Waitlist Wisdom

From the Desk of Andrea van Niekerk, College Admission Counselor…..

It used to be that at the end of each application season students got thick envelopes that signaled their acceptances, or thin envelopes that dashed their hopes. With most decisions now online, there is less warning of what to expect on notification day. But whether the outcome is a happy or a sad one, it offers clarity.

The same is not true, however, when students are waitlisted! Instead, they feel themselves in a twilight zone where being admitted seems increasingly unlikely, but the door still remains tantalizingly ajar.

So what does it mean, and what are they to do about it?

  • Waitlists are how colleges hedge their bets against the uncertainty of knowing how many students will say yes to their offer of admission. Yield matters to colleges – too many students and they end with crowded dorm rooms and laboratories; too few and their budgets suffer. So they admit more students in the first place than they will have space for. In 2018, for example, Emory University accepted roughly 5,000 applicants for an 18% admit rate. But Emory’s first year class that year had barely 1,400 students – so the University had built into the accept rate a huge buffer already, knowing that historically its yield was not quite 30%! In other words, Emory admission officers knew that less than a third of students would accept its offer, and admitted enough students to cover any shortfall before they even got to the waitlist!
  • Waitlists further add to a college’s buffer against under enrolling students. In 2019 about 43% of colleges used one (private and public, although more so the former). Waitlists don’t just fix the size of the class, but can also help colleges ‘correct’ for shortfalls in their institutional goals – female mathematicians; boys; first-generation applicants; underrepresented students of color; and others.
  • And sometimes waitlisting students allow admission officers to recognize applicants whom they deeply admired even if they could not academically admit them – and in truth, it can help make those wrenching choices a little less painful.

From the perspective of a waitlisted student though, things look different. Nationally, colleges admit about 20% of students who chose to remain on waitlists. But according to NACAC, the national admissions organization, at selective colleges it drops to a scant 7%. At the end of the 2018 season, for example, Emory had also waitlisted just as many students as it had accepted. Of these, about 2600 chose to stay on the waitlist, and none were accepted. Others with long waitlists with no good news at the end of it included MIT, Dartmouth, and Macalester.

These figures suggest that the waitlist is indeed a very long shot. But some schools in some years do accept students from the waitlist – Georgetown, for example, took 50 for a waitlist admit rate of 3% and Oberlin took 83 (7%). What to do then if you find yourself on your Dream School’s waitlist?

  • Start by carefully reviewing and evaluating all your offers of admission from other colleges. Give yourself a solid foundation by accepting the offer that seems best for you. Send in a deposit, with the understanding (and parents’ agreement) that you will forfeit that deposit IF (and it is a very big if!) your Dream School accepts YOU from its Waitlist.
  • Decide if you even want to stay on the waitlist! You can absolutely opt out, get on with life and become excited about a college whose offer of admission shows how much it values and wants you! Remember, there is no one institution that is the perfect (and only) “fit” for you; there are many. So, consider investing in another school and move on.
  • If you do stay on the waitlist, remember you may not hear back from your Dream School about a final decision until well into the summer. Be sure that you understand the fine print of the college’s waitlist offer. Find out, for example, if there would be a change in housing options or in your likelihood of receiving financial aid.
  • Next, let the admission office of Dream School know, by whatever means specified, that you will indeed remain on the waitlist and attend if accepted.
  • If the college allows it, follow up with something more personal and passionate – a letter or email that makes your commitment explicit and sets out the reasons why the college remains your Dream School. Include any updated information about your strong spring grades, new awards, work experience, and extracurricular activities. An additional letter of recommendation from a teacher, guidance counselor, or alumnus could be helpful, as could a return visit to campus, though you want to avoid pestering the very people you want to impress!
  • You might even declare yourself willing to enter the college in January, after the first semester ended. This is not a good option for everyone, but some colleges do offer a Spring intake.

Above all, continue to be positive, study hard, get good grades, and stay involved with all of your extracurricular activities. Enjoy your last days of high school – soon they will be in the rear view mirror as you race off into your future at a college you will quickly call home!

Doing school: the gap between high school education and college admissions

Many of you will have heard me complain rather cynically about the distance between colleges’ expressed expectations for high school students and the reality of highly selective college admissions.  That gap leaves students feeling funneled into an intensely functionalist view of their education even as they are also subjected to rhetoric about passion and intellectual engagement by colleges and by teachers.

This subject has gained growing attention recently in debates over the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Amy Chua described her controversial ideas on parenting for success.  It is also the theme of the film “Race to Nowhere”, in which director Vicki Abeles described “the dark side of America’s achievement culture.”

Many of these questions were expressed even earlier by Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer in Education at Stanford, in her 2001 book, Doing School.  She examined “the predicament of doing school,” in which prevailing attitudes and expectations in high schools help create, “a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”  Pope followed five students at Faircrest High School in California, as they negotiated with classmates, cheated on homework, manipulated teachers, and transgressed rules in their efforts to “be the best,” achieve material success and meet social and parental expectations.

In debates about high school education, the role of college application looms large.  Students are told that colleges are interested in their strength of character, (Harvard); that they are more than their GPAs or test scores (Chicago); and that universities also focus on their potential to contribute to learning (Princeton).  When university admit rates drop and colleges tout soaring levels of academic and social achievement by their applicants, however, it is clear that cookie cutter candidates with impressive credentials are most likely to prevail – those with course loads filled with an exhausting number of APs, a stratospheric GPA, and a slate of activities so impressive they seem unlikely to be the stuff of any normal teenage life.

Colleges have been called on the carpet for what seems like a growing gap between the ideal and the reality of holistic admissions. Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT, said in a 2004 interview that elite colleges “are complicit in rearing a generation of young people staggering under unbearable pressure to be perfect at everything.” The Education Conservancy argued that, “Students feel it is impossible to be everything colleges would like them to be.” Good teachers remind students that they need to find a balance between an impressive course load and an interesting one; between high academic expectations and joyful learning; and between their ambition for material success and status and their desire for a meaningful life.

But in her study of Faircrest High, Pope also referred to the central role that parents play in creating that contradiction between what students are taught to care about in their education, and the reality of selective college admissions.  She quoted a student whose parents expressed concern about her health in the face of a grueling schedule, as saying, “They are worried about me and say it is okay if I don’t go to an Ivy school, like they’ll still be proud of me, but that’s b.s. because no they won’t.”  Another admitted that his obsequious behavior towards teachers and his constant anxiety about his grades came because his father “wants me to go to Stanford like him.”

Pope’s interviews highlight the role parents play in encouraging students to equate success in learning with success in gaining admission to a brand-name college.  She shows how parents, probably far more than any admission officer, cue children to find the measure of their self-worth in grade reports.  But parents can also liberate their children from a relentlessly pragmatic view of high school by allowing them to pursue the things that fill them with joy rather than fill up resumes with yet another mindless activity.  As parents, we are hopefully more interested in raising critical thinkers and honorable adults than Ivy League graduates!