Mar 30, 2012

The Wait List Lottery

Hope springs eternal. That’s why there are lotteries and wait lists.

And colleges are unapologetic about using the hopes of waitlisted students to further their objectives, which largely 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 wait list 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.

That said, schools advertising “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 wait list.

In other words, there’s usually no ranking, no money, and really not much 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 wait list 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 the Common Data Set (CDS) statistics published by some local colleges and universities for 2011-12:

University of Virginia
Waitlisted: 4,326 (2726 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 191 (301 the previous year)

Christopher Newport University
(2010-11 data)
Waitlisted: 899 (272 accepted wait list) LinkAdmission offers: 88 (0 the previous year)

College of William & Mary
Waitlisted: 3248 (1496 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 18 (242 the previous year)

George Mason University
Waitlisted: 1894 (817 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 54 (109 the previous year)

University of Mary Washington
Waitlisted: 378 (143 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 120 (165 the previous year)

Virginia Commonwealth University
Waitlisted: 687
Admission offers: 0 (77 the previous year)

University of Richmond
Waitlisted: 3577 (1192 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 83 (74 the previous year)

Washington & Lee University

Waitlisted: 1980 (727 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 50 (111 the previous year)

American University

Waitlisted: 2184 (287 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 0

George Washington University
Waitlisted: 2477 (564 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 112 (20 the previous year)

Georgetown University (CDS data provided by Princeton Review's 2012 Best 376 Colleges)
Waitlisted: 1,362 accepted wait list
Admission offers: 12%

Johns Hopkins University
(2010-11 data)
Waitlisted: 3256 accepted wait list
Admission offers: 36 (1 the previous year)

Goucher College
Waitlisted: 170 (96 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 16 (21 the previous year)

Loyola University of Maryland
Waitlisted: 1854 (625 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 143 (199 last year)

St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Waitlisted: 254 (153 accepted wait list)
Admission offers: 40 (36 last year)

Waitlisted: 530 accepted wait list
Admission offers: 487 (334 the previous year)

Towson University
Waitlisted: 1843
Admission offers: 158 (183 the previous year)

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.

“There's no way around it,” commented Jeannine Lalonde, UVa senior assistant dean of admission. “This is probably the toughest decision to get from a school.”

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—write a letter, get another recommendation, meet with an admissions rep—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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