Schools Keep Hundreds of Applicants on Reserve Lists, but Very Few of Them Get In
So Harvard has put you—or someone you know—on its waitlist. Great news! Or maybe not.
A spot on a waitlist from an elite school doesn't necessarily mean a candidate is closer to the finish line. Some may be waitlisted because while their grades weren't quite good enough, or they didn't take enough advanced placement classes, they still piqued the interest of admissions officers. Others are offered spots purely out of courtesy, such as family members of alumni or children of donors who failed to make the academic cut.
Schools often pad their waitlists to protect their "yield," or the proportion of accepted students who choose to attend. They can admit fewer students on the first pass, to maintain their aura of exclusivity, then move on to the waitlist if accepted students turn them down.
But for most students, being waitlisted is "not much better than a rejection," said Elizabeth Heaton, senior director of educational consulting at College Coach, an admissions consulting firm, and a former regional director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh admitted just six of 5,003 applicants invited onto its waitlist last year. At Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., not one of 2,998 students offered a spot on last year's list was admitted.
"It's so hard to know what we're going to need," said Janet Lavin Rapelye, Princeton University's dean of admission.Waitlists start out so large because colleges rarely know what their yield from admitted students will be; nor do they know how many waitlisted students will actually accept a spot. And if a college does need to fill holes, they want to have a broad group of students to choose from.
Princeton, which accepted 2,095 students for a record-low 7.86% admission rate this year, offered 1,472 applicants places on its waitlist. In the past six years, it has taken as few as zero from the list, or as many as 164.
Many colleges are reluctant to disclose the number of students on their waitlists. Harvard, which admitted a record-low 5.9% of applicants this year, doesn't release the size of its list. A Harvard spokesman said it accepted 31 from the waitlist last year, and between 49 and 228 in the four years prior to that.
Most schools know by May 1 who has accepted their initial offers of admission. They then turn to the waitlist to fill any remaining slots, a process that is supposed to wrap up by Aug. 1, a deadline set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. On average, 45% of students offered spots on a waitlist accept, said the Princeton Review.
Generally, schools scan the waitlist first for students who can fill unique holes in their incoming class—a prospective Classics scholar from Hawaii, for instance. They also eye students who show interest in the college through phone calls, emails and letters after accepting a spot on the waitlist, said Kennon Dick, also of College Coach and a former associate dean of admissions at Swarthmore College.
Aileen Eisenberg, 18, from Monroe, N.Y., was one of 10 students to be accepted from Swarthmore's waitlist last year; 948 applicants were offered a spot on the list. She sent a letter comparing the admissions process to her hobby of dancing tango, likening the college to an ideal dance partner. In June, they offered her admission.
And then there are the "courtesy" waitlist offers. It is common for elite institutions to place a number of students on their lists even when they have virtually no chance of being seriously considered for admission, Mr. Dick said. They may be children of alumni or faculty, or candidates whom admissions officers found interesting but whose grades or test scores fell short.
"You'll get some really angry alumni calling if you deny their kid," Mr. Dick said.
For its part, Ms. Rapelye said, Princeton doesn't have a courtesy list. Swarthmore says it does waitlist some students as a courtesy, but rarely anyone with no chance of getting in.
Applicants requiring financial aid may have an even tougher time. Even at a handful of need-blind schools—those that don't consider financial need in admissions decisions—waitlisted students with less need have an edge. Six percent of private colleges were need-blind in the regular admissions cycle but became need-aware once they started admitting students from the waitlist, a 2008 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling said.
Some schools have begun shrinking their waitlists to keep applicants' expectations in check. The University of Pennsylvania trimmed the size of its waitlist by 400 this year. Stanford, which offered 1,078 applicants a spot on the waitlist last year, only to admit 13, has offered just 789 applicants a position on this year's list, said Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid.
Still, Mr. Shaw doesn't think waitlisted students should be too optimistic. Comparing their chances this year with last, he said, is "like playing the state lottery versus the national lottery. It's a million to one instead of a billion to one that you're going to get it."
Link to Article: Admission Waitlist - College's Tough Waiting Game