Admission decisions have been hitting in-boxes fast and furiously over the last couple of weeks. While much of the news is good, some carries with it a curious, if not confusing, announcement: “We’re pleased to offer you a place on our Wait-List. Let us know if you would like to remain active on our Wait-List.”
As encouraging as the words might seem, the reality is this is not an acceptance letter—nor is it a denial letter. This can be particularly jarring to students sitting at the top of their class with impressive resumes of achievement throughout their high school years. So, what is it then? It’s an invitation to participate in the college admission version of “overtime.”
If you elect to remain active on a Wait-List (WL), your chances of gaining admission are better than you might imagine! On the other hand, if you are fatigued or discouraged by the admission process and want to leave your game on the field of Regular Admission, you will have no chance in overtime.
While selective colleges and universities have historically maintained Wait-Lists as “insurance policies” against coming up “short” of their enrollment goals through Early Decision, Early Action, or Regular Admission, the WL has taken on a more strategic look in recent years. No longer an insurance policy, the WL is now used to burnish institutional credentials (improve yield and increase selectivity). Think of it as Early Decision at the back end of the enrollment process. It is not hard to imagine strategic backroom conversations: “Why should we take so many low-yielding students—often at a yield rate of 20% or lower—in Regular Admission, when we can put them on the WL to see who is really interested? Then we can take them at a 75% yield rate.”
Setting the Stage for WL Activity
At the outset, a lot of students worthy of admission are offered WL status. While some of them might have presented flawed credentials, others are quite strong in every way. Many of the latter would have been admitted had they made stronger, more consistent demonstrations of interest throughout the admission process. The number of students offered WL status at a given college will often match the number of students it admits in Regular Decision. For example, if 2,000 students are admitted Regular Decision, then a similar number will be offered WL status.
Typically, 25–50% of those offered WL status will take some sort of action (email, letter, and/or campus visit) to signal a desire to remain active on the WL. It is this group that comprises the new applicant pool should the WL be needed. By the middle of April, the “active” WL will have taken shape at most colleges and, soon after, admission officers will begin to assess the need to admit more students.
While the initial ordering of students on Wait-Lists typically reflects the relative academic strengths of the students, other agendas (athletic recruitment, alumni connections, the need to “balance” the class demographically, etc.) can strongly influence their positions. (Thus, the importance of sending any new information [e.g., grades, honors, awards] that might speak to these possibilities.)
However, three factors can override the consideration of any of the above: ability to pay, the likelihood that the student will enroll, and the student’s general accessibility.
3 Keys to Success in “Overtime”
- Should you decide to convey your interest in remaining active on a WL, make sure you resolve any uncertainty that might have existed about your ability to pay. If you have discovered through the FAFSA that you don’t need financial aid, or you have learned that a family member will be a source of funding for you, make it clear in your WL messaging that funding for college will not be an issue for you. Students admitted from WLs prior to the May 1st Candidates’ Reply Date are typically those who do not need any financial assistance. Students admitted from the WL after May 1st will receive need-based financial aid on a funds availability basis (so, don’t expect merit scholarships).
- Aside from asserting your intent to enroll if admitted from the WL, a strong indication of your interest and intentions is a visit to the campus. Even if you have been there already, go back. Check in at the admission office. Take another tour. Visit academic departments of interest and make an attempt to connect with the admission officer who recruits in your home area, as that person will likely be your strongest advocate if admission from the WL is considered. Be careful not to plan your visit around formal activities for admitted students, as you will get lost in the shuffle during such programs.
- Finally, make sure you are accessible. When you respond with your intent to remain active on the WL, provide your cell number and email address. Make it easy for those who might admit you to find you!
Notice of acceptance from the WL will likely come in the form a phone call, text, or email in which you are informed of the opportunity and given a very short period of time (often 24 hours or less) to accept it or not. Ideally, such calls would come before May 1st so you can factor the opportunity among the other offers of admission you have received. Should May arrive without an offer of admission from the WL at your preferred school, you would be wise to submit an enrollment deposit to a college that has admitted you so you are “covered” in the event the WL doesn’t come through. If you subsequently accept an offer from one college’s WL, you would forfeit the initial enrollment deposit at the other college.
Calculating the Odds
As you contemplate “overtime” on the WL, it is tempting to calculate the odds of admission. To help you with this, colleges are strongly encouraged by the National Association of College Admission Counseling to provide data reflecting their experiences with WL activity in past years. The data provided, though, is often “soft” or incomplete.
For example, a college might report that, of 2,000 students on the WL the previous year, only 20 were accepted. On the surface, these odds don’t seem very promising. The data won’t reveal, however, that only 500 of the 2,000 chose to remain “active” on the WL or that admission officers might have contacted 100 students (or more!) before they got commitments from 20. In effect, 20% of the students on the active WL might have been given the opportunity to accept an offer. In some years, colleges with greater enrollment needs from the WL will nearly exhaust their active WL possibilities before filling their classes.
Further complicating the picture is the fact that many colleges only report WL activity through the end of May. When this happens, the number of students contacted and subsequently enrolled from a given WL could turn out to be much greater than that which is reported.
The Bottom Line
While there can be no guarantees, if you hang in there with a WL situation, good things can happen. Patience and persistence (stay on the college’s radar in polite and appropriate ways) can indeed pay off!