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Articles / Applying to College / What is a Wait List?

Feb. 11, 2002

What is a Wait List?

Question: What is a Wait List?

A wait list is sort of the purgatory of college admissions. When you end up on a wait list, you're in the twilight zone; you're not in but you're not out. You're sort of on-call.


Wait lists are a kind of hedge against the unpredictability of accepted students enrolling at a college. From many years of experience, colleges know rather precisely what percentage of the total number of students offered admission will enroll. That percentage is called yield.

For example, if a college is looking to admit a freshman class of 1,000 students, they may offer 2,000 students admission. That's because they know their yield is almost always around 50 percent. If their yield were historically 25 percent, they would offer 4,000 students admission, and so forth.

Sometimes, however, the yield flies in the face of history. When more than the expected number of students enroll (exceeding historical yield), temporary housing has to be acquired and there is a strain on college resources. When fewer than expected students enroll, colleges go to their wait lists and offer admission to those who are "in waiting." This way, the college makes certain that the incoming freshman class is the right size.

The wait list can serve other purposes. At super-selective schools, where there are many more qualified applicants than can be accommodated, applicants are wait listed as a consolation. Instead of being turned down for admission, they are put on the wait list, the implication being, "We wish we could have admitted you, but there wasn't room." Diplomacy lives.

The likelihood of being admitted from the wait list is small. Some schools wait list 500-600 applicants. Your only chance is to undertake a heavy-duty marketing effort with the admissions office. Even then, your chances are small.

My personal opinion about being wait listed is to accept the fact that you "almost" made it and then get on with the business of enrolling in another quality school. If you get the call from the list, then you have another opportunity to enroll at what might be the right school for you.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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