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Countdown to college: Worried about the wait list?

By Lee Shulman Bierer, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Education News

Decisions have been released, and high school seniors are trying to decide where to (hopefully) unpack next fall. Some students were waiting to visit colleges once they were accepted and now find themselves having to make a decision about where to spend the next four years of their lives without having the opportunity to visit and compare.

Others find themselves in limbo. In college parlance, that means the wait list. They need to deposit at one of the colleges where they were accepted, but they are very interested in one or two or three of the colleges that put them on the wait list.

The year 2020 is different on so many levels. But the response to the coronavirus is going to make it a particularly unusual year. Many families will want to keep their freshman closer to home. Others will not be willing to fork over $20,000-$30,000 in tuition for the first semester when the students may be sleeping in their own bedrooms and taking online classes. So the "yield" (the percentage of students who accept the offer of admission) is expected to be different from past years.

Public institutions, where tuition is far less expensive, are expected to have much higher yields than normal, and private schools are more likely to go to their wait lists to fill in their classes. College and university enrollment managers, whose job is to predict and manage enrollment, anticipate that international students will be more reluctant to journey to the United States due to our more recent dealings with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yield rates have been steadily dropping. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, a decade ago the average yield rate was 48.7 percent, and last year it was 33.6 percent. So, it was already a rather unpredictable environment, and then the coronavirus decided to rear its head.

This is where the wait list will clearly come into play. NACAC's survey demonstrated that 43 percent of colleges use wait lists - an increase from previous years.


If you have been wait-listed, you need to notify the college or university that you are interested in remaining on the wait list. It's fine to agree to stay on multiple wait lists, but you must make other plans and deposit somewhere else. Wait list acceptances are determined by the yield, so if a school's yield decreases, then acceptances off the wait list will increase. Encourage your friends to notify every school where they were accepted but are choosing not to attend so that schools can start inviting students off the wait list.

This is a tricky time. Many students are contemplating taking a gap year, which may mean working, volunteering, traveling, interning, job-shadowing, creating a new product or service, etc. Given all the unknowns, including whether or not students will actually be able to on campus in the fall, it's worth considering.

(Next week: What to do if you are wait-listed.)

Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.

Visit The Charlotte Observer at www.charlotteobserver.com

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