RSS
The hopelessness of college waitlists: A guide
Colleges load up their admissions waitlists with near-misses and donors' children, but the odds of getting off the list and into the school are increasingly low
Some experts advise students to view increasingly pointless waitlist spots as "honorable mentions" and move on in their search for a college.
Some experts advise students to view increasingly pointless waitlist spots as "honorable mentions" and move on in their search for a college.
Jamie Grill/Corbis
M

ost college-bound high school seniors will know by May 1 if they got accepted to the school of their choice, or at least made the waitlist. But here's a hard reality check: For most students, being waitlisted is "not much better than a rejection," admissions consultant Elizabeth Heaton tells The Wall Street Journal. Other experts call the waitlist just plain "mean." Here's a look at the pitiful odds game, and what to do if you're placed in admissions limbo.

Just how bad are your chances of advancing past the waitlist?
The numbers at elite universities are pretty grim: Yale took in 103 (out of 996), Carnegie Mellon accepted six (out of 5,003), Stanford took 13 (out of 1,078), and Cornell, zero (out of 2,998). Harvard, which won't specify the size of its waitlist, admitted just 31. And it's getting worse, says Caralee Adams at Education Week. More colleges are relying on waitlists — 48 percent in 2010, versus 34 percent in 2009 — and admitting a lower percentage of waitlisted students: 28 percent nationally in 2010, down from 34 percent in 2009. At more selective colleges, your odds are at about 11 percent.

Are colleges doing anything to improve those odds?
Some are shrinking their waitlists. This year, Stanford offered only 789 spots, but even then, "It's a million to one instead of a billion to one that you're going to get it," Stanford's Richard Shaw tells The Wall Street Journal.

So why do colleges waitlist so many students?
Many reasons, few of which are helpful for students. In the most hopeful scenario, say Rachel Louise Ensign and Melissa Korn in The Wall Street Journal, a candidate's "grades weren't quite good enough, or they didn't take enough advanced placement classes, [but] they still piqued the interest of admissions officers." But colleges also hand out "courtesy" spots for the children of alumni or donors, or take fewer students on the first pass to lower their admittance rate and bump up their exclusivity factor. 

How do admissions officials pick who makes it off the list?
The National Association for College Admission Counseling says that colleges weigh academic factors first, then a student's demonstrated interest in attending the school, and finally their ability to pay. Waitlisted students might increase their odds by showing their devotion to attending a school through phone calls, emails, and letters, but most slots will be filled by applicants who fit "unique holes in their incoming class — a prospective Classics scholar from Hawaii, for instance," say Ensign and Korn

What should you do if you're waitlisted?
It depends on how badly you want to go to that particular school. If your dream college waitlisted you, let them know you care, showing up on campus and sending on "anything new that has happened, such as third quarter grades," says education planner Judi Robinovitz. The safest approach, however, is to treat the waitlist notice as an "honorable mention" and move on, College Prep founder Megan Dorsey tells Education Week. "Many kids decide the uncertainty is not worth it. It prolongs the agony."

Sources: Business Insider, Education Week, Newser, Wall Street Journal

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week