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Articles / Applying to College / Ready ... Set ... Wait!

Ready ... Set ... Wait!

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 19, 2017

Last time here, I discussed the consequences and psychological fallout of the December ED/EA deferral. There can be real uncertainty and even a little agony associated with being deferred right before the year-end holidays.

However, there is something worse: the dreaded waitlist (or “wait list," if your spellchecker doesn't like the one-word approach). As I said last year about this time, in case you forgot:

… For those of you who have submitted your Regular Decision applications, those that were generally due January 1, you have now entered the Sober Zone. The thrill, excitement, and rush of completing and sending them in is over. It's now back to normal, or as close to that as possible. Maybe even things were never all that normal for you in the first place. In any case, you're now facing that long winter stretch from now to Decision Day, which will come in late March or early April, depending on which schools got your application(s).

What's lurking for you there, in the early days of spring? I'm hoping it's good news for you, both in realm of acceptances and financial aid. However, there is one outcome that can blunt your situation — the dreaded waitlist.

We don't like to wait. The attitude of our culture these days is analogous to the drive-up-window mentality. We don't want to have to park our cars, get out, go inside, and transact our business. We want it now, without so much as a shred of inconvenience.

“So, just tell me!" you're thinking. “Tell me if I'm in or out of your college. I can manage rejection. It will hurt, but I can deal with it. If I'm in, then great! You've made my day. But p-l-e-a-s-e, don't tell me that I'm good enough to get in, but you're not yet sure that you'll have room for me. Don't put me into the exquisite agony of purgatory!" you plead.

Well, boys and girls, waitlists are real and every year they are filled with great kids like you. I write this not to be the bringer of bad news, but rather to suggest that you keep “waitlist" in mind. The world of college admissions is not perfectly black and white. Sometimes it can be very gray. …

Is there anything worse than being waitlisted? I've known high seniors who have been deferred in December and then waitlisted in the spring … at the same college! In case you just parachuted in and are unfamiliar with the term “deferral," here's a refresher:

It's been about a month now since those of you who applied Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) received you decisions. Some of you were admitted. Great news! Others of you may have been outright denied. Not good news, but also not the end of the world.

Finally, some of you, perhaps far too many of you, were deferred. Your applications were bumped into the Regular Decision (RD) pool for judgment. That's just the way “early" programs work. …

Obviously, you're quite aware of the schools where your applications are still active. By “active," I mean schools where you have not applied early and been denied (or “rejected," in common parlance). See the italics immediately above.

If you are like many college-seeking seniors today, you have probably applied to a rather long list of schools. Every year, I usually have a client who applies to 20 colleges. Back in my day (when there was still primordial slime), if someone applied to more than two or three colleges, we thought they were either paranoid or suffered from a lack of self-esteem.

Anyway, take an inventory of the schools on your list and check it against this list: 10 Colleges Where the Most Applicants Are Wait-Listed. Take note of these choice words:

… For many college applicants, the admissions process is a waiting game – and being placed on a waitlist just adds to the suspense.

Being offered a spot on the waitlist means there's still a chance – though a slim one – of being admitted if space becomes available. Applicants can accept an offer to be placed on a waitlist if they are still interested in the school, or reject the offer if not. Only those who accept are considered for final admission.

Among the 286 ranked colleges that submitted these data to U.S. News in an annual survey, the average percentage of applicants wait-listed for fall 2015 was 10.5 percent. This figure includes applicants for early decision, early action and regular decision.

But among the 10 schools with the highest proportion of wait-listed applicants, the average percentage was significantly higher: 37.8 percent.

Case Western Reserve University in Ohio tops the list, wait-listing 41.4 percent of applicants for fall 2015. Of the 9,446 applicants who fell into this category, 5,119 accepted their spots on the waitlist, and just 518 were ultimately accepted, U.S. News data show. Of the colleges on the list, Case Western also had the highest number of both total and wait-listed applicants.

At the 10 colleges on the list, an average of 43.8 percent of applicants who were offered a place on the waitlist accepted. Of those applicants, an average of just 8.4 percent were admitted. Lehigh University and Bryn Mawr College, both in Pennsylvania, accepted no students off their waitlists for fall 2015.

Most of the schools on the list are either National Universities – meaning that they offer a range of undergraduate majors plus master's and doctoral programs – or National Liberal Arts Colleges, which emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half their degrees in liberal arts disciplines …

This is pretty much a bad news-bad news situation. The bad news: You got waitlisted. The other bad news: Your chances of getting in are slim.

Which schools are these? Here's the list and where they are located:

– Case Western Reserve University (OH)

– University of Richmond (VA)

– Kenyon College (OH)

– Marist College (NY)

– Washington and Lee University (VA)

– Sarah Lawrence College (NY)

– Muhlenberg College (PA)

– Lehigh University (PA)

– Wellesley College (MA)

– Bryn Mawr College (PA)

Case Western Reserve University and the University of Richmond lead the list with 41.4% and 40.8% of their applicants being waitlisted. That's a lot.

Wellesley College and Bryn Mawr College are at the bottom of this list with 30.8% and 30.2% of total applicants being waitlisted. That's still a steep percentage.

Have you applied to any of these Regular Decision? Have you applied early to any of these and been deferred? My advice: You should already have a Plan B in place. When a college waitlists three or four out of every 10 applicants, you stand a good chance of ending up among a large group of purgatory residents, come this spring.

How can you deal with being waitlisted? Well, you can check out my advice here, here, and here.

The clear message U.S. News sends us is this: Be prepared to be a participant in higher education's game show, Max My Yield! The reason why many colleges waitlist so many applicants is to make sure that they can fill every available slot in their incoming classes. Waitlisted applicants “backfill" those enrollment holes. Some schools have a more charitable approach to waitlisting than others do.

Princeton University's former Dean of Admission, the late Fred Hargadon, wrote something along the lines of, “We just had too many wonderful applicants this year and couldn't admit them all, so we didn't have the heart to deny them." This was Fred's heartfelt sympathy for all the great applications he saw every year.

In the case of most heavily waitlisting schools, however, the motive is not so noble. It's strictly business. One could do some deeper math that might show a strong positive correlation between schools with lower enrollment rates and a higher-than-average number of waitlisted applicants. There may or may not be an apparent inverse relationship. Call me cynical. I am.

So, seniors in waiting, be prepared. Be “in waiting" but I hope you're not “in a waitlist" come spring.

I wish you not a “Ready … Set … Wait" but a great “Ready … Set … GO!"


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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