Waiting on the waitlist

High school seniors have opened the envelopes, received emails or logged into websites to discover the result of their college applications.  For many the news was very good or very bad – they were admitted to a college and have a decision to make, or that college will no longer be on the menu because they were denied.

For many the end result will be far more uncertain, however.  Instead of a clear yes or no, they received a warm and encouraging letter telling them that they have been placed on the waitlist.  Some will view this as good news (the door is still ajar) or as bad (they were not admitted), but the ambiguity leaves students wondering what this means and what to do about it.

The why of waitlists is easy: as students apply to more colleges, it becomes harder for colleges to estimate how many applicants will actually accept their offer of admission and they pursue various enrollment strategies. Waitlists are one such device to manage the uncertainty of a lesser yield. The institutional yield rate for colleges has steadily declined: nationally on average yield dipped from 49 percent in 2001, to 45 percent in 2007 and 41 percent in the Fall 2010 cycle.  Not surprisingly, more colleges reported using a waitlist: 39 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2010.

In the end, however, only for a minority of students will their persistence in staying on a waitlist pay off: in the 2009 cycle colleges nationally accepted 34 percent of students on their waitlists, and in the 2010 cycle, on average 28 percent.  If those odds seem reasonable, remember that the more selective a college, the more students will accept its offers of admission and the fewer spots will open up for waitlisted students.  In 2010 Yale reported, for example, that it had over 900 students on the waitlist but only about 100 made it into the class.  Most selective colleges will not have a numbered priority amongst many hundreds of waitlisted students, but will admit students according to institutional needs – fixing a gender imbalance, for example, pulling in more engineers, or answering a need for racial, socio-economic or geographic diversity.  In other words, all students on the waitlist may not be equal!

Given all of this, what is a student to do when places on a waitlist?
•    Decide how badly do you still want to attend that college.  It is okay to cut your losses, move on, and bond with your new home.  You can throw yourself into Facebook discussions with future friends and roommates and get back to finishing high school joyfully and successfully. After all, your success at college and in life will not be determined by the name on your college gate but by what you choose to do once it closes behind you.
•    If you remain interested, by all means stay on the waitlist. But know that it may be a long shot, and plan accordingly: accept another offer meanwhile, negotiate your financial aid if necessary and pay your deposit if required.
•    Respond to your waitlist offer with a note reiterating your continued interest in the school.  If a space opens up, admission officers will have some leeway in choosing the candidate they put forward for that spot but will definitely make their choice with yield in mind. Update the college on any new achievements and changes, and make it clear that you remain interested and will attend if taken from the waitlist.  At this point, individual admission officers too are desperately keen to be done!

Amidst all the appropriate concern over bloated waitlists that go nowhere, it is worth remembering that waitlists also have a more human face.  Admission officers at very selective colleges are faced everyday with the difficult task of choosing amongst a large collection of impressive and interesting young people who have worked hard to earn for themselves a chance to be admitted to top universities.  Most will not be admitted, however, and sometimes placing a student on the waitlist instead of slamming the door shut can also allow an admission officer a brief sense of still advocating on behalf of a much-admired young man or woman, or at the very least show the student that his or her efforts have been noticed and valued.

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