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Waitlisted: Welcome to admissions purgatory

Last year, Goucher accepted one student from the waitlist.
Last year, Goucher accepted one student from the waitlist.
Nancy Griesemer

For the admissions office, it’s called “hedge your bets.”

But for the applicant who has waited six months or more for a decision, the waitlist is likely to be a one-way ticket to nowhere.

And for an increasing number of students victimized by an enrollment management system designed to attract thousands of applications no one knows what to do with, all we can say is, “Welcome to admissions purgatory.”

It’s particularly frustrating for the subset of applicants who submitted early—Early Action, Restricted Early Action, Early Decision I or even Early Decision II—only to be shunted off to the waitlist.

You really have to want it to go through all that.

But hope springs eternal, and that’s why there are lotteries and waitlists.

For the most part, colleges are entirely unapologetic about using the dreams of waitlisted students to further enrollment goals focused on filling freshman classes with the best and brightest high school students.

After all, the waitlist is simply a tool used to shape a class profile that will be balanced between males and females, is geographically and racially diverse, meets legislated residency requirements, fills the needs of obscure departments or sports teams, and still covers some part of the college operating budget.

Waitlists aren’t usually prioritized or predictable.

And quite often, schools advertising “needs blind” admissions quietly convert to “needs sensitive” when it comes to plucking a few lucky students from the list. Consequently, most bets are off for financial aid if you come through the waitlist.

In other words, there’s no ranking, no money, and really not much hope.

And sometimes, the list is hardly more than a thinly disguised PR scam designed to keep agitated parents, alums, and other interested parties at arm’s length.

Waitlisted is an uncomfortable place to be. If you’ve been accepted or rejected, at least your status is clear. But waitlisted is fuzzy.

Face it: very few waitlisted students are eventually invited to the dance.

Here are some Common Data Set (CDS) statistics (Question C2) published by local colleges and universities for 2013-14:

University of Virginia
Waitlisted: 4,172 (2,606 accepted a position on the waitlist)
Admitted: 185 (287 the previous year)

Christopher Newport University
Waitlisted: 1639 (524 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 137 (7 the previous year)

College of William & Mary
Waitlisted: 3196 (1474 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 96 (147 the previous year)

George Mason University
Waitlisted: 2228 (929 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 252 (158 the previous year)

University of Mary Washington
Waitlisted: 225 (81 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 55 (73 the previous year)

Virginia Commonwealth University
Waitlisted: 607
Admitted: 1 (0 the previous year)

University of Richmond
Waitlisted: 4129 (1641 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 95 (13 the previous year)

Virginia Tech (2012-13 data)
Waitlisted: 2217 (1367 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 110 (241 the previous year)

Washington & Lee University
Waitlisted: 2261 (705 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 96 (89 the previous year)

American University (2012-13 data)
Waitlisted: 1379 (92 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 0

George Washington University (2012-13 data)
Waitlisted: 2865 (722 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 26 (112 the previous year)

Johns Hopkins University (2012-13 data)
Waitlisted: 2730 (2442 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 1 (19 the previous year)

Goucher College
Waitlisted: 160 (38 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 2 (20 the previous year)

Loyola University of Maryland
Waitlisted: 2504 (560 accepted waitlist)
Admitted: 47 (177 last year)

Numbers vary by year depending on how accurately the admissions office pegged its “yield” or how desperate the need to control the composition of the freshman class. For colleges with unfilled seats after May 1st, the pool of waitlisted students is something like a candy jar from which they can pick and choose depending on needs and wants.

For most students, being waitlisted is more frustrating than simply being rejected.

“There's no way around it,” commented Jeannine Lalonde, UVa senior assistant dean of admission. “This is probably the toughest decision to get from a school.”

A candidate who is denied admission to his or her first choice school is free to accept other offers. S/he can move on with his or her life. But a waitlisted candidate who really wants to attend a particular school is stuck in limbo.

Sure there are steps you can take to try to get off the list—write a letter, get another recommendation, meet with an admissions rep—but there is an emotional cost which must be factored in.

Is it worth it?

Sometimes, but not usually.

This is the first in a series of articles on waitlists.