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Articles / Applying to College / Understanding Waitlists

Understanding Waitlists

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 19, 2020
Understanding Waitlists


Anxious excitement among seniors waiting for Regular Decision verdicts is reaching its peak now. The remaining two weeks of March will reveal elation, disappointment and ambiguity. Today, I want to discuss the King of College Admissions Ambiguity: the waitlist.

Many RD decisions have yet to be delivered, especially from the Ivy League and other so-called "elites," but will be shortly. Every year after decisions have been issued, I receive many queries from confused applicants and frustrated parents about wait-listing. The College Confidential discussion forum also percolates with many similar questions. Waitlists are where colleges use to hedge their enrollment bets and stack the deck in their own favor at the expense of their applicant pools.

Waiting Can Be Challenging

Think of a waitlist as a college's inventory of "on deck" admits. If a college doesn't get enough enrollment commitments by May 1 (some colleges have pushed that date out to June 1 this year due to the coronavirus situation) to meet their targets, they go to their waitlist and try to make up the difference. The sports-roster analogy would be reserve players. Injuries (enrollment shortfalls) are covered by players on the bench (waitlist).

Has a college placed you on the bench? The truth is that we don't like to wait. The attitude of our culture these days is what I call 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 any inconvenience. And, speaking of the coronavirus, it looks like at least for the near future, restaurants (those that remain open) will be serving their customers only via drive-up/takeout service. Interesting times we live in!

If your admission decisions include a dreaded wait-listing or two, you may be thinking, "So, just tell me if I'm in or out! I can manage rejection. It will hurt, but I can deal with it. If I'm in, then great! 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 agony of purgatory!" That's what I would be thinking.

Navigating a Gray Area

Waitlists are real, and every year they're filled with great kids like you. I write this not to be the bearer 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.

I've written about waitlists before:

Being wait-listed at your "dream" school can be exceptionally frustrating. There's the economic aspect. You have to enroll somewhere, so you must commit to one of the schools who judged you to be clearly worthy of attending. That leads to the possibility that if your waitlist campaign is successful, you will have to withdraw your enrollment from the "bridesmaid" school where you paid your commitment deposit and, naturally, sacrifice those dollars.

Speaking of bridesmaids, there's also the psychological aspect of being wait-listed at your dream school. If you are eventually denied, you may make the mistake of thinking about the school you do attend as being second best, a kind of consolation prize. Well, let me tell you that this is completely wrong and such a mindset will undermine your chances to have a positive, bonding experience at your school. Truth is, though, that nearly everyone who doesn't get into their first-choice college and enrolls in an "alternate" school finds that school to be a wonderful match. Things tend to work out for the best ...

Is being wait-listed a dream-ending event? Not always:

There is that famous example from Jacques Steinberg's book, The Gatekeepers, about the admissions process at Wesleyan University. Even though this anecdote documents an event from years ago, it may inspire you to persist.

Carter Bays '97 got waitlisted — and then sent the office of admissions a postcard every day for a month. Acclaimed today as the award-winning writer and producer of How I Met Your Mother, Carter Bays '97 was just an aspiring playwright from Shaker Heights, Ohio, when he applied to Wes in 1992. He got waitlisted, so he did what any other student would do: he attempted to 'prove that I am worthy of attending your school' by sending the office of admissions a new postcard every day for weeks. Office staff members began to race to the mailbox to get his latest note; eventually, they vouched for him and pushed his name to the top of the waitlist pile. At Wesleyan, he ended up becoming editor of The Ampersand; today, he's apparently really embarrassed by his articles. After he graduated, the same admissions staffers typed his name into the alumni database to check his first job. The answer: 'Staff Writer, The Late Show with David Letterman.'" ...

The Boston Globe's Beth Teitell offers some more insight:

The college waitlist has become an anxiety-producing reality of today's college application process. With high schoolers applying to more schools, and acceptance rates important to a university's reputation and its bottom line, wait lists have swelled, along with the hopes of the students on them ...

families who can afford it often put down a deposit at one school, but remain on the waitlist at another that they prefer.

Many families are perfectly willing to forfeit their deposit if, by some chance, their child is taken off the waitlist and offered admission to his/her top choice. The average percentage of students accepted off waitlists was 25.4 percent* in fall 2012, according to industry statistics, but at selective schools, the percentage can be much lower.

*Update: In 2016, colleges admitted about 23 percent of their wait-listed students, according to NACAC. For more selective colleges, the percentage was far less — only 14 percent — and this percentage can fluctuate widely from year to year.

But playing that game means a student must wait past the May 1 date [maybe June 1 this year at some schools], while their classmates gleefully announce their choices on Facebook

Statistics on the total number of kids stuck in the waitlist holding pattern are hard to come by, but the director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Virginia, says the past decade has seen "a marked increase in the number of students being placed on wait lists by colleges and universities."...

Students and high school guidance counselors are not the only ones who are unhappy with the supersized lists. At Boston University, Kelly Walter, the executive director of admissions, says that while the wait list can provide an "opportunity" for a student, "I also understand that colleges and universities have a certain responsibility to be realistic. We all have probably gone a little overboard in recent years."

Now there's an understatement! To reinforce that thought, I'll steer you to a terrific resource of waitlist information. Here's what they say about waitlists before offering an extremely informative list of 184 colleges and universities (updated August 2019) that shows for each the number of applicants wait-listed, how many accepted their waitlist offers, and the number ultimately admitted.

Being waitlisted isn't as crushing a result as being rejected, but it can feel like you've been exiled to admissions purgatory. It's important to know if your waitlisted status means you still have a serious shot at being admitted to your first-choice university or if it's the equivalent of a Powerball ticket. For example, at Middlebury, Brandeis, Georgetown, Tulane, and UPenn somewhere between zero and 20 students are likely to be plucked from the waitlist. On the other hand, Colorado College, Cornell, Lehigh, Williams, and William & Mary all took more than 60 students off of their waitlists. The following table indicates waitlist statistics at some of America's most selective colleges and universities for the 2018-19 academic year. Data was collected from each institution's 2018-19 Common Data Set (CDS).

Waitlists Serve Two Purposes

Waitlists serve two main purposes: (1) as a resource to keep dorm beds filled and (2) (sometimes) as a tool to avoid issuing an outright rejection.

Princeton University's late admissions dean, Fred Hargadon, once said that he created his waitlists because Princeton received far too many qualified applicants. He revealed that his waitlists were his way of saying, "You were good enough to get in, but we just didn't have enough room for you."

My wish for all of you: May your decisions be either "Yes!" or "No" with not a "Wait" among them.

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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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