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!