The Waiting Game and the University Admissions Waitlist

Being waitlisted is often compared to an indefinite purgatory. You linger with the hope that sometime after early May, after the SIRs (statement of intent to register), deposits, and yields (how many offered admission are actually coming) are totaled, that the admissions office just might pull your number out of the hat. Yet, there are no rules on when or even if such an offer is coming. Some offers are made mere days before classes begin; most often they aren’t.  That is what makes being waitlisted so unnerving.

As you might expect, colleges use the waitlist for their own purposes. For example, Wesleyan, if its yield of California applicants is low, will look to the Californian applicants on its waitlist to fill the gap. Often, the waitlist is not ranked and admissions will review senior spring grades, activities, or IB or SAT Subject test scores before selecting among WL candidates. The waitlist can be used to shape a class, but it’s more a tool to ensure full enrollment for the upcoming year.

So what are the chances of getting off the wait list? Historically, colleges have 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 and by year.  If the college where you’ve been waitlisted publishes its Common Data Set (the CDS is a 32 page document to standardize, improve, and make transparent information about higher education) you will find its wait list information in section C2. Looking at Stanford’s 2011-2012 CDS, it offered 1,078 applicants a place on its waiting list, 784 accepted, and 13 were eventually admitted. That truly is a sliver of hope.   

If you’re offered a spot on the wait list ask yourself whether you can deal with the stress of having your application held in suspended animation. Also be aware that if you gain admission, there is a good chance that the financial aid available might be severely limited. In any case, once ‘active’ on a school’s wait list, do the following to improve your admission’s chances:  

  1. Send the admissions office a letter expressing your interest in staying on the wait list. In the letter clearly state that if selected you will come. Your enthusiasm and interest need to be clear. The admissions office does not want to pluck someone off the WL who is even a touch doubtful.
  2. Update your admissions profile with pertinent information about academic achievement, leadership positions, summer jobs, articles published…anything that shows you will be a valuable addition to their campus.
  3. Have a back-up plan in place. Put a deposit on another college as you consider your wait list prospects.
  4. Find out your rank on the waitlist (they may not tell you, they might not even know, but you should ask). Find out when the school expects the process to end.
  5. See if anyone, such as your high school counselor, knows the school where you are wait listed and ask them to be your advocate.   
  6. Contact the school directly and try to develop a rapport with your admissions officer. The better the school’s admissions office knows you, the better your chances of success.

Being wait-listed is humbling. 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, making the sacrifices and dealing with the spurns that might come your way. Certainly patience in the face of possible rejection builds character, which is the very nature of the waitlist.