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The Woes of the College Wait List

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Being turned down for something you really want stinks. Just ask any high school senior who received a rejection letter from his dream college. Learning the bad news definitely hurts, but this year thousands and thousands of students have been placed on college wait lists—which can feel just as excruciating.

What Is Waitlisted?

If a college applicant is placed on the school’s wait list, they haven’t been completely denied but they haven’t been admitted, either. The Princeton Review uses the phrase “if something opens up, we’ll let you know” to describe being waitlisted, pointing out that playing the waiting game can be emotionally frustrating.

The New York Times reports that this year, Yale’s wait list has just over 1,000 students while the wait list for Princeton hopefuls is nearly 1,500 strong. There’s no denying that prestigious schools like these receive an overabundance of applications each year, but how can admissions officials be on the fence about so many students?

Why Are Students Put on College Waiting Lists?

According to The Wall Street Journal, students are placed on waitlists for a variety of reasons. Some colleges and universities want to ensure that the proportion of accepted students who choose to attend, known as the “yield,” remains high—if fewer students are accepted the first time around, the school can pick and choose from a group of eager waitlisted students if too few accepted students decide not to attend after all.

Some colleges even offer students spots on wait lists out of sheer politeness. After all, it would seem a bit harsh to reject the children of faculty, alumni or big donors. “You’ll get some really angry alumni calling if you deny their kid,” explained Kennon Dick of the admissions consulting firm College Coach.

Who Gets Accepted from Wait Lists?

Colleges generally know which students have accepted their initial admissions offers by May 1 and use their wait lists to fill any open spots. The Wall Street Journal explains that schools generally choose a mixture of waitlisted students—some of whom can fill “unique holes” in their incoming freshman class and others who showed continued interest in attending the school through phone calls, letters and emails.

Members of wait lists probably shouldn’t get their hopes up too high, as the majority of students have very little chance of making the transition from the waitlist to the freshman class. In 2011, Swarthmore College accepted 10 of its 948 waitlisted students and the University of Pennsylvania offered admission to just 13 of the 1,097 students on its waitlist.

Ooops! Never Mind!

And as if being placed on your dream school’s wait list isn’t bad enough, the Los Angeles Times reports that last weekend 894 of the 2,900 students on UCLA’s first wait list in history recently received congratulatory emails about financial aid—only to learn they weren’t really accepted the following Monday.

“We realize this is a particularly anxious and stressful time for students and their families … we sincerely apologize for this mistake that may have led some of them to think they were admitted when they remain on the waiting lists,” campus spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said in an effort to smooth things over.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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