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Is Something Different with Waitlists This Year?

The University of Virginia didn't waste any time. The public university announced this week that it had already admitted 57 students from the waitlist.

This is extremely early for a highly selective university to start admitting students from the waitlist. What does this mean?

The most logical reason an admissions office moves this quickly is that it is already tracking behind in enrollment deposits. Yet, students have over a month to make a final decision. Like many colleges, UVA extended the enrollment deadline from May 1st to May 15th due to ongoing issues and delays with the FAFSA. With this year being so different, UVA may be nervous. Then again, it was only 57 students. Maybe these were students that UVA had planned to admit all along, but had to delay it for optics or other institutional priorities. 
Either way, by getting an early start with the waitlist, UVA can swoop in and admit some students before other colleges make their move. Yield rates (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) of waitlisted students tend to be higher than yield rates of students who get admitted to a college in the normal rounds of admission. In fact, some colleges have been known to use the waitlist in order to keep their acceptance rate as low as possible and increase their yield rate at the same time. Yes, colleges strategize every chance they get.
Will other colleges follow suit? They may have to if UVA admits more students. Again, 57 is a relatively small number in the grand scheme of things. If UVA starts admitting hundreds of students from the waitlist, the dominoes will surely begin to fall. Once a highly desirable college uses the waitlist, there is a predictable ripple effect. Students who were planning to enroll elsewhere get swayed by the college that admitted them from the waitlist. This often leads the student to "jump ship" and not enroll at the first institution where they sent in their original deposit. 
How can you prepare if you have been waitlisted? Always make sure you have accepted your spot on the waitlist. Just because you received a waitlist decision doesn't mean you are automatically considered to be admitted if there is room in the class. You can accept your spot on the waitlist usually through the college's admissions portal or sometimes there is a direct link in the decision letter. 
If permitted, students can submit a "letter of continued interest" as well. Writing a powerful letter expressing your clear desire to attend the college can increase your chances of being admitted from the waitlist. And, be on the lookout for a message in your admissions portal, an email, or even a phone call from the college that waitlisted you. Some colleges use an antiquated strategy called "pre-qualification" in which the student is contacted to gauge their interest in the college "on the spot" before the college admits them from the waitlist. Oftentimes, there is no warning when a college reaches out to pre-qualify you so be ready for anything. 

READ MORE: My One-Step Rule for Deciding What College to Attend

In the end, I try not to read into what UVA did—at least not yet. If UVA continues to admit students from the waitlist leading up to and after the enrollment deadline, that means it is struggling to yield students. Waitlist activity does not typically begin until closer to the deadline for most colleges, which makes me think this year's waitlist season is different. 
The use of the waitlist is a barometer for how desirable colleges are. When a college uses the waitlist, especially this early, it can show cracks in the foundation of the admissions plan or it can hint at a shift in what students are looking for in a college that year. For now, I am going to pay close attention to which colleges use the waitlist and how early they start.