Episode 161: College Wait Lists

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As we said last week, most of you have made a decision about what college your kid is going to by now.  You all have compared and contrasted the colleges that accepted your son or daughter and made the best decision you thought you could.  However, there might be one or two of you still holding out some hope for coming off the wait list of your kid’s favorite college choice.  I know that some of you have even put a deposit down on a sure thing while not entirely giving up hope on the long shot that is the wait list.  This episode is not so much about giving you advice, but rather about making you feel not so bad.

While we are not experts in the practice of wait listing, I can tell you anecdotally that I have seen kids this year and last year not get into colleges from the wait list when those kids were absolutely qualified to attend those colleges.  I imagine we all have stories like that.

1. Are Wait Lists a Waste of Time?

Let me read you some excerpts from a short piece that was heard recently on National Public Radio (NPR) on All Things Considered, as presented by Clare Lombardo and Elissa Nadworny.  Here we go:

[High school seniors have] opened their mail–or, more likely, an online portal–to finally hear decisions from colleges. But many didn’t get one. The number of students placed on college waiting lists has climbed in recent years, leaving students hoping for the best–even when they might not have any reason to hope at all.

“Many students … think they’re very close to getting in, and that there’s considerable hope for them to be admitted to the college,” says Cristiana Quinn, a private college admissions counselor in Rhode Island.

That’s not the case. In the spring of 2017, Dartmouth College, a small Ivy League school in New Hampshire, offered 2,021 waitlist spots to applicants. Of the 1,345 who chose to stay on the waitlist, not a single person got in. The University of Michigan offered 11,127 potential freshmen a place on their waitlist that spring–4,124 students accepted spots on the list, and 470 eventually got in.

The odds aren’t as slim elsewhere: At the University of Wisconsin?Eau Claire, 100 of the 450 students on the waitlist were accepted in 2017. And some schools, like North Carolina A&T State University and the University of Alabama, don’t use a waitlist at all. According to 2017 numbers from the National Association of College Admission Counseling, about 40 percent of colleges use waitlists. (quoted from the NPR piece)

Well, those numbers are arresting.  According to these statistics, top-tier colleges with long wait lists admit very few of those candidates–maybe 10 percent, at best.  Less-selective colleges might offer better odds, but my guess is that kids are not holding out hope for those spots the same way they are holding out hope for spots at great colleges or near-great colleges.  You don’t want to advise kids not to stay on the wait list if they really have their hearts set on someplace, but I think you also have to help kids understand just how uphill that climb is going to be.

And lest we forget, there’s this:  Colleges are not really ever doing anything to help the applicants; whatever they are doing with wait lists, they are doing for themselves.  It’s like Early Decision and Early Action and various phases of both.  While some of those plans help applicants, there is no doubt that colleges are getting a lot out of them, too.  Otherwise, colleges wouldn’t be offering them.

The NPR piece notes this:

The schools that do make applicants wait for a final decision do so to keep their options open, says Quinn, who works with students and families during the college application process.

“They want to have a very large pool to choose from–so that, for instance, if they don’t have a student from South Dakota, they can pull one from South Dakota. If they don’t have a student who plays the oboe, they can pick an oboe player, and on and on,” she says. When schools keep their admission rates low, it impacts school rankings and reputation–plus, intentional or not, the more students who almost get in are now thinking, talking and tweeting about them. (quoted from the NPR piece)

Well, that’s particularly annoying, I think.  Putting kids on the wait list as a way to get free PR?  Really?  I so hope that is not true, but I fear it might be.  Back to the NPR piece:

Quinn recently penned an open letter to college admissions officers on a private email list of admissions professionals.

“I beg you to stop the insanity,” she wrote. “Stop what you are doing to kids and parents and move to a modicum of reality next year when you create your waiting lists.” She says all of her students awaiting spring decisions were wait-listed at at least one school–and many of them were wait-listed at many. That hasn’t happened in the past.

“[Students] are not fully exploring the colleges where they have been accepted,” she says. Instead, they hold out hope for the colleges where they’ve been wait-listed. For low-income students, who depend on aid for tuition assistance, holding out for an offer becomes unrealistic because colleges often have little if any financial aid left over by the time they turn to the waiting list. (quoted from the NPR piece)

It’s hard to disagree with that advice to colleges.  Maybe colleges could just adopt some rule of thumb, like we will put three times as many kids on the wait list as we took in from the wait list in the previous year.  Then, kids on the wait list would have an idea of how good their chances were, and many kids would not be put on the wait list to begin with and could go on and make the best choice from their actual acceptances.  I won’t hold my breath that colleges are going to do this, but I honestly don’t see how it would hurt them–at least the top tier colleges, which are going to fill their freshman classes with qualified kids, no matter what.

2. What To Do If You Are on One

First of all, I think it should be clear that an applicant should not stay on the wait list of a college that the applicant is not truly interested in.  Why?  Obviously, it makes it harder for the kids who really do want to be on that list, and it distracts the student from paying attention to the options that he or she is more interested in pursuing.

Not surprisingly, many counselors advise students on wait lists to write letters to the admissions officer at the college to declare their ongoing interest in the college.  I don’t see how that can hurt, but clearly it doesn’t often help too much either, especially at top-tier colleges.  Such a letter would probably sound a lot like one we described back in Episode 148, when we discussed an appeal letter following a deferred decision in an Early Decision or Early Action situation.  Let’s recap what might go into such a letter (while this advice is likely too late for anyone still on a wait list right now, it might help all of you parents of juniors as you get ready for this time next year).  Here are some reasonable points to make in a one-page typed letter, which can be sent by email, but should also be sent in print by regular mail.

First, the applicant has to say that the college is his or her first choice and that he or she will attend, if admitted.  Ideally, of course, that would be true.  I am sure that many students say this, even when it is not true.  You will have to make your own moral judgment here.

Second, the applicant should show a solid understanding of the academics of the college and of how he or she will fit into the academic world there.  Naming a specific department, specific major, specific courses, and/or specific research opportunities are a good idea.  Make sure your kid knows exactly what the name of the department and major are inasmuch as they are different at every college, for some reason. Emphasize the notion of “fit” between the student and the college.

Third, the applicant should restate (since this information is likely in the original application or application essay) how he or she might fit in with specific extracurricular activities, including volunteer or service opportunities, performing music and drama groups, and sports at the college.  This part of the letter should be focused–just in case the college needs an oboe player.

Fourth, the applicant should mention any major accomplishments since the original application was submitted, especially new SAT or AP test scores or academic honors.

Fifth, the applicant should mention any close family connection to the college–including parents or grandparents who went there and/or siblings who went there or are there right now.  This mention should ideally explain what the student has learned from those personal connections and why that makes the college so much more attractive to him or her.  I believe that including this information in an understated way helps the college believe that this student is really more likely to enroll, if admitted.

3. What Else To Do If You Are on One

But the main thing to do if your kid ends up on one or more wait lists is to think hard about any acceptances he or she did get.

Visit those colleges, if you haven’t done so yet, perhaps at an accepted students day.  A great college visit at one of those colleges could make up for a lot of wait listed options.  If your kid falls in love with a college he or she has already been admitted to, game over–in a good way.

If you and your kid can’t visit, investigate your options as best you can.  For example, ask your high school counselor if any alums have gone to those colleges so that your kid can talk to someone who has experience there.  Do what you need to do to make those colleges come alive for your kid.  Because waiting around for wait listed options isn’t likely to work.

And, finally, here is my very best suggestion if your kid is not happy with his or her acceptances and is not likely to get in from a wait list, consider Richmond, The American International University in London.  Loyal listeners will know that one of my sons did his undergraduate work there and that my daughter did her master’s degree work there.  It is a fantastic university.  Really.  The good news for you now is that Richmond accepts applications until July 1 for a fall start.  Both my kids loved Richmond, and all of my experiences there–from sitting in on classes to meeting with professors to talking with administrators to chatting with students–have been excellent.  And, believe me, I am not easy to impress.  So, if your child is unhappy and you think London might be the answer, consider Richmond.  Costwise, it is far more affordable than many private universities in the U.S.  And, did I say it was in London?  Seriously, if you take a look at Richmond, you will not regret it.

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