It's Decision Season - I'm Waitlisted, What Do I Do Now?

Ah decision season.  This blog posting is the third in a series that tackles the most frequently asked questions of students navigating their way through this phase of the process.  Many of you thought you'd be done by now, but instead you find yourself in limbo because you got waitlisted.  Read on....

So you were wait listed.  In some ways, "wait listed" is the most painful of decisions, because it really doesn't END anything.  Now you have to make more decisions without full information. But that is where you find yourself, so let's talk about it.  Should you hold the spot or not?  What are your chances of getting in?  How do you maximize those chances? 

Should you hold the spot or not?

I am of the opinion that there is only one legitimate reason to hold a spot on a wait list.  Here it is:  you have been wait listed at your top choice school or at a school that you prefer to all of the schools where you have been admitted, then you should take the steps necessary to hold your place on the wait list.  

Please don't hold a spot on a wait list "just to see" if you eventually get in.  Some of you will be tempted to do that, but really truly, that is not cool.  Why not?  Well, for one thing it keeps you from moving forward in your own life -- it leaves you in a weird holding pattern that is not productive or helpful to you.  For another thing, it is just RUDE -- rude to others in the process who really truly will go to this college if admitted off the wait list and rude to the college because now you're simply gaming them in a spirit of vengeance.  So unless you really truly will say YES the minute a spot is offered, then forget the wait list and move on.  The final weeks of senior year need your attention!

What are your chances?

Simply put, your chances are low, but not zero, and that is all I can tell you about the chances.  What?  I am after all an expert in college admissions and so I should have a better answer than that, shouldn't I?  But I don't, and here's why.  There is no consistency between institutions and there is no consistency from year to year.  So the empirical data that I would use to construct a predictive model is really non-existent.  For example, Stanford admitted a total of 26 students from its wait list last year, but it admitted a total of 126 students the year before.  No word yet about how many they will admit this year, but they sent "wait listed" decisions to 1078 students -- 26 or 126 -- the odds are pretty different, but still low!

Why the wild flucuations?  The explanation is rooted in why admissions offices have wait lists and how they use them.  You are probably not to going to like what I say because it describes the "business" of admissions, and in my experience most applicants don't like thinking about that much.  If you don't want this bald truth, skip down to the next section on how to maximize your chances - you don't have to understand this part to do that.  But if you want to get a peek into the operations of the offices that have been the center of your universe for the last year, read on.

In business terms, admissions offices are charged with two primary responsibilities:  1)  enrolling the right size class, and 2) enrolling a class with the right composition.  Wait lists are vital to their achieving both goals.

You all know from your own experience that not everyone who is admitted will accept the offer of admission.  Over time, admissions offices have a pretty good idea of how many of those that they accept will in turn enroll at the school.  But historical behavior is not a perfect predictor.  Some years more admitted applicants turn them down than they expect.  In those years, the admissions office has a problem that the wait list solves.  If more people turn them down than they expect, they simply admit off the wait list until they get to the right size class.  Getting to the right size class is crucial because the university depends on the tuition revenue from the incoming class.  The university can't afford for the class to be too small.  So the wait list saves the day and allows an admissions office to achieve their goal of enrolling the right size class.  

A wait list also helps the university achieve its desired composition within that class.  Class composition is not something that individual applicants consider much, but admissions offices think about it all the time.  The "right" composition is determined by the university itself and/or by the governing body for the university (such as the state legislature for many public colleges).  For example, most highly selective private colleges put a premium on having students from all 50 states and a lot of foreign countries, and most state colleges are mandated to enroll a certain percentage of students from in-state.  Again, over time, admissions offices have a pretty good idea of who they need to admit in order to get the class composition they seek, but since some years hold surprises, admissions offices again hedge their bets through the wait list.  For example, if an Ivy League college admissions office realizes that no one from Alaska has paid a deposit, then the admissions office will admit an Alaskan off the wait list.  Voila, now the university can announce they have students from all 50 states.  By the way, this is why you aren't given a specific place on the wait list, say #15, because the admissions office wants the freedom to "fill specific holes" in the class.

So right now what is happening inside admissions offices is that they are determining if they have achieved their goals of right size and right composition.  It takes a couple of weeks for it all to settle out after the May 1 deadline.  If the university has not achieved the right size or the right composition, then there will be some movement off the wait list usually beginning in late May/early June.  These small movements on the wait list will continue through the summer right up until the class actually arrives because once one university acts, those actions ripple through the system.  If you get in off the wait list at your dream school, you open up a spot at another college that will likely be filled by an admission off that college's wait list, and so it goes.

Bottom line, wait list activity is unpredictable and you can't know your chances.  If that makes you crazy and you are ready to "have a plan" for next year, the wait list isn't for you and you might as well relinquish your place.  But if you can live with the uncertainty, then read on and learn how you can maximize your chances.

How Do You Maximize Your Chances?

In order to maximize your chances of getting in off a wait list, I suggest you do two things:

  • Communicate your continuing interest. Universities are not interested in admitting students off the wait list who are going to say "no." It decreases their yield (yield is the percentage of students who accept offers of admission), and yield is important to rankings. So if you really, really want to go to the university and are going to accept their offer, let them know that. It matters. You should communicate by email and it should be short BUT it should include a mini-essay about why you are perfect for the university and it is perfect for you - be specific here and reveal the depth of your knowledge and thinking about this decision in 150-200 words. This mini-essay is a reprise of your "Why University X" essay.  Send this e-mail sometime before May 1 (even with your acceptance of your spot) is all that is necessary.  You can also convey your enthusiasm via third parties with contacts in the admissions office -- two top sources here -- your college counselor and your alumni interviewer.  Check in with both of them, let them know you were waitlisted and ask them to send an email or phone their admissions contact  that says you really, really, really want to attend college X.  You should follow up with another email in early July and a final email right in mid-August right before school is supposed to start. 
  • Fortify/enhance your application as follows:
    • Share any good or better grades you've gotten since your application was acted upon.  They should have your midyear grades on the Midyear Report, but anything you've accomplished after that should be communicated.  And once the school year ends, make sure your high school sends the Final Report of grades promptly. If you had really good grades in the second semester of senior year, it can do nothing but help you.
    • Share scores on any AP or IB tests you've received since you applied, if they are in the "high" range (high for AP is 4 or 5, and high for IB is 6 or 7).
    • Provide a distilled, but informative, list of anything meaningful you've accomplished outside the classroom since you applied. Meaningful accomplishments would be things like winning the national debate tournament, being named to an All-State sports team, or leading a community service activity.

After you've done these things, you've done what you can do and now you wait.  Best of luck!

Comments or Questions?

Need to vent about the stress of waiting so you can hang tough, post here!   No one from admissions will know it is you - I promise.

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)