals and aspirations.

Since submitting my initial application, I have achieved several notable accomplishments that I believe would make me a strong candidate for admission. In my senior year, I have maintained a 4.0 GPA while taking a challenging course load that includes advanced placement classes in calculus, literature, and biology. Additionally, I was recently awarded the National Merit Scholarship in recognition of my academic achievements.

Outside of the classroom, I have remained active in several extracurricular activities, including volunteering at a local soup kitchen and participating in Model United Nations. I am also an avid musician and have played the cello in my school's orchestra for four years.

My interest in Fordham is not only academic, but personal as well. Several members of my family have attended the university, and I have always admired their stories of the close-knit community and the opportunities they received to pursue their passions.

Fordham's commitment to service aligns with my own values and I am eager to contribute to the community through service initiatives and student organizations.

Thank you for your consideration of my application. I remain committed and enthusiastic about attending Fordham University and would be honored to have the opportunity to join the Class of 2027.


Sample Letter of Continued Interest #3

Dear Dean Nondorf:

My application was recently deferred to the regular application round for the class of 2025. I am writing to express my continued interest in the University of Chicago. Ever since I can remember, I've pictured myself as a Maroon. Growing up, I would visit Chicago with my family, and I'd walk through the campus imagining myself playing frisbee with the students in Midway Plaisance. Later, I'd visit campus as a high school junior, staying at Burton-Judson Houses with a second-year student studying Economics. In the dead of Chicago winter, we spent the night discussing Marx while playing fuzzball in the recreation room. Seeing the excitement shared by students about the classics in social settings made me feel right at home.

Moreover, I know that UChicago offers the intense education I expect in an institution–late nights at the Regenstein Library, ten weeks of a rigorous curriculum, professions who love teaching undergraduates, and opportunities to use the South Side of Chicago as a learning laboratory.

I can only assume that previously I had not fully captured my excitement for UChicago in my initial application. So, now I'm writing to profess that the honor of my life would be the opportunity to attend. Please know that I would not take enrollment lightly. As a student, I'd be among scholars and traditions that celebrate the life of the mind. Every day, I will remember this and do my best to excel in all I pursue at the College.

Also, since I submitted my application on October 27, 2020, I have received several honors, including the Watson Prize for Economic Inquiry. This award is given to students who show promise in economics and is a national competition. I've also attached an updated resume with this information added to it, along with links to the white paper I wrote.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration. If you need additional information or have questions, please let me know. Otherwise, I look forward to hearing UChicago's decision this spring.


Analysis of Sample LOCIs

Both letters make a strong case for a college to continue considering their applications without sounding disappointed or bitter. The letters clearly reference emotional connections they have to the schools, which impress admissions officers. Moreover, they offer additional details on new projects and activities they’ve done to show the value they’d bring to the incoming class pool.

Remember, a great letter of continuing interest will contain these elements:

  1. Genuine enthusiasm: Your letter should convey your sincere and enthusiastic interest in attending the college. Share specific reasons why you are excited about the college, such as its academic programs, location, or student culture.

  2. Relevant updates: Provide updates on any new achievements or developments since you submitted your initial application. This could include recent academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, or internships.

  3. Personal connection: Share any personal connections you have with the college or its community, such as family members who attended the college or experiences that have shaped your desire to attend.

  4. Concise and clear: Your letter should be well-organized and easy to read. Use clear and concise language to convey your message effectively.

  5. Professional tone: Your letter should be written professionally and free of errors. Consider having a teacher or mentor review your letter before you send it.

  6. Timely submission: Make sure to submit your letter of continuing interest in a timely manner, preferably within a few weeks of being waitlisted. This shows the admissions committee that you are actively engaged and committed to attending the college.

Conclusion + Next Steps

Being deferred is not a definite no. So, don’t panic. After being deferred from college, it’s important that you use this time to follow the steps outlined in this post. Start here and download this Deferral Letter of Continued Interest template. 

Also, check out this post to learn how to continue demonstrating interest in the college to increase your chances for admissions.

And hopefully, if you are ultimately accepted, be sure that you send a Thank You note. This is a step that is often overlooked but is a courtesy for the time and attention the admissions officer put into evaluating your application.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.