“Wait List Status Does Not Have to be a ‘Dead End'”

The word on the street is that college “Wait Lists” are huge again this year. But what does that mean? Are colleges rejecting more students, albeit more gently, by way of the Wait List—or are we seeing the emergence of new enrollment strategies?

Experience suggests that it is much more the latter than the former. This was very much in evidence when, on April 2, I asked the dean of admission at a highly selective college for some insight into why a very talented advisee had been put on the wait list. His response was telling. “We liked the young man very much—he was a great candidate for us. We were uncertain, though, about his interest in us. Tell him not to worry, though. We plan to go to the Wait list for about 60 students later this spring. If he stays active on our Wait List, he should be fine.”

How could the dean have been so encouraging if he wasn’t certain that his Wait List would be active as part of his school’s enrollment strategy? The fact is that admission officers have found that they can improve institutional yield and selectivity rates by reducing the number of talented, but relatively low-yielding students admitted through the Regular Decision process and taking more high-yielding (and talented) students from the Wait List.

Think about it. The anticipated return on offers of admission in the Regular Decision process is relatively low given the fact that those students are likely to have compelling offers from other schools as well. It’s not uncommon for a selective institution to admit four or five Regular Decision candidates in order to enroll one.

However, admission officers can be much more targeted as they select students from the Wait List. Rather than sending hundreds of offers in anticipation that the right number will respond in the affirmative, they contact Wait Listed students one at a time until they have received the right number of commitments to meet their enrollment goals. Operating in this manner, admission officers can manage the yield on Wait List offers at a much more desirable rate of about 75%.

Frankly, such tactics are becoming commonplace. Somewhat curiously, though, institutional Wait List strategies are held “close to the vest” at most places behind bold proclamations that the enrollment picture is as strong as ever. It is almost as though institutions are fearful that admitting students from the Wait List will be seen as a tacit admission of failure in the admission process.

Consider, for example, the recent experience of a “most highly selective” institution. As the admission decisions were being released in April, its admission officers began making early and very pubic assurances that it had seen a record number of applicants, the Early Decision process had generated more enrollments than ever and the ever-important measures of quality were at their highest as well. In light of these successes, there would be no need to admit more than a few “political” cases from the Wait List.

Six weeks later, that same institution quietly admitted more than 200 students from its Wait List! Apparently, it was feeling more “political” pressure than it had anticipated! The truth of the matter is that by engaging in such heavy Wait List activity, that institution—and many others like it—was able to address internal needs while substantially burnishing its admission profile. The use of the Wait List had become a clear, albeit discrete, strategy to boost its selectivity and improve its yield on offers of admission.

That being the case—and despite institutional rhetoric to the contrary—you can expect to see considerable movement of students from Wait Lists in the coming weeks. Far from a polite denial, then, the offer of Wait List status now looms with much greater promise—if you elect to remain active on that Wait List.

In reality, the Wait List is to the admission process as “overtime” is to athletic event. In each case, your chances of success correlate directly with your determined engagement. If you give up hope and stop competing, you have no chance of finding success.

If you are determined to continue competing in this “overtime” period involving the Wait List, gaining admission to the school of your choice will likely hinge on your ability to:

1.  Make sure the school knows it is your first choice. Write a letter confirming your interest. Visit—again!

2.  Send new grades. Provide new insight into your performance as well as evidence of recent accomplishments that might not have appeared on your initial application.

3.  Be sure to provide evidence of your potential “hooks.” Colleges re-define their needs as they go to the Wait List. For example, they may have acquired plenty of soccer goalies, but now have need of a striker or two.

4.  Stay on the radar screen of the staff member who recruits in your area. This person is really important right about now as s/he might be given the opportunity to identify students to be admitted from the Wait List. Make sure that person knows you are available and ready to accept an offer of admission—and knows how to reach you! Continue to show your interest without becoming a pest.

5.  Be clear about what your family can afford to pay. Your need of assistance could well be a determining factor.

6.  Be ready for the call. Many Wait List offers will come after the May 1 deadline for submitting enrollment deposits. If such a call comes, you need to be prepared to decide quickly (often in 24 hours) whether you want to forfeit an earlier enrollment at another school in order to take advantage of the acceptance from the Wait List.

Finally, don’t allow yourself to become so preoccupied with the Wait List situation that you lose track of your more immediate options. If the Wait List offer doesn’t come, you need to be prepared to happily embrace one of your other options.

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