One reason that students are waitlisted is because the university is not convinced you’ll accept the offer back. And in many cases, the colleges are right.

I just received a call from a student with fantastic news: She was just accepted to UC Berkeley. Cal was ranked much higher on her list than Notre Dame, where she had been waitlisted just a week earlier. “Next step: Pull yourself off of the waitlist at Notre Dame!” I said.
“No, no,” she responded. “I need to get off the Notre Dame waitlist. I need it in my back pocket, just in case.”
I might understand this attitude if she had a clear admit to Notre Dame. After all, because of Covid, this high school senior had never visited either campus, and each represented two very different kinds of student lifestyle and learning environment. But she was waitlisted at Notre Dame.
“So, Notre Dame got it right,” I said. “Notre Dame correctly assumed that you would get into a college that you preferred over them.”
At so many colleges and universities right now, the waitlist status is its way of saying, “We’d love to have you, but we aren’t certain that you’re really going to come here.” Waitlisting you puts the ball back in your court: How hard are you going to lobby? Are you going to be persuasive when you tell the college or university that you will accept the offer back?
Let’s be clearer: You have the task of convincing a school you want “in your back pocket” that you’ll accept the offer if it’s given to you. That’s not easy. I would argue that it’s not ethical, either. The sooner you withdraw from a school you won’t attend, the easier you’re making it for everyone else who actually wants that school as their first choice. This is even true if you are waitlisted. In this particular student’s case, I am sure Notre Dame would love to accept her if they were convinced she would attend. Pulling herself off the waitlist gives another waitlisted student a chance.
Why does my student want Notre Dame in her back pocket? Because she’s what I call a “trophy hunter”: a student interested in bragging rights of all the schools she got in. This is a metaphorical remix of the same song she had decried in an essay: boys who only date girls for the boast.
Universities know all about trophy hunters. Nobody wants to be the University of Maybe-I’ll-Go. No college wants to be a notch on your belt. The only way you’re going to get off that waitlist is to convince them you will attend.
But if you are absolutely determined to widen your options, you have to make up “a story.” A story is a work of fiction—like your desire to attend a certain university that you really just want in your back pocket. If you are creative enough to write such a compelling letter of intent, and you are willing to screw over all the people on the waitlist who really do want to attend…then maybe you want to go to that university more than you are currently willing to admit.
Or maybe you’re just not living your values. That’s the approach I took with this student. She believes deeply (or so she said) in equity and inclusion, in making the world a better place, in creating a planet where people don’t lead with self-interest but with social enhancement. I asked her to remember what she wrote about in her essays and talked about in her interviews.
Thank God a lightbulb went on over my student’s head and she returned back to being that bright, highly capable, honest and fair student I know her to be. She pulled herself from the Notre Dame waitlist.
Live your values and be honest with your intentions. It’s the right thing to do.