Students: Here's What to Understand About the Waitlist
By Erin Barnes on March 26, 2021
This is a transcription of a recent podcast episode where we sit down with Former Dean of Admission and Strategic Advisor to Scoir, Peter Van Buskirk, to discuss all things waitlist.
ERIN: So today we're going to be talking about the waitlist. We have reached the point in the year when most colleges have revealed their decisions. Offers of admission and letters of denial are pretty clear, but a lot of students are receiving letters informing them that they are on the waitlist. So for those students listening in, what exactly is the waitlist, what does it mean for the students receiving those letters?
PETER: The waitlist is an unusual invention by colleges and universities. The letter the students received says something like this: “We're pleased to offer you a place on the waitlist” and when you get that letter you're thinking, “pleased to offer” – this must be good news – and then...the waitlist, well that’s not an offer acceptance.
It's really an attempt on the part of the institution to provide an insurance policy for itself as it enrolls the class. Typically, when colleges send out offers of admission, they admit more students that are likely to come there, anticipating that there will be a certain yield on offers of admission if that yield on offers of admission turns out to be lower than anticipated, then they need to have a fall-back option and that becomes the waitlist – the insurance policy if you will…
ERIN: So how exactly does that work for the student, then? What do they need to do if they are offered a spot on the waitlist?
PETER: Typically, in addition to saying "we're pleased to offer you a place on the waitlist," the letter will also say: “in order to secure a place on the active waitlist, list you need to return a postcard, send us a letter, do something" ...There's a call-to-action in that initial waitlist letter that gives the student an opportunity to become active on the waitlist. And I say active because the fact that you're offered waitlist status doesn't mean that that's the only step you need to take….you need to accept that you've been offered that place and you say to the institution “yes I would like to maintain that place on the waitlist”
So the institution might send out 5,000 – literally 5,000 – offers of waitlist status to students, and typically 1/4 of those students will actually say “yes, keep me active” and it will be that active waitlist that is operational for the college. In that scenario where 5,000 waitlist status letters go out, there could be maybe 1,200 to 1,500 students who say “yes, keep me active” so the real waitlist then from which colleges will draw their students it will be the active wait list.
ERIN: So the difference between the number of students who are offered waitlist status and those who actually remain active on that waitlist sounds like a pretty large difference…
PETER: Yeah, and I think that this is important too because sometimes in that initial waitlist status letter that the colleges send out, they will say, you know “last year, or historically, we've had X number of students – let's say 5,000 students – on the waitlist and we were able to enroll 15”…. and the students are like “holy smokes, I don't have a chance at all.”
What's missed in that communication is that the progression from the general waitlist status letter, to the 5000, to maybe 1500 that remain active on the waitlist, down to then the number who actually might be enrolled...and there's still another step that we're going to talk about here, I think between the active waitlist and actually becoming enrolled…so colleges kind of play with numbers a little bit there to ironically suggest that it's very difficult to get in from the waitlist when in fact it's not as difficult as you might imagine.
ERIN: So Peter, if I were a student listening in today, I would be curious to know are waitlists organized at all? How do colleges decide whom to admit first from that waitlist?
PETER: That’s a good question because the colleges like to be able to talk in terms of having their waitlist organized and when the waitlist might be organized initially, colleges will be grouping students, if you will, and that will probably reflect some academic performance value that society associated with those students…but the reality is that breaks down real fast, real fast. Typically the factors that that are most important in determining who gets in off of the waitlist first are – to be quite honest with you – the students ability to pay, and this is the likelihood that the student will enroll and the student’s ability to pay is important for the following reason: when colleges have sent out their offers of regular admission – again expecting a certain yield – they will also have sent out financial aid award letters to those students who were offered regular admission, again anticipating that if all of the students that were offered admission with financial aid accepted according to their yield models that all our financial aid would be gone…so if a college is going to accept students from the waitlist prior to the candidate reply date which is May 1st, they would be probably foolish to extend more financial aid to students which would then overdraw on their financial aid budget.
So, the first groups of students who are admitted from the waitlist are typically students who do not need financial assistance. It's entirely possible then that colleges will get well into the full-pay waitlist and qualitatively, before they get to the very top of the need-based waitlist, so that's a big deal and you just need to understand that if you need financial assistance you may wait longer for a waitlist activity then if you don't need financial assistance…and then of course the other pieces in April or May of the admission year admission officers really don't want to have to work a lot harder than is necessary to get the class. So the students who are likely to get the first opportunity are the ones that are the easiest to find…so if you're on a waitlist and you choose to remain active on the waitlist you want to make sure that you let that institution know how they can find you: you want to make sure your cell phone is available, your email, any kind of communication account that you have that can be used to reshoot is readily accessible to the admission officer.
The other thing that comes into play: colleges will use the waitlist to kind of balance out the class. The waitlist is an opportunity to look at the gender balance within a class if it turns out that through the regular admission process there are more men than women, then maybe we lean toward women in in the waitlist activity…if we have an opportunity through the waitlist to increase our ethnic profile of the class, will work on the…and then of course there are special interest that come into play too, that there might be a situation where the football coach wasn't able to get his top recruit in a particular position and maybe there's there's another recruit that's on the wait list that we could take a look at…those kinds of things all come into play as well, but the notion that there is an absolute ranking for students on the waitlist is really kind of folly, we might start with that but it breaks down real fast as all these other special interests and needs come into play.
ERIN: The ambiguity of being placed on a waitlist sounds like it might be a bit stressful for a student. That said, if you are a student who is committed to remaining active on a waitlist, when might you expect to find out if you are admitted or not?
PETER: Well, it depends on the the situation for the institution. Generally speaking, and I mentioned the candidate replied date, generally speaking when a student is offered admission the expectation is that the student will make a decision about enrolling or not at that institution by May 1st of the senior year. So generally then, it falls to reason that a lot of the waitlist activity happens after May 1st after the institution has been has been able to see what the final results are of the offers of regular admission. However there are some institutions that are somewhat intentionally coming up short on that enrollment goal through the regular admission process. And I say somewhat intentionally because when colleges admit students from the wait list they are able to manage that process at a very high yield rate typically 70 to 75% of the students were admitted from the waitlist will enroll. Conversely, students admitted regular decision will enroll at many institutions at a much lower rate maybe 15 to 20 to 25% rate. So colleges that are trying to look like they're becoming more selective will admit fewer students in the regular process, intending them to take more high yield students from the waitlist. When that happens the waitlist tends to be active as early as maybe the second or third week in April because those colleges want to find those students and get them committed as quickly as possible, rather than allowing them to sort of float on the economy well into the end of April and into May when they may have other options.
ERIN: So if you are a student who is accepted from the waitlist of a college, what will the procedure from that point look like? Is it is it a letter, is it an email, are there phone calls being made – what takes place after that?
PETER: Well, as I suggested earlier, if you're offered waitlist status and you choose to remain active on the waitlist, the most important thing you can do is let him know that yes you wish to remain active on the waitlist and then you want to make sure they know how to find you. It's also important that you provide new information as it might relate to grades – any new honors or awards, new activities that you've gotten involved with, you wanted to stay engaged with the institution as much as possible, how they will reach out to you then will depend frankly on the person at the school…sometimes the school will send you an email saying we've got a place for you off of the waitlist, would you like to join our class….sometimes they'll make the call and and frankly when I was doing this at Franklin & Marshall, we were we were making phone calls to students and the conversation would sound sort of like this, you know, “we're pleased to be able to offer you a place from the waitlist, would you be interested in taking that?” and some students would immediately say “wow this is great I'm going to do it” wonderful then “what we need to see from you is an enrollment deposit” then in a very short period of time and literally colleges will probably expect students to respond to the wait list with an enrollment deposit you know anywhere from three to five days this isn't this isn't something you think about then for a couple of more weeks.
So if you're sitting on a wait list you need to be thinking strategically about OK what am I gonna do if they call me? Am I going to be able to say yes or am I going to be able to say no? You have to have that thought in mind. The longer colleges wait before making that contact, the greater the chance the student might have made a commitment elsewhere. So I made calls before where the student says “I would love to come but I've already made a commitment to another school so I'm going to have to say no.” That happens as well, but the colleges will typically reach out very directly to you because they want a quick turnaround they want a response almost immediately. So just know that that that the the waitlist situation is going to be a pretty active fluid situation and you need to be ready to respond when the call comes.
ERIN: Certainly a very unique situation and for those students who have decided to commit to remaining active on the waitlist, it sounds like you need to keep all lines of communication open and be ready to strike while the iron is hot so to speak.
PETER: Well absolutely and I just want to add one more thought to this. Sometimes, there's a perception that when colleges go to the waitlist they just send out waitlist letters of acceptance to all the students who remain on the waitlist, and that's simply not so. They're going to be very targeted about who they're calling and how many students they call, because again they're trying to not only get students to fill the class, but they want to improve their yield and ultimately their selectivity in the process
ERIN: Is there anything at all that a student could do to give themselves a better chance of receiving that call?
PETER: I think again making sure that she's available, easy to find, but I think the students who at the end of the day get the call – in addition to the things I mentioned before – the students that that are sort of on my radar now if…I have to find you go find you, that's going to make it a difficult decision because I just don't have time for that…so maintaining contact with the people at the institution who recruit at your high school will be the most important thing because quite often it will be that person who recruits at your high school who makes that call to you about the waitlist opportunity.
ERIN: We touched on this a little bit earlier, but let's talk in depth about what exactly a waitlisted student should plan to do if they commit to remain inactive on waitlist. So, you know, if I commit to remain active on a waitlist, should I still plan to enroll at another college? What happens then if my waitlist offer comes through after my enrollment deposit has been submitted at another college? Is that double depositing – is that frowned upon? You know, let's talk a little bit about, from your perspective, how students should proceed?
PETER: There are a lot of rules of engagement here. Historically, National Association of College Admission Counseling has establish some rules with regard to how colleges should be managing the process and how students should react and one of the rules is that when a student makes an enrollment decision at a particular college, that’s a final decision – and you used the word double depositing – there's a tendency on the part of some students at times to send in enrollment deposits to two or three or four colleges which they're basically putting off making a final decision and there there's seemingly happy to forfeit the deposits that many of those schools because they can only take one. That's really frowned upon. There’s nothing illegal, there are no legal implications here, but there are ethical implications and colleges are really working hard to make sure that that they are helping students to make decisions in an ethical manner. So that said, when students are on waitlists in April, and they have offers of acceptance in hand from other schools already, things get a little dicey because the longer the calendar goes, the closer you get to the end of April or that candidate reply date, the more you worry well, what if I don't get in from that school off the waitlist and maybe it's your dream school, but there are a couple of other schools that have admitted you, and you like them.
My strong advice is to go ahead and secure enrollment at a place that's already admitted you. If your dream school that accepts you from the waitlist later, it is acceptable for students to forfeit an enrollment at one school if they are offered a place in the class at another school from the waitlist. So that's not a problem, but I would strongly suggest that you cover your options with one enrollment deposit to a college that you would enroll at which you would enroll if the waitlist doesn't work out waitlist works out then then you can forfeit the original deposit and literally don't get that money back and then make your commitment to the school that's taking from the waitlist.
ERIN: In your experience, is there a number that we can put on to describe the typical odds of a student being admitted from the wait list?
PETER: Well, I don't know if I could put a number on it exactly, but I would use the metaphor of a sporting event just to illustrate what's going on here. If you've been competing in a sporting event, and at the end of regulation time, the score is tied, what do you do? Typically, you go to overtime. Now, if you get to overtime and you feel like you know I've left my game on the field, there's nothing more for me to do, I'm just not going to get into it in overtime – what are your chances of winning? Zero. If you continue to compete in overtime, got a pretty good chance of winning, you know it's probably 50/50 chance of winning, which the analogy here is with admission you've been working at this for a long time, a lot of months maybe years, and now you got to the end of the regular decision process and you're on a wait list which means that OK games not completely over, we're going to go to overtime. Waitlist is the overtime and if you decide that you have left your game on the table with the regular admission process, there's no sense in competing for admission off of the waitlist, what are your chances of getting in? Zero. So if you decide to remain active on the waitlist your odds actually might be better than they were as a regular decision candidate.
The way you approach the waitlist will, in many ways, determine the probabilities of admission there's no guarantee that you're going to get in, but if you look at the waitlist as a dead-end proposition, no chance of anything, but if you embrace the waitlist as a new opportunity to continue to compete then again, I would suggest that your odds go up! I can't put an actual number on it, but I would suggest that your odds go up.