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University wait list size draws mixed responses

Number of applicants admitted off wait list in recent years varies from two to 300 students

Regular decision college applicants spend months anxiously awaiting their admission decisions. Come decision day, many applicants are met not with letters of acceptance or rejection, but with a third option — a wait list offer. Cristiana Quinn, an independent college admission advisor, said she thinks the practice of placing college applicants on wait lists has “gotten out of hand.”

While the University admitted a total of 2,566 students to the class of 2022, it also extended wait list offers to 2,724 applicants this year, Inside Higher Ed reported. Many colleges have recently drawn criticism for offering spots on their wait lists to thousands of applicants, but Dean of Admission Logan Powell said these figures are “misunderstood … (and) taken out of context.”

Powell emphasized that only around 60 percent of students who are offered a spot on the University’s wait list end up accepting the offer. Because of this, the true size of the active wait list typically averages around 1,500 students, Powell said.

The University uses its wait list to fill spots in the incoming class that are still available after the May 1 enrollment deadline. Since the number of available space in the class isn’t finalized until this date, the University doesn’t begin accepting students off the wait list until the first week of May, Powell explained.

Students on the wait list aren’t ranked in any way. Instead, “we look first at the composition of the enrolled class, and then we try to round things out based on the students that are still active on our wait list,” Powell said. The size of the wait list gives the admission office enough flexibility to admit students “who fit those categories that (we’re) looking to fill out in the first-year class,” Powell added. When finalizing the class, the office may look to promote “gender balance,” admission of first-generation students and diversity of academic interests.

For the past two admission cycles, the admittance rate off of the wait list was 5.5 percent, “approximately the same as the acceptance rate for regular decision applicants,” Powell wrote in a follow-up email.

Quinn said many colleges offer a similar explanation for their large wait lists. “I think it’s absurd,” she added. “Colleges run numbers all the time — they’ve gotten very good at this — to figure out their yields.” With precise estimates of yield, Quinn said colleges should be able to maintain smaller wait lists that are “maybe five or even six times as large as the number of students that they’re going to take” off the wait list.

But Powell stressed that it is difficult to estimate how many students they will be able to accept off the wait list. “Predicting our yield is largely scientific, but it’s not perfect,” he said. “We make a number of (admission) offers that we think will get us close to our target (class size). But in any given year, you may be really close, (or) you may not be.”

“In the past five years, we’ve admitted as few as two students from the wait list and as many as 300,” Powell added. “With that as our high-water mark, we have to be in a position to be able to have choices if we need to admit as many as a couple hundred students from the wait list.”

Still, Quinn expressed a sense that wait listing is becoming more common. “Although all my students were accepted to college, all of my regular decision kids were also wait listed at (three to six) colleges,” Quinn wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. “And at two very competitive Catholic colleges, I did not have a single student rejected. All were either accepted or wait listed.”

Rahul Mani ’21 and Mike O’Connell ’21 were both wait listed by five schools, including the University. “It felt kind of weird because I was wait listed at so many,” Mani said. “I was thinking stuff along the lines of, ‘Why me? Why couldn’t I have gotten into one or two of these, or at least have been accepted or rejected, so I knew where I stood?’”

After O’Connell received a string of wait list offers from his top-choice schools, he said he took a few days to come to terms with his situation.  “You just have to wait it out. They’ll tell you eventually.”

Quinn said she thinks schools that maintain large wait lists “do a disservice to students” by giving them a false sense of hope for their acceptance. “I think that the average student — when they get a wait list offer — thinks, ‘I’m almost in.’ And I think that in their mind, they don’t understand how large the waiting list is,” Quinn explained. “Students … don’t make as thoughtful decisions on where they’re going to attend among the colleges where they are accepted because they’re still holding out that hope for the waiting list.”

Powell stressed that the University instructs all wait listed applicants to enroll at another institution. “One of the fallacies of how this process works is students forego all other opportunities and remain on our wait list. That’s absolutely not the case,” Powell said. He also pushed back on the notion that the odds of acceptance off the wait list are exceedingly slim. “It’s a very real opportunity. For those 75 to 100 students a year who are admitted from the wait list, I think they’re pretty happy that they accepted the offer of the wait list and (that) they were a little patient. … So there is hope, there absolutely is.”

Mani said he had some cautious hope “that I could get off a wait list because there were a number of schools that I was wait listed at.” But his position on several wait lists made him uncertain where he would end up. “A lot of my friends already knew where they were going — they were all set — whereas I still wasn’t entirely sure where I was going to go to school,” he added.

O’Connell said he was glad to be wait listed, given his eventual acceptance. “But I can understand where a lot of students would be kind of upset with the system because you’re just leading a lot of people on,” he added. “If I hadn’t been admitted here, I definitely would’ve had a much different view of the wait list.”

Powell said the University finishes admitting students off the wait list by June 30 at the latest “so students have some clarity on where they’re going to go.” Both Mani and O’Connell were admitted in May, well before the June 30 deadline. Though Powell said he thinks this is a reasonable timeframe for wait list admission, Quinn said she believes wait lists draw out an already lengthy admission process.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” O’Connell agreed. “You just have to wait another month to find out something that probably won’t happen, but there’s just enough likelihood that it does happen that you still have to pay attention. It’s not full-on torture, but it’s a little bit painful to sit through that process again.”


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