Home & Leisure



Countdown to college: Wait-list fundamentals

Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

Within days, all admissions decisions will be complete, all notifications will have been made, and we’ll all be watching the fabulous tear-jerking videos of deserving students finding out they’ve been accepted into their dream schools.

But this year, more students than ever will find themselves on the wait list. The wait list, commonly referred to as “admissions purgatory,” is that ugly and uncomfortable gray area: They didn’t like you enough to accept you, and they didn’t hate you enough to reject you.

Students will need to make a decision and a deposit at a college where they were accepted by May 1. When a college puts students on a wait list, it will ask them to respond as to whether they want to stay on the wait list or if they’ve already made other plans and accepted (or will accept) an offer from another school.

After dealing with not being accepted, students and their parents need to determine which of the colleges where they were accepted represents the best fit academically, socially and for the family financially. If there is a clear winner, then the process is over. Otherwise, families need to evaluate the wait-list opportunities.

It’s important to be realistic about finances. It would be a rare occurrence for a wait-listed student to receive merit-based aid. Need-based aid is more likely, but colleges will not necessarily meet 100 percent of need.

The wait list is all about the yield: what percentage of accepted students will choose to deposit and attend each institution. The national average for yield is 33.6 percent, which means that two-thirds of students are rejecting the offers of admission that they receive. This year, wait lists are longer and yield numbers are likely to be much lower. It makes sense, because a student applies to multiple colleges and universities and hopefully receives multiple acceptances, but a student can only attend one school. Colleges wish their yield was 100 percent; it would make their jobs much, much easier.


The dynamics of the wait list vary from college to college and may greatly vary from year to year. The big problem comes when colleges invite thousands of students to be on their wait list and then find out, after May 1, that their yield increased. Then they have no open spots for students on the wait list. In fact, they may be panicking that they don’t have enough beds for incoming freshmen who have already said yes.

Colleges do their best to predict yield, but it’s a risky game. All of this is to say that there is really no accurate predictive measure to determine how many spots there will be.

“Essentially, the wait list exists to accommodate for demographics that were not met in the initial round of admission offers," says Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech (www.gatech.edu). "If you have the right number of deposits from the West coast, you go to your wait list for more East Coast students. If you have enough chemistry majors, you may be going to the wait list for business students. Ultimately, the job of admission deans and directors is to make and shape the class, as defined by institutional priorities. Meeting target enrollment is critical to bottom line revenue, creating a desired ethos on campus, proliferating the school’s brand and other factors.”

So, while there are things you can do to improve your wait-list chances, much is out of your control.

©2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.