The Secret Sauce of the College Waitlist

Days before college admissions decisions were scheduled to be released, high school seniors refreshed their in-boxes on a minute-by-minute basis and kept their phones on even in movie theaters because they knew these decisions could arrive at any moment. With a click of a button, their fate would be decided. If you happened to be sitting next to one of these high school seniors with a buzzing iPhone during The Hunger Games, understand that they’ve tied up their career trajectory, their lifelong friendships and even maybe who they’re going to marry all in this one communication that they’ve been anxiously expecting. But after months of waiting with fingers and toes crossed as college admissions officers debated their destinies, many high school seniors don’t receive final decisions at the end of March. Instead, they get stuck in the dreaded waitlist limbo … it’s like standing in front of Effie Trinket as she sifts through names of potential tributes from District 12 for weeks on end.

Since the college waitlist causes so much anxiety for so many students and their parents, it’s time that the public learns the truth about the puzzling admissions (in)decision. If you’re a student who was placed on a waitlist at a highly selective college, you might wonder why the university that has had months to render a decision couldn’t give you the peace of mind of a final outcome. Wonder no more. There are a number of different kinds of college applicants who highly selective colleges choose to put on waitlists. It is by no means random who makes the waitlist and there’s a good chance that you’ll understand why you were placed on the waitlist once we delineate likely waitlist candidates.

So who makes the waitlist? Students with high grades and low SAT and ACT scores often get waitlisted. Sometimes these students are underrepresented minorities who the college would have admitted had their test scores been just a little bit higher so as not to bring down the university’s mean score and invariably impact its all-important US News & World Report ranking. There’s also the student with high grades and high scores who doesn’t have an angle. Maybe this student plays three sports and the oboe but she’s not particularly exceptional at any of these activities. Highly selective colleges do not seek out well-rounded students.

There are the Chinese-American or Indian-American applicants who boast high grades and test scores but their candidacies appear just like so many other Chinese-American or Indian-American applicants. Maybe they play the violin and run track. Maybe they perform Indian classical dance. While this might be stereotypical, social psychology teaches us that many stereotypes are based on truth. There’s a Darwinian survival instinct to make decisions more rapidly — which is precisely what college admissions officers need to do as they sift through thousands of applications.

There’s also the legacy or development candidate. Maybe this student is a double legacy whose parents donated large sums to ensure that a new football stadium could be built. Denying this student admission outright would be an insult to the student’s parents and it could jeopardize their future donations. Maybe they have another child who will be applying in a few years. Waitlisting this student is just a better business strategy for the college as it costs the college nothing to tell a student they’re still under consideration for admission.

Then there’s the student with the high grades and high scores who may do something special outside of the classroom (or maybe not) who gets waitlisted because the college admitted the soccer star from the same high school with lower grades and lower scores. College admissions offices value their relationships with high schools and sending such a clear-cut message that they find slide-tackling more important than calculus is just bad PR.

And there’s the student who looks great on paper, but the college already admitted three or four kids from the same high school (more than they typically accept from this high school) so to admit another would be seen as superfluous. Oh, and just one more — let’s not forget about the student who is overqualified with an almost perfect grade point average and test scores in addition to having a special talent, but he never visited campus and his application lacked enthusiasm for the college. Why waste a spot on an applicant who isn’t going to come?

Now that you understand why a highly selective college may have placed you (or your child) on their waitlist, sitting back and waiting for an answer is a sure way to not earn a spot in the incoming class. You’ve got to be proactive and you’ve got to be proactive the right way. For starters, you need to immediately send back the card that you wish to remain on the waitlist. Your guidance counselor, with whom you’ve hopefully developed a great relationship, should be reaching out to your regional admissions officer. Updates should be sent on any of your recent significant accomplishments with an emphasis on the word significant. Winning a baseball game is not significant. Being named a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search is incredibly significant.

You should also be writing a “letter of enthusiasm” to send to the admissions office in which you outline how much you still want to attend the university in addition to stating in an eloquent way what you can contribute to the college. This letter should be moving, extremely well written and creative if you ever hope to be among the very small minority of applicants who make it off the waitlist and into the incoming class.


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