“From Purgatory to the Promised Land: Keys to Gaining Admission from the Wait List”

By Peter Van Buskirk

The odds are that among the admission decision letters received by college applicants in the coming days will be a few that bear the curious message, “We are pleased to offer you a place on the Wait List.” If you receive such a message, you might find it puzzling. You can’t find the word “congratulations” anywhere in the letter, yet the school is “pleased to offer you…”—what?

Your instincts say that if you are not “in” you must be “out.” Rejected. At the very least, you might convince yourself that it is just a polite denial letter. Before you draw too many conclusions, read the letter carefully. Your application hasn’t been dismissed. It’s simply been put on hold.

Rather than a polite denial, the Wait List offer is a “definite maybe.” Whether you knew it or not, you were on the competitive “bubble” among the candidates at the college in question. You were certainly qualified—deserving of consideration in a close competition—but you were not a shoo-in. When it came time for the admission committee to make very fine distinctions, it chose others over you. By offering you a place on the Wait List, though, the committee is really saying, “We like you. Since we might not get the number of enrollments we need from the initial round of acceptances, we might be able to admit you later.”

While such an explanation does not feel very reassuring as you read it for the first time, you might well have options before this whole thing is over. Hang in there. Most of the selective colleges in the country will admit students from the Wait List every year in numbers ranging from half a dozen to well over 100.

The Inside Scoop
Information about Wait List status and movement is closely guarded. Colleges are sensitive to negative inferences that are made about the “need” to go to the Wait List and prefer to be discrete about the extent of their reliance on it for enrollment. As a result, admission officers are very careful to admit only the number of students needed from the WL in fleshing out the enrolling class. While they admit to address unmet needs (special talent, diversity, gender mix, etc.) in the class, they are also careful to admit only those students who are likely to enroll.

For example, a highly selective institution is likely to offer WL status to at least as many students as it admits in the Regular Admission process. In other words, if an institution admits 3,000 Regular Decision candidates, it is likely to offer WL status to at least that many. Those who are offered WL status must then “qualify” themselves for further consideration by acknowledging their continued interest. Typically a fraction of the students do so which puts them on the “active” WL for a given college. It is this active WL that becomes the new candidate pool in the event that the institution decides to admit more students.

When the need for students from the WL is determined, admission officers usually reach out directly to the students who have remained “active,” either by phone, email or text with a message that sounds like, “We are able to offer admission to a few students on the WL. If you want a place in the class, you may have it. If not, we will offer it to the next student on the WL. Please let us know as soon as possible (often within 24 hours).” And it can happen that suddenly—from purgatory to the Promised Land in an instant! For students whose interest in the college has remained steadfast, the decision is easy—”Yes, I’m coming!” Many others, however, will have since made commitments to other institutions and will decline on the WL offer. The admitting college will continue to contact students on the active WL until it gets the number of affirmative responses it needs. In this manner, it could reach out to 100 students before getting “yes’s” from the 20 it needs!

It is worth noting that colleges will only count as “admitted” those students who accept the offer of admission from the WL and to whom they send formal letters of admission thereby introducing a high yield cohort into the class. One of the incredibly misleading statistics published by institutions is that they only admit a small percentage of the students who are on the WL. While admitting 20 from the group of 3,000 who were offered WL status seems miniscule, the reality is that, among the 25-35% who remain “active,” the odds that a WL call will come are often much better than you might imagine.

The process outlined above represents the “insurance policy” colleges have used historically to “top off” their classes from the WL. In the present, however, enrollment managers—ever conscious of the need to improve yield and selectivity—have seized on the opportunity to bolster the yield and selectivity rates for their institutions by factoring the WL into their enrollment models. “Why,” the logic goes, “should we admit so many low-yielding Regular Decision candidates when we can put them on the WL and see who really wants to come?” By displacing low-yield Regular Decision candidates with high-yield WL candidates, institutions can measurably improve their yields on offers of admission while becoming more selective. In effect, the WL is now being operated covertly as a “back-end Early Decision” tactic.

While Wait Lists at some of the most selective institutions might not “move” until June, it is not uncommon for colleges to begin admitting from the WL as early as mid-April in order to optimize their chances at enrolling the students they want before the latter begin committing to other institutions. Students admitted from the WL prior to the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date will typically be those who do not need any financial assistance. If a WL is active after May 1—and it’s institution has financial aid resources left over from the earlier rounds of admission—students with financial need might be considered. It is not uncommon, though, for institutions that are aggressive with the WL to completely deplete the roster of “full pay” students on the active WL before getting to the most talented students on the WL who have need.

Next Steps
If you are on the Wait List at one of your favorite colleges, here is what you need to know—and do—in order to give yourself a competitive edge.

  1. Wait Lists will be active because colleges are constantly gambling that their yield on initial offers will be better than expected. They are usually wrong.
  2. When they go to the Wait List, admission officers have efficiency in mind. They want to fill their empty seats as quickly as possible. Rather than mailing offers of admission to hundreds of students, they will call or email candidates one at a time until they receive the number of commitments they need.
  3. Make sure that the school knows it is your first choice. Write a letter confirming your interest. Visit. 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.
  4. Stay on the radar screen of the staff member who recruits in your area. Make sure they know you are available and ready to accept an offer of admission. Continue to show your interest without becoming a pest.
  5. 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 tuba players, but now have a need for an oboist.
  6. Colleges may need students who won’t require financial assistance. If there had ever been a question about your need for financial aid, be clear about what your family can afford. Your need of assistance could well be a determining factor. Movement from Wait Lists prior to May 1 will probably be limited to students who do not need financial aid.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 ready to embrace one of your other options.

So, take heart. The enrollment opportunities from the Wait List are very real. In fact, competing for admission from the Wait List is like playing in a contest that has gone into overtime. If you assume the game is lost, you can’t win. Keep “playing,” then—hard and smart—to give yourself a chance for a happy outcome.

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