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College Admissions Purgatory

A waitlist offer is the in-between of admissions decisions—not a yes and not a no, more like a maybe. Applicants can ask questions, like “Why wasn’t I good enough to make the cut?”, yet at the same time be hopeful and think, “Well, at least, I still have a chance.” And, then the comparisons with people who actually were accepted can arise, adding stress, especially when inevitably someone who has a lower GPA and lower test scores, but was accepted is identified. It’s a normal reaction to want to understand why a waitlist invitation was offered.

The waitlist is a strategic hedge for the university admissions officers to reasonably ensure they meet their intended enrollment numbers. If not enough admitted seniors choose the university by the May 1, 2018 response date, then the admissions officers will begin offering admissions to students who elected to stay on the waitlist.

A recent article from Inside Higher Education included information about Brown University’s “hedge”, having admitted 2566 applicant for Fall 2018, yet offered 2724 other people a waitlist position. “If every single admitted applicant rejected Brown’s offer, it would have wait-list candidates to spare in building a class larger than the last one.”

Brown University admissions officers are not alone, as University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) admissions officers offered approximately 3500 candidates a place on their waitlist, for a projected incoming class of 2445 people.  It’s reasonable to deduct that admissions officers at highly selective colleges, like at Ivy League institutions (e.g. Brown and UPenn), know students are being admitted to multiple highly selective colleges, so will keep a “backup” option with a generous waitlist.

Additionally, the large numbers of qualified applicants can be another reason for waitlist invitations.  As John L. Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College recently explained:

We do offer the waiting list to many students. This is because they are talented and deserving of admission, but we’re just not able to admit them due to the quality of our pool. To some extent, we want to be respectful of how hard they’ve worked and how difficult it is to receive an outright rejection.

– Inside Higher Education, April 2, 2018

Thus, a waitlist offer is not a denial of admissions.

What to do about waitlist offers

For now, students who desire to hedge their admissions chances, can choose to hold a spot on the waitlist, following the directions given by the particular university.  For some colleges, applicants need to submit a short statement why they’re still interested in being considered for admissions from the waitlist.  And, even in cases where a student is not required to submit a short statement of interest, the statement can make a difference.  Admissions officers want students who want to come to their college and an overt statement of “I still like you too” can help an admissions officer in their decisions, giving the waitlisted student the greatest opportunity for admissions.

W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president for external relations at Augustana College, in Illinois, said…[that] a lack of “demonstrated interest” in the college…may have led to the applicants not being admitted.

– Inside Higher Education, April 2, 2018

Thus, the extra effort is noticed and can make a difference in gaining admissions from the waitlist.

In the meantime, seniors should choose a college by May 1, 2018, as an offer of admissions is not guaranteed for people on the waitlist.  Plus, the majority of waitlist offers are sent after May 1.  Keep in mind, though, even if seniors are offered admissions off the waitlist, they do not need to accept the offer.