Society and Culture, Education

When courting colleges, a waitlist decision is probably a resounding “no”

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

It’s prom season, and young men all across the country are going to great lengths to “prompose.” Maybe you heard about Dylan, who asked his girlfriend Caitlyn to prom in a fake academic warning letter from her first choice college. It’s fair to roll your eyes at Dylan, but he’s onto something. As in a courtship, students send off their college applications and wait to hear back—the real-life equivalent of sending a note that asks, “Will you go to prom with me?” And, as in the most stressful of courtships, many students get an entirely unhelpful response: maybe. For those who are waitlisted at the school of their dreams, it can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Last year when I wrote about the waitlist, I advised seniors to arm themselves with information about a school’s use of the waitlist: how many students are typically waitlisted in a given year and how many of these students are eventually accepted? Are students who require financial aid ever offered admission from the waitlist? When does the school expect to “release” students from the waitlist? In other words, you may be courting that lovely lady from math class, but she could be holding out hope for a different suitor.

A good friend would tell you that you’re not her first choice, and might even run a bit of reconnaissance. I’m that friend. Using data from institutions’ Common Data Sets (CDS), I collected statistics from the 2012-2013 admission cycle at 100 US News and World Report-ranked schools (top 50 national universities + top 50 national liberal arts colleges). After dropping schools that don’t use a waitlist, refused to report their waitlist statistics, or did not make their current CDS accessible, 71 schools remain. My preliminary analysis indicates that most of these schools fall into one of two categories, neither of which will warm the hearts of hopeful students:

  • Waitlist lots, accept a few. Of these 71 schools, 27 waitlisted more than 20% of their applicants. But only two of those 27 enrolled more than 5% of waitlisted students. Bates College and the University of Richmond are the worst culprits, placing 40% and 42% of their 5,000 and 10,000 applicants on the waitlist. With a fall 2013 freshman enrollment of 500, Bates waitlisted more than four times the number of students it ultimately enrolled. At the University of Richmond, it’s five times as many. The less sure an admission office is that the students it admits will ultimately enroll, the greater the pressure to waitlist students. If, come May, the office is short on enrollments, applications from the waitlist are resurrected.
  • Waitlist some, accept none. Fourteen schools accepted zero students from their waitlist in the 2012-2013 admission cycle, implying that they met their enrollment targets with the initially-admitted pool of students. Both Stanford University and MIT fall into this category. These two institutions place a low percentage of applicants on the waitlist (2.10% and 3.73%, respectively). Because both schools are able to yield a significant number of the students they admit, the pressure to waitlist applicants is minimal. But not so fast. Even though the percentages are small, these schools receive a significant number of applications for a limited number of slots. So, in absolute terms, they still waitlist a large number of students. Stanford waitlisted over 800 students last year; MIT, 700. Not all of those students elected to stay on the waitlist, but that’s still a lot of misplaced hope.

So much of the college admission process is a tedious struggle. Students who seem to have done everything right can feel downtrodden by the underwhelming number of acceptance letters come April. In many cases, a waitlist decision might feel worse than a rejection. “Am I really supposed to wait even longer before I know where I’m going to college?” If you choose to stay on the waitlist, be cautious in your optimism. Most of the students who hold out for the day when a waitlist decision turns into an acceptance learn eventually a painful courtship truth: she’s just not that into you.

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