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  • Jason Flurry, CFP

Waitlisted: Join the (ever growing) crowd.

Colleges can keep your hopes up for months, but do you really have a chance of getting accepted by waiting?


Under a published series of “best practices” colleges who are members of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) specifically agree to:


“provide in the notification letter or electronic communication of those applicants offered a place on the wait list a history that describes the number of students offered places on the wait lists, the number accepting places, the number offered admission, and the availability of financial aid and housing;”


Yet according to a study conducted by NACAC, 72 percent of the colleges and universities responding to NACAC's admissions trends survey did not inform students about their position on the wait list or their likelihood of admission.


Although 80 percent provided some written information about waitlist policies, this information generally pertained to directions for remaining on the wait list (93%), the amount of time students had to respond to being accepted from the wait list (64%), and the last date that admission offers would be made (59%).


In its most recent report on the State of College Admission, NACAC found that almost half of all colleges use a wait list and almost half of them report increasing the number of students they place on those lists with the average being 10 percent of all applicants. Of those students, an average of 49 percent of waitlisted students opted to remain on the list, which leaves a lot of people waiting in the wings.


According to NACAC, institutions admitted an average of 30 percent of all students who chose to remain on wait lists. BUT, those colleges and universities accepting fewer than 50 percent of applicants overall admitted an average of only 16 percent of waitlisted students. This suggests that many thousand waitlisted students were left unnecessarily hanging on to hopes and dreams when the colleges who placed them on hold could have notified them of their chances (or more realistically the lack thereof) from the beginning.


Sadly in the waitlist game, colleges hold all the cards. Not only can they place as many students as they want on the list to help ensure they never run out of potential applicants, they often do so with callous disregard to the anxiety and stress these lists cause.

Although some colleges do provide wait list statistics for families to review, many do not.


Even for those college publishing their statics on the Common Data Set, some of the more exclusive colleges and universities leave one or more of the questions pertaining to waitlist numbers blank. Even when they do disclose much of the information that is helpful to determining an applicant’s chances of success on a waitlist, the information is usually a year or two old. Each class is different and you never really know without the benefit of hindsight if the information you have is accurate.


Why some colleges are hesitant to be public about their wait lists isn’t such a mystery. Wait lists are getting longer, and the odds of being plucked off the list are stacked against the average applicant. But colleges need wait lists and have no problem stringing along several thousand students for the purpose of admitting only a handful—even in cases where some have already filled nearly 50 percent or more of the class through binding rounds of Early Decision admission notifications!


With special thanks to Nancy Griesemer for her work in this area, you can see just how exaggerated this problem has become at some of the most well-regarded institutions in the country. If nothing else, the statistics below from the 2015-16 CDS strongly suggest that NACAC needs to revisit the issue of wait list abuse and encourage more transparency within its members.


Amherst College, MA Total applicants: 8568 Enrolled: 477 Waitlisted: 1398—16% of total applicants or 293% of total enrolled (643 accepted places) Admitted: 33


Cal Tech, CA Total applicants: 6506 Enrolled: 241 Waitlisted: 615—9% of total applicants or 255% of total number enrolled (429 accepted places) Admitted: 0


Carnegie Mellon University, PA Total applicants: 20,547 Enrolled: 1575 Waitlisted: 5526—27% of total applicants and 351% of total number enrolled (2835 accepted places) Admitted: 4


Cornell University, NY Total applicants: 41,900 Enrolled: 6315 Waitlisted: 3583—8% of total applicants or 57% of total number enrolled (2231 accepted places) Admitted: 81


Georgia Tech, GA Total applicants: 27,277 Enrolled: 3089 Waitlisted: 3397—12% of total applicants or 110% of total number enrolled (2031 accepted places) Admitted: 38


Johns Hopkins University, MD Total applicants: 24,716 Enrolled: 1299 Waitlisted: 2752—11% of total applicants or 211% of total number enrolled (1747 accepted places) Admitted: 187


Lehigh University, PA Total applicants: 12,843 Enrolled: 1261 Waitlisted: 4234—33% of total applicants or 336% of total number enrolled (1847 accepted places) Admitted: 0


Northwestern University, IL Total applicants: 32,122 Enrolled: 2018 Waitlisted: 2614—8% of total applicants or 130% of total number enrolled (1452 accepted places) Admitted: 43


University of Notre Dame, IN Total applicants: 18,157 Enrolled: 2007 Waitlisted: 1602—9% of total applicants or 78% of total number enrolled (869 accepted places) Admitted: 0


Princeton University, NJ Total applicants: 27,290 Enrolled: 1319 Waitlisted: 1206—4% of total applicants or 91% of total number enrolled (857 accepted places) Admitted: 39


Rice University, TX Total applicants: 17,951 Enrolled: 969 Waitlisted: 2237—12% of total applicants or 231% of total number enrolled (1659 accepted places) Admitted: 127


Stanford University, CA Total applicants: 42,497 Enrolled: 1720 Waitlisted: 1256—3% of total applicants or 73% of total number enrolled (927 accepted places) Admitted: 0


Tulane University, LA Total applicants: 26,257 Enrolled: 1719 Waitlisted: 3413—13% of total applicants or 199% of total number enrolled (921 accepted places) Admitted: 0


UC Berkeley, CA Total applicants: 78,924 Enrolled: 5550 Waitlisted: 3760—5% of total applicants or 68% of total number enrolled (2445 accepted places) Admitted: 1340


University of Michigan, MI Total applicants: 51,761 Enrolled: 6071 Waitlisted: 14,960—29% of total applicants or 246% of total number enrolled (4512 accepted places) Admitted: 90


University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, NC Total applicants: 31,953 Enrolled: 4076 Waitlisted: 3144—10% of total applicants or 77% of total number enrolled (1513 accepted places) Admitted: 78


University of Pennsylvania, PA Total applicants: 37,268 Enrolled: 2435 Waitlisted: 2474—7% of total applicants or 102% of total number enrolled (1438 accepted places) Admitted: 90


Wesleyan University, CT Total applicants: 9822 Enrolled: 757 Waitlisted: 1877—19% of total applicants or 248% of total number enrolled (884 accepted places) Admitted: 12

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