Apr 6, 2016

The wait list—is it worth it?

UVa's wait list is particularly puzzling--42 admitted one year and 402 the next

For the admissions office, it’s a kind of pressure relief valve—useful for controlling the flow of students admitted to the institution.

But for the applicant who has waited six long months for a decision, the wait list feels like a one-way ticket to nowhere.

And for students manipulated by enrollment management systems designed to attract thousands only to admit a select few, all we can say is, “Welcome to purgatory”—only with no clear path to heaven. 

The scenario is particularly frustrating for the subset of applicants who were organized enough to submit early—Early Action, Early Action II, Single Choice Early Action, Restricted Early Action, Early Decision I or even Early Decision II—only to be shunted off to one or several wait lists.

And despite what anyone says, waitlisted students can only rely on anecdotal evidence of what has worked in the past to move an application from wait list to admit.  What worked for one student, won’t necessarily work for another.

But hope springs eternal.  And that’s why there are lotteries and wait lists.

For the most part, colleges are unapologetic about using the hopes of waitlisted students to further enrollment goals designed to fill freshman classes with the best, brightest and most highly qualified high school students.

After all, the wait list is simply a tool used to shape a class profile that’s balanced between males and females, is geographically and racially diverse, meets legislated residency requirements, fills the needs of obscure departments or sports teams, and still covers some part of the college operating budget.

“Essentially, the wait list exists to accommodate for demographics that were not met in the initial round of admission offers,” explains Richard Clark, director of undergraduate admissions for Georgia Tech, in a blog post titled, The Wait List Sucks. “If you have the right number of deposits from the West coast, you go to your wait list for more East coast students. If you have enough Chemistry majors, you may be going the wait list for Business students. Ultimately, the job of admission deans and directors is to make and shape the class, as defined by institutional priorities. Meeting target enrollment is critical to bottom line revenue, creating a desired ethos on campus, proliferating the school’s brand, and other factors.”

Wait lists are almost never prioritized and are almost always unpredictable.  

And all too often, schools advertising “needs blind” admissions quietly convert to “needs sensitive” 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 no ranking, no money, and not too much hope. 

Sometimes, the list is hardly more than a thinly disguised public relations scam designed to keep agitated parents, alums, and other interested parties at arm’s length. 

We all agree that waitlisted is an uncomfortable place to be. If you’ve been accepted or rejected, your status is clear. You can move on with your life. But waitlisted is learning to live with uncertainty.

And at the end of the day, very few waitlisted students are eventually invited to the dance.

Here are some Common Data Set (CDS) statistics (Question C2) published by local colleges and universities for students entering fall of 2015:

University of Virginia
Waitlisted: 4547 (2081 accepted places on the list)
Admission offers:  402 (42 in 2014; 185 in 2013)

Christopher Newport University
Waitlisted: 1566 (547 accepted places)
Admission offers:  232 (66 in 2014; 137 in 2013)

College of William and Mary
Waitlisted: 3552 (1676 accepted places)
Admission offers:  187 (59 in 2014; 96 in 2013)

George Mason University
Waitlisted:  1884 (940 accepted places)
Admission offers:  350 (684 in 2014; 252 in 2013)

James Madison University
Waitlisted:  2500 (1200 accepted places)
Admission offers:  500 (166 in 2014; 405 in 2013)

University of Mary Washington
Waitlisted: 341 (63 accepted places)
Admission offers: 11 (105 in 2014; 55 in 2013)

University of Richmond
Waitlisted: 4070 (1547 accepted places)
Admission offers: 151 (12 in 2014; 95 in 2013)

Virginia Commonwealth University
Waitlisted:  447 (446 accepted places)
Admission offers:  13 (1 in 2013)

Virginia Tech*
Waitlisted:  2294 (1587 accepted places)
Admission offers:  750 (110 in 2013)

Washington and Lee University

Waitlisted:  1981 (764 accepted places)
Admission offers: 193 (72 in 2014; 96 in 2013)

Georgetown University*
Waitlisted:  2188 (1301 accepted places)
Admission offers:  114 (82 in 2013)

George Washington University
Waitlisted: 3827 (1354 accepted places)
Admission offers: 62 (113 in 2013)

Johns Hopkins University

Waitlisted:  2752 (1747 accepted places)
Admission offers:   187 (1 in 2014; 57 in 2013)

Goucher College
Waitlisted: 61 (44 accepted places)
Admission offers: 7 (8 in 2014; 2 in 2013)

Towson University
Waitlisted:  1105
Admission offers:  303 (1153 in 2014; 532 in 2013)

University of Maryland Baltimore County
Waitlisted:  404 (404 accepted places)
Admissions offers:  280 (281 in 2014; 21 in 2013)

*2015-16 data is not being made available

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 colleges with unfilled seats after May 1st, the pool of waitlisted students is something like a candy jar from which they can pick and choose depending on wants and needs.

“The wait list is a reminder that I’m not very smart,” continues Clark.  “If I were better at my job, I could predict exactly how many students each year would accept our offer of admission.”

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 factored in.

“This is probably the toughest decision to get from a school,” explains Jeannine Lalonde Smith, in her UVa admission blog. “For now you need to look at your other options and think about which one feels right to you.  Some of you will want to hold on and see what happens with the waiting list and others will want to fully invest themselves in another school.”

There is no right or wrong here—only what is right for the individual student.

But is the list generally worth the wait?

Sometimes, but not usually.

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