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Wait List A Blessing or a Curse

Jacques Steinberg, author of The Gatekeepers, and moderator of the New York Times’ College Choice blog, noted in his recent article (Few Find Hope on Waiting List at Top Colleges, New York Times, April 14, 2010) that Duke University had placed 3,382 students on its waiting list for the Class of 2014. This number represents almost twice the number of students expected to matriculate in the fall. What accounts for this explosion in the number of students on the waiting list this year? Several factors may contribute to this phenomenon. More students are applying to more colleges than ever before. In years past, students applied to 8-10 colleges, but now that number often approaches 12-15 applications. Colleges must review many more applications within the same three-month time frame. Often, students apply to colleges within a narrow band of selectivity. It stands to reason, then, that there will be many potential cross-admits. Therefore, colleges may have a harder time predicting their yield, or the number of students that actually accept an offer of admission and matriculate in the fall.

Christopher Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke, admitted to the NY Times that, “Another reason the list is so long this year, is that he and his colleagues were so overwhelmed by the volume of applicants that they ran out of time.” According to that article, students, at least on Duke’s waiting list, are not ranked. Dean Guttentag explained that the waiting list would be used, if necessary, “…to finish sculpting the class.” “From an institutional perspective, it’s important that I have some flexibility.” What this really means is that if there is a surfeit of students who have declared their intent to study English, a college may pluck a prospective math major off its waiting list. Or, in the classic example, if the orchestra has graduated its last bassoonist, and no double reed players accept an offer of admission, that college will go to the waiting list to fill that institutional need. This appears to confirm the worst nightmare of a waitlisted applicant – that there really is little chance of being admitted.

What does this mean for the student whose applications have yielded one or more waitlist offers? As with many other aspects of the college application process, the answer is, it depends. If the student’s personality allows him to keep his options open –assuming that doing so does not violate the stated policy of a school he accepts in the interim – then he should keep his name on the waiting list and hope for the best.

What would you do?

If you choose to accept a place on a college’s waiting list, and many colleges require you to be proactive to do so, there are things you can do to try and increase your odds of being plucked from the list. Let the school know you truly want to go there. Send an honest letter telling them why that school should choose you. Provide any meaningful updates to the information in your file. If you know in advance that you will definitely attend, if admitted, tell that to admissions. Just know the odds are not in your favor. Safia Khan, a student at Cary Academy in Chapel Hill, NC explained, in a NYT editorial (April 15, 2010), that students of her generation excel at waiting, and notes, “Whether we like it or not, rejection is a reality – and we should learn to live with it before graduating into the working world. Eventually, we need a straight answer from the grown-ups who decide our fates.”

Many students, cognizant of the few places offered to students on waiting lists in any given year, prefer to just move on and plan their future at the school that has accepted and wants them now. Our advice: be realistic, and do what feels right to you. If you can handle the continued uncertainty, accept a spot on the waiting list of the school of your dreams and be patient. But, if you’d rather look ahead, and focus on the future, send in your deposit to the school you will attend, order your hoodie and look forward to move-in day.

Leslie Berkovits, Collegistics LLC
Collegistics LLC provides comprehensive services to students and parents who are embarking on, or in the midst of, the college application process. Providing families the benefit of seven advisors, Collegistics uses a team approach, offering the kind of practical and emotional support that results in an informed and less stressful college application experience. If you have any questions about the college process you would like to see addressed in future issues, email: info@collegistics.com or call: (914) 722-6050. Please visit our website at www.collegistics.com for further information.

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