The Waitlist. Why?!

Listen to “The Waitlist…Why?! – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

The only thing more annoying than a four-year old incessantly asking you why is a twelve-year-old, impersonating a four-year old asking you why. Plus, they are faster, and not as easily distracted by a lollipop or cartoon.

However, lately our ten-year old has come up with some pretty solid queries about how things work.

Why are some metals not magnetic?

Why do Americans say, “soccer” instead of “football?”

Not liking my first answer, she patiently rephrased, “Why did Americans decide to name another sport “football?”   

If you’ve received a waitlist offer recently, you are probably also asking, “why?” And while Google was quite helpful on “Why California became a state before Oregon,” you’ll find some disconcerting and completely inaccurate information about college waitlists on the interwebs.

Waitlisted? Here is what you need to know:

Why do they exist?

Colleges use historical trends and statistical models to predict “yield,” i.e., the number or percentage of students that accept an offer of admission and choose to enroll. Currently, the average yield for four-year colleges is around 35%.

Yield varies based on a variety of factors. For example, a student’s major, distance from campus, and financial aid package all contribute to their likelihood of committing. But, for the purposes of simplicity, if a school is looking to enroll 1,000 students, and their expected yield is 33%, they’ll need to admit approximately 3,000 students.

As you can imagine, this year yield is more fragile and unpredictable than ever. The pandemic has thrown all kinds of curveballs into the equation, including issues around finances, health, willingness to travel great distances from home, and so on.

Ultimately, however, chancellors, presidents and boards of directors/trustees do not care about variables. Every university has an enrollment goal they are expected to meet, and the admissions and enrollment teams are charged with bringing in that class–both in overall size and particular composition.

If yield drops (as it has most places in recent years), the college needs to be able to make additional offers to hit stated targets. Voila- The Waitlist!

How do waitlists work?

A waitlist for a college is not the same as a line outside of a concert or restaurant (use your way back machine to visualize this reference). In other words, schools do not assign numbers or rank to the students on their waitlist. Instead, they watch their deposits closely beginning in April and compare those numbers with their goals. If they see that their geographic, gender, academic, or other demographic targets are “soft” (i.e. not coming in at the level they are looking for), they may go to their waitlist before their deposit deadline. Otherwise, they will wait until after their deposit deadline, assess the gap between their targets and their current number of deposits, and then begin making offers to “shape” their class.

Here is an example. Good College, located in Bonne, is trying to grow their Economics program. They have 560 students on their waitlist. After their deposit deadline, they see they still need 20 deposits to hit their overall class target. They also notice that students depositing for Economics are at the same level as the year before. So, guess who is getting the first wave of waitlist offers?

Waitlist activity is influenced not only by the demographics and composition of the incoming students, but also on who is graduating and which current students they expect to return. In other words, if the university always wants to be able to say they have at least one student from each of the 50 states, and their one Nebraskan is a senior… “Welcome to Good, Mr. Bien from Kearney, NE.”

How they don’t work.

  • Each year, a few admitted students will inform us they are going to choose another college, but they want to “give their spot” to a friend on the waitlist. That’s good looking out, and kind to offer. Not how it works, but good looking out. 
  • Showing up to “demonstrate interest” is not a thing. Even in non-pandemic times, coming to the admission office to say, “Hey!” Or “Hey, I’m on the waitlist and… I’d like to come off.” Or “Hey, I’m on the waitlist and… I’d like to come off… and I really like your shirt.” NOPE. None of that is necessary, and none of that will work. See Admission 101 advice below.

What can you do if you are waitlisted?

  1. Accept your spot on the list. At most schools the waitlist decision is actually an offer, rather than an automatic spot on the list. Typically, you need to take action of some kind to claim your waitlist spot. You also may need to complete a supplementary short answer question, send mid-semester grades, or submit another recommendation letter/ interview. All colleges vary in how they work their waitlist, but Admission 101 = read what they send and do what it says. 
  1. Deposit elsewhere. The college that has offered you a spot on their waitlist should be instructing you to take this step, as it is absolutely critical. Because many admitted students wait until the week prior to the deposit deadline to commit, the majority of waitlist activity occurs in May, June, and July. That means you need to put your money down at another school in order to secure your spot. Just like the college, you are hedging your bets.
    I hate to go all Effie Trinket on you here, but just in case no one else says it… the waitlist odds are not in your favor. “But I thought you just said…” I know, I know. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is a numbers game, and this year you’ve got plenty of company on the waitlist. Your job is to get excited about a school that did admit you and secure your space in their class.

3. Don’t stalk the admission office. Claim your spot, send in what they ask for, and wait. That’s it! If you really feel compelled to send an email to an admission counselor that you’ve met or corresponded with previously, that could be your one other action item. If you do that, it’s a one and done deal. We have seen students send a painted shoe with a message on the bottom reading: “just trying to get my foot in the door.” Memorable, but ultimately ineffective. Admission offices regularly receive chocolates, cookies, and treats along with poems or notes. It is safe to say that a couple hundred grams of sugar and a few couplets are not going to outweigh institutional priorities. There is a distinct line between expressing interest and stalking. Stay in your lane.

4. Finish Well. This is not the “scared straight” message about keeping your grades up, not being a jerk to your sister, or posting mean things online. If you have not heard all of that by now, we have an entirely different set of issues. Instead, my hope is you will not let being on a waitlist keep you from enjoying the last part of your senior year. It’s already been challenging enough with Covid-19, so don’t make it any more stressful or difficult for yourself. Spend time with your friends and family and do the things you love.

For the Record

Whether you are an admissions dean, a student, a school counselor, or a parent, we can all agree on this- The Waitlist Sucks. It’s like the brain freeze of admissions land; it’s the seventh layer of admission purgatory; it’s our collective Newman! Why? Why! Why?!

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college