Getting Off Ivy League Wait Lists

Question: My daughter has been wait-listed at Harvard and Cornell. What is the likelihood of acceptance for students in that situation?

Being in wait-list limbo can be very frustrating, but please take solace in the fact that only outstanding students get even that far at places like Harvard and Cornell. Your daughter is in elite company, but, unfortunately, chances are she’ll stay there and not ever leave the purgatory of the wait list. The top colleges tend to put hundreds—even thousands— of applicants on their waiting lists, and the vast majority will go no further.

Colleges use wait lists for several purposes. The first is to make sure they fill all their beds in September. Most admission officials are good at estimating their “yield,” (the number of admitted students who say yes), but, when the yield is lower than usual, students are admitted from the wait list. Top priority may be given to children of prominent alumni or other VIP’s (who may have been creating a stir with friends in high places since the decision letters went out), to athletes, or to other applicants with special circumstances.

Colleges, too, typically use the wait list to commend strong candidates who didn’t quite make the final cut by offering something that seems a bit more positive than an out-and-out rejection. There is also what some admission folks call “courtesy wait-listing.” That’s when an applicant with some special connections or unusual situation is put on the wait list instead of denied flat out, but with the understanding—at least among admission staff—that he or she will never rise beyond that. (Some colleges insist they don’t do courtesy wait-listing, but most do.)

This year, Cornell was reported to have put 13% of its 20,000+ applicants on the wait list. We don’t have Harvard’s numbers, but you could certainly contact them and ask. Expect to be discouraged when you hear the reply. You will also be told that the wait list isn’t ranked, so you won’t get any sense of where your daughter stands. Until after May 1 (Candidates’ Reply Date) colleges really don’t know how many—if any—students will be admitted from the waiting list. At schools like Harvard and Cornell, however, that figure is typically small—a mere fraction of the number of hopefuls eager for good news.

Ordinarily, we advise wait-listed students to stay in frequent contact with admission offices and to submit details about new awards or achievements, but only if they’re significant. (For instance, winning a state competition would certainly be worth reporting; being named “Student of the Week” in the local newspaper is not, even though it’s nothing to sneeze at and certainly fodder for the fridge door.)

Often we suggest that an appropriate “gimmick” might help. For instance, if your daughter’s application touts her talents as a musician, she could compose a piece that is specific to the college you’re courting (e.g., “Cornell Concerto,” or “Rhapsody in Crimson”); budding poets might write verse; an artist could paint a campus picture.

At the rarefied level your daughter aiming for, however, these cutesy things will have less impact than they might elsewhere because few students are likely to come off those lists and those who do will often be the special cases cited above.

Of course, it never hurts to try, but your daughter’s best bet is probably to allow herself to further investigate—and get excited about—those colleges and universities that did accept her. If she came close with Harvard and Cornell, we assume she must have some fine choices indeed.

[College Confidential also offers a Waitlist Reversal service provided by our professional college counselors.]