The case against the college waitlist

Pure joy
Pure joy
Image: AP Photo/Emily Varisco
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This spring, hundreds of thousands of high-school seniors in the US will open university admissions envelopes and find neither joy nor sorrow, acceptance nor rejection. Instead, they’ll get something rather more complicated: A spot on the waitlist.

Colleges’ use of the waitlist has increased in recent years (paywall), even as the number of students who get off the waitlist and into their dream schools has steadily decreased. This has created a backlash against it from students, parents, and college counselors who claim that the practice is both unfair and exploitative. Here’s the case against keeping kids in educational purgatory.

Why do colleges have waitlists?

Every spring seems to bring with it a new record-breaking number of college applicants. According to the Higher Education Research Institute (pdf), 36% of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges during the fall 2015 admission cycle—up from 17% in the fall of 2005. That means that, although elite schools have grown more selective, students also have more options when acceptance letters start coming in, which makes it harder for schools to correctly estimate their yield rate (paywall), or the number of students who will accept their offer of admission. Colleges put a lot of stock in having a good yield rate because it’s a key metric used in their rankings.

In order to hedge their bets, schools have started putting applicants on ever-growing waitlists, which allows admissions offices to have lots of backups if fewer students accept their offer than they predicted. As Michael Steidel, dean of admission at Carnegie Mellon University, told the Wall Street Journal (paywall), “It’s an admission dean’s dream. You see where you are on May 1, then you round out the class by going to the waitlist.”

As a result, college waiting lists at the most competitive schools have become appallingly long, and the chances of an applicant getting off the waitlist increasingly slim. According to the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) (pdf), in the fall of 2016, “only 14% of students who accepted a waitlist spot at the most selective colleges (those accepting fewer than half of all applicants) were ultimately admitted.” Last year, according to college admissions consultancy TopTier Admissions, only 1.3% of waitlisted students got off Cornell’s waitlist and about 1.7% got off Yale’s waitlist. That’s 75 students out of a waitlist of 5,714 for Cornell, and 19 out of 1,095 for Yale.

“I don’t encourage my students to hold out for that or to think that they’re going to [get off the waitlist] because the numbers are so low,” says Susan Warner, an independent college counselor in the New York City area.

The case against the college waitlist

Most college applicants in the US have to accept or reject college admission offers by May 1st. For students on waitlists however, the process can take months: They may accept a spot at a school they’ve been accepted to, pay the deposit there, but hold out hope that they’ll get off their top-choice school’s waitlist until July or even early August.

College admissions counselors have varying opinions about whether waitlists help ease students into rejection—an act of mercy on the part of schools that says, you were close, but we just didn’t have room—or whether they make it harder for students to get closure. Warner believes the former: “The good thing is that, to the student, [the waitlist] does say that you are a viable candidate, and at that age their egos are very fragile and rejections are really hard.”

Eric Sherman, a former admissions officer at Columbia University and current director of college counseling at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, California, disagrees. He argues that schools should consider rejecting kids instead of keeping them in limbo forever: “I think that practice is a lot more merciful to students, so that they can just get the sting of a ‘deny’ and move on.”

“It’s torturous for the kids,” says Cristianna Quinn, founder of College Admissions Advisors in Rhode Island. In an open letter (paywall) she sent the National Association for College Admission Counseling last year, she wrote that the waitlist is “cruel and keeps FAR too many students hanging on with unrealistic hopes of being accepted.”

Another common criticism of waitlists is that they prevent students from getting excited about the school that has actually accepted them. “They’re really doing a disservice to the students,” says Quinn, “because then those students … are not really investigating those colleges where they have received acceptances because they’re holding out for the other school.”

But Warner notes that there are still things students can do to signal their interest to the school that waitlisted them. “My advice to them is to examine all of their choices … choose the one that’s best for them, make that commitment, send an email to the school that waitlisted them and tell them that, if accepted off the waitlist, they will attend … and move forward as if [the waitlist] doesn’t exist.”

As frustrating as the waitlist experience can be, there’s an option that’s even worse. Warner says she doesn’t “find waitlisting to be the purgatory that deferral is.” In this scenario, a student might apply to a school early in the fall, get deferred into the regular applicant pool, then get waitlisted, and ultimately get rejected in the summer—a process that can take as long as seven months from the point when they file their initial application. That is “a lot more damaging and demoralizing to students who eventually don’t get in when it’s all said and done,” according to Sherman.

Reforming the college waitlist

Quinn believes that schools could easily choose to limit their waitlists to the students they are sincerely considering as backups. “They’ve got things really down to a science,” she says. “If you’re only going to take 25 kids off the waiting list, do you really need a list that’s more than 250 to 300?”

A further step toward reform would be to include on waitlists only the students who are academically viable candidates. Currently, admissions counselors say schools include students on their waitlists for other reasons. “Colleges are trying to maintain good relationships with alumni … and high schools,” explains Quinn. “They also feel that it creates a false sense that kids almost got in. It’s almost good PR when parents say ‘my child almost got in.’” There are also financial concerns at play; by the time a school gets to their waitlist, they have usually exhausted their pool of financial aid, and so are more likely to accept students who can pay their way through. “Even in some schools that are technically need-blind, by the time they get to their waiting list, they can’t be,” says Quinn.

There are other, more fundamental ways to reform the admissions system and eliminate the need for lengthy waitlists. Adam Harris argues in The Atlantic that top schools could choose to accept more students, sacrificing some of their prestige in exchange for relieving the pressure on kids and parents. “Instead of carefully crafting admitted classes—taking a little bit of diversity and a little bit of athleticism and a little bit of legacy and mixing them into the ideal freshman stew—institutions could open their doors and serve more students,” he writes. Preliminary figures for this year’s incoming class, however, show that the trend towards waitlisting and deferring more students is not letting up.

In addition to the emotional and psychological toll that long and unrealistic waitlists have on students, advocates say they favor wealthier students who can afford to pay a deposit at a second-choice school while they wait to hear back from their first-choice school. That’s why  Meredith Twombly, the former dean of enrollment and retention at Hampshire College, wrote in The Hetchinger Report in 2016 that schools should consider getting rid of their waitlists altogether. “My hope,” she wrote, “is that admissions professionals nationwide will take a fresh look at their own colleges’ long standing structures and begin to question which of these truly functions to serve their college’s mission and which are more likely to act as barriers to access.”