Apr 4, 2011

The Truth about Wait Lists

Hope springs eternal among college applicants. That’s why there are waitlists.

And colleges are unapologetic about using the hopes of waitlisted students to further their objectives, which center on filling freshman classes with the best and brightest high school students.

But let’s be honest. In the hands of the average admissions office, the waitlist is little more than a tool used to shape a freshman class profile that is balanced between males and females, is geographically and racially diverse, meets legislated in-state requirements, fills the needs of obscure departments or sports teams, and still covers some part of the college operating budget.

Schools that advertise “needs blind” admissions sometimes quietly convert to “needs aware” when it comes to plucking a few lucky students from the list. Consequently, most bets are off for financial aid if you come through the waitlist.

There’s usually no ranking, no money, and really little hope. And sometimes, the list is hardly more than a PR scam to keep upset parents, alums, and other interested parties at arm’s length. Waitlisted is an uncomfortable place to be. If you’ve been accepted or rejected, at least your status is clear. But waitlisted is fuzzy. And if you really care about the specific college or university, the offer of a position on a college waitlist amounts to a very insecure lifeline.

Here are the facts. Most students never get off the list—very few waitlisted students are eventually invited to the dance. In some cases, especially at more selective colleges, no students get off the list.

Check out statistics published by some local colleges and universities for last year:

University of Virginia
Waitlisted: ~1700*
Admission offers: ~240 (420 the previous year)

College of William & Mary
Waitlisted: 3654/1446 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 242 (17 the previous year)

George Mason University
Waitlisted: 1317/657 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 109 (103 the previous year)

University of Mary Washington
Waitlisted: 444/165 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 165

Virginia Commonwealth University
Waitlisted: 895
Admission offers: 77 (34 the previous year)

University of Richmond
Waitlisted: 2938/984 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 74 (11 the previous year)

American University*
Waitlisted: 1138/201 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 0

George Washington University
Waitlisted: 642
Admission offers: 20

Johns Hopkins University*
Waitlisted: 3667/3006 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 1

Goucher College
Waitlisted: 175/108 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 21

Waitlisted: 497
Admission offers: 334 (112 the previous year)

James Madison University
Waitlisted: 2000/1200 accepted waitlist
Admission offers: 450 (498 the previous year)

Towson University
Waitlisted: 2074
Admission offers: 183 (376 the previous year)

*2010-2011 CDS figures have not yet been provided.

As you can see, the numbers vary by year depending on how accurately the admissions office pegged its “yield” or how desperate the need to control the composition of the freshman class. For a college with openings after May 1st, the pool of waitlisted students is something like a candy jar from which colleges can pick and choose depending on needs and wants.

Being waitlisted can be more frustrating than simply being rejected. A candidate who is denied admission to his or her first choice school is free to accept other offers. S/he can move on with his or her life. But a waitlisted candidate who really wants to attend a particular school is stuck in limbo.

Sure there are steps you can take to try to get off the list, but there is an emotional cost which must be weighed against the slim possibility of winning the waitlist lottery. Is it worth it?

Maybe, but not usually.

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