For the vast majority of applicants to the University, regular admission notifications conclude a months-long waiting game, providing a definitive answer at the end of their college process. But for a comparatively small group — a few thousand out of the 46,568 who applied to the University this year — the notification from the University is an invitation to keep waiting.
In a normal year, the University extends offers to its waitlist with the expectation that 900 to 1,000 students will accept a spot, Dean of Admission Logan Powell told The Herald in April. This year, a historic surge in applicants and a heightened sense of uncertainty among high school seniors — and therefore admissions offices — prompted the University to extend enough offers for 1,000 to 1,200 students to accept a place on the list.
The size of the list ensured that even with a yield rate — a yearly measure indicating the percentage of admitted students who choose to accept an offer of enrollment — in the “low bound” of expectations, a full first-year class would have matriculated in the fall, Powell explained. If yield hits its projected “upper bound,” the University would still aim to admit students off the list, albeit at a lower rate, he added.
“This was a group of students, by and large, that was not able to visit campuses anywhere,” Powell said. “Yield was more unpredictable this year than in any other year.”
Two students who accepted spots on the waitlist this year agreed to multiple interviews with The Herald: once after accepting their spots on the list in early April, once after the commitment deadline in May and once after the final decisions came out in June. Though they couldn’t have known it at the time, they faced long odds. By May 3, this year’s decision day for high school seniors, 69 percent of students who received an offer from the University had accepted it — a record-high yield rate and an increase of 3 percent from last year.
In recent years, the University has accepted anywhere from two to 300 students off the waitlist, The Herald previously reported. According to the University’s Common Data Set, 194 members of the class of 2024 came off the waitlist, as did 127 members of the class of 2023.
This year, the University accepted just 34 students from the waitlist.
April: ‘Brown sees something in me’
Since his junior year of high school, Caleb Birnbaum had thought of Brown as his first choice. When he opened his decision on April 6, he first put his hands on his head — a reaction to the apologetic tone of the letter. Then, unexpectedly, elation followed: He had been offered a spot on the waitlist.
Parker Szachta, another waitlisted student from Oakland County, Michigan, was encouraged by the offer. “I’m quite happy that Brown sees something in me, to know they want me even though there might not be space,” Szachta said in April. “I have options I’m happy about — it’s icing on the cake.”
“Fewer students were put on the waitlist than were accepted to the University,” Birnbaum added with a laugh, “so technically it’s more prestigious to be put on the waitlist than it is to be accepted.”
Both students sent letters of continued interest to the University, a standard move to inform the Office of Admission about developments and achievements that occur after applications are sent in. In his letter, Birnbaum told the University unequivocally — if offered a spot, he would take it.
Still, Birnbaum, who applied from New Jersey as an architecture concentrator, said the offer prolonged the “waiting game.” He had been accepted at a number of institutions, but was leaning toward the University of Virginia at the time.
“I’m doing my best to not let this waitlist impede on my ability to find a roommate,” he said at the time. “I’m scared it’ll linger in the back of my mind, and I’m not going to be motivated to pursue (the University of Virginia).”
Szachta, who expressed interest in computer science, was leaning toward the University of Michigan, though he had hoped to leave his home state for college.
Staring down the waitlist presented a daunting prospect: after sending the letter of continued interest, there would be nothing to do but wait until the final decision. Waitlisted students had no information as to what their chances were — largely because the University wouldn’t know them until it had its full class, Powell explained.
In pulling students off the waitlist, the University considers the makeup of the matriculated class, including gender balance, academics, diversity of perspective, geographic diversity and a number of other factors, Powell said.
The University doesn’t rank its waitlist — but for Birnbaum, not knowing where he stood also added to his dilemma.
“How am I supposed to know how much effort to put into this?” he said. “I have no idea what they’re looking for in the kids they want to accept.”
May: ‘I’ll be happy about either place’
For Powell, May 3 — the University’s deadline for students to accept an offer of admission — saw the University fulfill its goals in a number of ways.
“We start with the end in mind,” he said, listing off the goals his office sets at the start of a cycle to build a dynamic and diverse class. Those goals had largely come to fruition, he said. The incoming class of 2025 will be geographically diverse, represent first-generation students well, maintain a 50-50 gender balance and will be the most diverse class in terms of self-identified students of color in University history. The rising first-year class also has the “largest group of self-identified Black and African-American students” in University history, both by raw number and percentage.
“When we got to the waitlist, we were in very good shape,” he said.
For Birnbaum, the passage of time shifted his focus to AP tests and the culmination of his senior year, even as he maintained that he would certainly accept a spot off the waitlist. The prospect of getting off the waitlist was still there, “somewhere out in space,” but Birnbaum began to accept and embrace the reality that he’d likely attend UVA in the fall.
Late at night, Birnbaum had begun researching the University before going to bed. The architecture program, he noted, lacked in places compared to UVA’s.
If he was offered a spot off the waitlist, the University might offer him better financial aid, but the idea of upending his plans — or even closing the bank account he had opened based on the branches in Charlottesville — still seemed hard to fathom..
“I’m not checking my inbox obsessively,” Birnbaum said in May. “I do think about Brown a lot … It’s in the back of my mind when I think about college. It’s more of a ‘if it happens, it happens.’”
And as Szachta he learned more about the University of Michigan, the prospect of getting off the waitlist and his concerns about staying in-state faded from his mind. Even if the University had offered him a spot, he thought he “still might pick” the University of Michigan, both for the impact it could have on his career as well as its affordability as an in-state student.
He said he had only checked his inbox a few times, mainly to make sure nothing had gone to spam. Szachta didn’t expect to get off the list at that point and felt more than content with where he had committed. The more he learned about the University of Michigan, he said, the more excited he got.
June: ‘It’s out of your control, and that’s okay’
By June 15, the waitlist had almost “entirely disappeared” from Birnbaum’s mind. “In the earlier stages,” he said, “whenever I would think of UVA, I would think of Brown in conjunction with it. That thought seemed to fade.”
That day, he received an email from the University. He wouldn’t be admitted off the waitlist.
“Each year,” the email read, “we find ourselves in the difficult position of being unable to admit a great many of the students we would like to see on our campus.”
Szachta received the same email. The University had extended its 34 offers — 29 students accepted them, according to Powell — and neither Birnbaum nor Szachta were included.
The gravity of the email hit Birnbaum immediately. With a few paragraphs, his multi-year college application process had come to an end.
“I felt a sinking feeling in my gut,” he said. “For it to end in one instant … there was so much time and energy and thinking I put into all of that, for it to be over in a couple of words and paragraphs.”
Szachta waited for his parents before reading the email. He had opened every other decision with them, and this would be the second-to-last, with one more waitlist notification still to come.
“There’s always that last bit of hope,” he admitted.
After reading the message, he took a walk, and got over it “sooner” than he had expected. “I know I’m going to a really good school with lots of friends,” he said.
The disappointment soon cleared for Birnbaum, too. He received a text from his mom checking in, and responded with “Go Hoos” — UVA’s rallying cry.
The news also brought some relief, he said, in knowing his decision was made for him. “When I was thinking about the answer from Brown, the thing I was most worried about was making a choice where I could make a wrong one.”
“I wish I had had that option for it to be in my control,” Szachta said, but the closure was a relief nonetheless.
Both students said that if they had to do it again, they would most likely still accept a spot on the waitlist.
But Birnbaum added a caveat: He would try to “care a little bit less.”
“My brother is going to go through this process soon. All I’m going to tell him is you’re going to take the very best side of yourself, put it on a piece of paper, then it’s out of your control and that’s okay.”
Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.