For the admissions office, it’s a critical tool used to control the flow of students admitted to the institution. But for the applicant who has waited six long months for a decision, the wait list feels like a one-way ticket to nowhere.
And for students manipulated by enrollment management systems designed to attract thousands only to admit a select few, all we can say is, “Welcome to purgatory.”
The wait list scenario is particularly frustrating for the subset of applicants who were organized enough to submit early—Early Action, Early Action II, Single Choice Early Action, Restricted Early Action, Early Decision I or even Early Decision II—only to find themselves sitting on one or several wait lists.
And despite what “experts” might say, waitlisted students can only rely on anecdotal evidence as to what has worked in the past to move an application from wait list to admit. What may have been successful last year, won’t necessarily work this time. There are just too many factors at play.
But hope springs eternal.
For the most part, colleges are unapologetic about using the hopes of waitlisted students to further enrollment goals designed to fill freshman classes with the best, brightest and most highly qualified high school students.
And those familiar with the game know the wait list is used to shape a class profile that aspires to be balanced between males and females, is geographically and racially diverse, meets legislated residency requirements, fills the needs of obscure departments or sports teams, and still covers some part of the college operating budget.
“Essentially, the wait list exists to accommodate for demographics that were not met in the initial round of admission offers,” explains Richard Clark, director of undergraduate admissions for Georgia Tech, in a blog post titled, The Wait List Sucks. “If you have the right number of deposits from the West coast, you go to your wait list for more East coast students. If you have enough Chemistry majors, you may be going the wait list for Business students. Ultimately, the job of admission deans and directors is to make and shape the class, as defined by institutional priorities. Meeting target enrollment is critical to bottom line revenue, creating a desired ethos on campus, proliferating the school’s brand, and other factors.”
For the record, wait lists are almost never prioritized and are almost always unpredictable.
And all too often, schools promoting “needs blind” admissions quietly convert to “needs sensitive” when it comes to plucking a few lucky students from the list. Consequently, most bets are off for financial aid if you come through the wait list.
In other words, there’s no ranking, no money, and not much hope.
Sometimes, the list is hardly more than a thinly disguised public relations scam designed to keep agitated parents, alums, and other interested parties at arm’s length. It represents a political solution to an uncomfortable situation.
We can all agree that waitlisted is not a great place to be. If you’ve been accepted or rejected, your status is clear. You can move on with your life. But waitlisted is living with uncertainty.
And at the end of the day, very few waitlisted students are invited to the dance.
Here are some 2016-17 Common Data Set statistics (Question C2) published by a handful of colleges and universities:
Waitlisted: 1269 (582 accepted places on the wait list)
Admitted: 3 (33 in 2015; 61 in 2014; 49 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 1615 (1340 accepted places)
Admitted: 59 (6 in 2015; 21 in 2014; 41 in 2013)
Carnegie Mellon University
Admitted: 7 (4 in 2015; 73 in 2014; 87 in 2013)
College of William and Mary
Waitlisted: 4115 (2037 accepted places)
Admitted: 154 (187 in 2015; 59 in 2014; 96 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 4571 (2874 accepted places)
Admitted: 61 (81 in 2015; 96 in 2014; 168 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 2064 (1194 accepted places)
Admitted: 16 (129 in 2015; 0 in 2014; 87 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 810 (238 accepted places)
Admitted: 29 (0 in 2015; 0 in 2014; 10 in 2013)
George Mason University
Waitlisted: 1218 (839 accepted places)
Admitted: 200 (350 in 2015; 684 in 2014; 252 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 2184 (1249 accepted places)
Admitted: 149 (114 in 2014; 82 in 2013)
*2016-17 data is not being made available
Waitlisted: 102 (46 accepted places)
Admitted: 20 (7 in 2015; 8 in 2014; 2 in 2013)
James Madison University
Waitlisted: 2560 (1585 accepted places)
Admitted: 205 (500 in 2015; 166 in 2014; 405 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 1237 (840 accepted places)
Admitted: 18 (39 in 2015; 41 in 2014; 33 in 2013)
University of Michigan
Waitlisted: 11,197 (3970 accepted places)
Admitted: 36 (90 in 2015; 91 in 2014; 89 in 2013)
University of Richmond
Waitlisted: 3209 (1236 accepted places)
Admitted: 60 (151 in 2015; 12 in 2014; 95 in 2013)
University of Virginia
Waitlisted: 4987 (2871 accepted places)
Admitted: 360 (402 in 2015; 42 in 2014; 185 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 5452 (2677 accepted places)
Admitted: 26 (50 in 2015; 464 in 2014; 350 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 2118 (1544 accepted places)
Admitted: 0 (750 in 2015; 110 in 2013)
Washington and Lee University
Waitlisted: 1529 (652 accepted places)
Admission offers: 48 (193 in 2015; 72 in 2014; 96 in 2013)
Waitlisted: 2343 (864 accepted places)
Admission offers: 24 (53 in 2015; 70 in 2014; 44 in 2013)
Numbers vary by year depending on how accurately the admissions office pegged its “yield” or how desperate the need to control the composition of the freshman class. For colleges with unfilled seats after May 1st, the pool of waitlisted students is like a candy jar from which they can pick and choose depending on wants and needs.
“The wait list is a reminder that I’m not very smart,” continues Clark. “If I were better at my job, I could predict exactly how many students each year would accept our offer of admission.”
Sure there are steps you can take to try to get off the list—write a letter, get another recommendation, meet with an admissions rep—but there is an emotional cost which must be factored in.
“This is probably the toughest decision to get from a school,” explains Dean J, in her UVa admission blog. “For now you need to look at your other options and think about which one feels right to you. Some of you will want to hold on and see what happens with the waiting list and others will want to fully invest themselves in another school.”
There is no right or wrong here—only what is right for the individual student.
But is the list generally worth the wait?
Sometimes, but not usually.