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At Some Schools, the Wait List Rarely Ends Well, but There’s Hope

Wait-listed by your dream college? I have good news and bad news.

First the bad.

In the late 1990s, I had one of my few news scoops. It was a front-page story revealing that at some selective colleges the number of applicants on the wait list approached, and sometimes exceeded, the number of applicants accepted. Those college admissions officers could not bear to reject young people just as accomplished as the ones they were accepting. So they inflated their wait lists.

Their intentions were good. I thought their solution was humane, but also cowardly and deceptive. Since then, it’s gotten worse.

KC Deane, a research associate at the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, collected statistics for the 2012-13 admission cycle from U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 national universities and top 50 national liberal arts colleges. She found 71 schools that provided wait-list data. Twenty-seven of those wait-listed more than 20 percent of their applicants, but only two of them admitted more than five percent of the people on the wait lists.

Bates College and the University of Richmond, ranked 22nd and 25th respectively on the national liberal arts colleges list, “are the worst culprits,” Deane wrote in a post on the institute’s website. The two schools, respectively, placed “40 percent and 42 percent of their 5,000 and 10,000 applicants on the wait list. With a fall 2013 freshman enrollment of 500, Bates wait-listed more than four times the number of students it ultimately enrolled. At the University of Richmond, it’s five times as many.”

Bates admits about 27 percent of applicants, the University of Richmond about 30 percent. That’s pretty selective. The vast majority of U.S. colleges admit most of those who apply. But Deane notes that admissions directors at even highly ranked colleges live in fear of a big chunk of admitted students unexpectedly choosing competitors instead of them, so a cushion of kids on the wait list makes them feel better.

Fourteen of the colleges Deane examined accepted no wait-listed students in the 2012-13 cycle. At most of those colleges, the percentage of wait-listed people was small. Stanford University had only 2.1 percent of applicants on its list. MIT had only 3.7 percent. But their applicant pools were huge, so in reality many people were misled — more than 800 at Stanford and about 700 at MIT.

I promised some good news.

There are at least 300 colleges and universities with all the resources of the well-known schools mentioned above. Most of them have wait lists and admit students from them. As the May 1 deadline for making a choice looms, there is a way to increase your chances of being one of those picked. I have been sharing this strategy with the wait-listed children of friends for 20 years. So far it has worked every time.

Accept admission to whatever you consider the best fit among the schools that accepted you. Then tell the one you still want to keep you on its wait list. Ask its admission office for the name of the staffer deputized to communicate with people in your situation, and write a letter.

Tell the admissions officer in the first paragraph that the college is still your first choice, and you want to explain in detail why that is. Give three reasons, spending at least a paragraph on each, why the school matches your dreams. Perhaps the well-respected English department suits your desire to write and teach great literature. Maybe the chemistry department was mentioned often during your summer internship at a local lab.

Then identify three of your personal strengths you think would enhance the school. Perhaps your experience at food drives fits its work in the local community. Maybe your design ideas match what’s happening in the art department. Explain what you and the school can do together. You have shown not only that you want the college, but why. That can have a powerful effect.