The Wait List Heats up

  • Why the increased use of the Wait List?

  • Plan of Action if on a Wait List

Harvard already took 200 students from its wait list this year, as compared to 50 last year. Stanford, on the other hand, not one for the last two years. Some years, you may never get off the list; other years, such as this year, you appear, depending on the school, to have a very good shot. What is accounting for this year's wild fluctuations?

According to the Wall Street Journal, (Athavaley, Anjali. "Elite Colleges Reach Deeper into Wait Lists."  Wall Street Journal, 21 May 2008: p. D1), three factors came into play. First, there was a very large class of high school seniors: over 3.4 million (this figure, by the way, is expected to peak next year.) Of this 3.4 million, many, especially if they applied to selective schools, sent in 8 to 12 applications. These numbers threw a lot of admissions models into chaos.

Second, the elimination of early admission programs at Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, reduced the yields at these schools (the number of students accepted who actually enroll); at Harvard yield declined from 78% to 76%; Princeton 68% to 60%; and Virginia 51% to 49%.  Reduced yields are usually offset by taking students off the wait list. This observation holds true for Harvard, as just noted, and Princeton, who is taking 90, versus 47 last year, but not for Virginia, who is taking 0, after taking 150 last year (it's hard for any generality to hold up under the scrutiny of college admissions-there are always exceptions).

Third, financial aid became a greater factor for students from upper and middle income households. With the economy slowing down, and with many highly selective schools forced to use their endowments to offset tuition expenses, financial considerations are weighing heavily into many students' college decisions.

So what are the chances of getting off the wait list? Historically, in 2006, colleges admitted, on average, over 28% of students from the wait list (Lee-St. John, Jeninne. "Getting off the College Waitlist", Time, 24 April 2008). It varies widely, however, among schools: Williams wait listed 1,000 students in 2007, eventually taking 52; Pennsylvania wait listed 2,300 students, taking 90 so far.  Again, there are no rules when it comes to wait lists. Schools will do what's in their best interests. If your application is in wait-list limbo, then you'll just have to weather the storm.

While weathering the storm, however, consider all the following:

  1. Think long and hard if you want to stay on the list. Can you deal with the stress of being up in the air? Also, if you are eventually taken, there is a good chance that the financial aid packages are depleted.

  2. Set a back-up plan in motion. Obviously, for this admissions season, the game is already afoot. You should have already placed a deposit on another college as you bet on your wait list prospects.

  3. Be pro-active: find your rank on the waiting list (they may not tell you, but you need to ask.); find out the number of students who made it in the year before from the list-it might give some perspective to the process; find out when the school expects the process to close.

  4. Keep forwarding the admissions people new information. This can take the form of a new essay about some activity you've done since the original application was filed.

  5. If your counselor knows the school where you are wait listed, have them be your advocate.

  6. Don't be shy about contacting the school directly and developing rapport with your admissions officer. The better they know you, the better your chances of success.

Being wait-listed is a lot like asking for a date and discovering you're 10th or 12th on his or her list. It doesn't give you a warm glow. Yet, the admissions process isn't about warm glows. It's about you getting into a school you really like, and making the sacrifices and dealing with the spurns that might come your way. My father always said risking rejection builds character: the wait list is indeed a character builder.

Ralph Becker
Founder, Ivy College Prep LLC