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Articles / Applying to College / Waiting And Waitlists

Waiting And Waitlists

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 7, 2016

Post-New Year’s January: Application hangover time. The late-December frenzy to get college applications in before the January 1st deadline isn’t all that unlike the massive crowd in Times Square, New York, waiting for The Ball to do its thing. There’s great anticipation, and for out-of-towners, it may have taken work and sacrifice to get there.

Then The Ball drops, there’s momentary celebration, and then it’s back to whatever was going on in all those lives before the New Year’s Eve excitement. That’s kind of like where we are now, here in the first full week of January. The sacrifice, work, and anticipation that went into late-December college applications has now been spent. The dropping of The Ball is like the closing of the mailbox lid, putting both a visual and audible closure to the process.

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.

I’ve written about waitlists before here. Back in April, I noted:

Being waitlisted 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 waitlisted 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 waitlisted “fatal,” or a dream-smashing event? Hardly, as I noted:

Reacting to a waitlisting takes many forms. There is that famous example from Jacques Steinberg’s book, The Gatekeepers, about the admissions process at Wesleyan University:

“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, writing in a recent article, declared:

… The college wait list 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.

Thursday, May 1, was the day students needed to put down deposits — a few hundred dollars, generally nonrefundable — with their chosen college or university. But families who can afford it often put down a deposit at one school, but remain on the wait list at another that they prefer.

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

But playing that game means a student must wait past the May 1 date, while their classmates gleefully announce their choices on Facebook. …

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

At Princeton, for example, 1,141 students were offered spots on the wait list for fall 2014 — up from 585 for fall 2003. Bates College in Maine offered wait-list spots to 1,595 applicants for fall 2014, compared with 841 spots offered in 2003. Brandeis offered 755 applicants a wait-list spot for fall 2003, compared with 1,347 for fall 2012, the most recent numbers available.

In two cases that have become notorious in wait-list circles, MIT and Stanford took zero students from their lists for the freshman class that entered last fall [2013]. …

… 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.” …

Hardy har har! Now there’s an understatement! Walter’s comment reminds me of what Robert Redford said to Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, after Newman exploded a railroad car into spectacular bits: “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” Think you waitlisted enough applicants there, Kelly?

So, hopefully, some words to the wise. Keep in mind that colleges are always trying to stack the deck in their favor. Waitlists generally serve two main purposes: (1) an insurance policy to guarantee that schools will never have an empty bed in any dorm, and (2) (sometimes) as a buffer to ease the pain of outright rejection.

Princeton University’s former (now late) admissions dean, Fred Hargadon, once said that he populated his waitlists because Princeton received far too may qualified applicants. He offered that the waitlist was his way of saying, “You were certainly good enough to get in, but we just didn’t have enough room for you.”

My New Year’s wish for all you Regular Decision applicants: May your decisions be clearly either “Yes!” or “No.” May none of them be “Wait.”


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at 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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