Wait lists have been growing at selective universities and colleges for some time. In 2003 Bates College wait listed 841 students but in 2013 they wait listed 1595 students. Brandeis wait listed 755 students in 2003 but in 2013 they wait listed 1347 students. Princeton went from 585 wait listed students in 2003 to 1184 in 2013.

KC Deane, a research associate at the Center for Higher Educational reform studied the wait list patterns of 100 of the most selective colleges in the country. He found that 27% of these schools wait listed more than 20% of their applicants while only two of these 100 schools accepted 5% or more off of the students they wait listed. KC found that Bates wait listed 40% of their applicants and the University of Richmond wait listed 42% of their applicants. Bates wait listed more than four times as many students as they enrolled and Richmond wait listed more than five times as many students as they enrolled.

In order to understand what is going on here, we first need to discuss why schools wait list students. Colleges wait list students for four main reasons. They wait list overqualified students who they can tell are just using them as a backup school in case they don’t get in where they really want to go. Colleges have research about what profile they are likely to be a good match for. I have had many a college rep tell me, the student you are discussing is too strong for us. I feel bad when I hear them say this but I know what they mean: we are very unlikely to beat out the other schools we will be competing with to get them. Colleges and universities also wait list underqualified students. I talk about this more in the Game Changer video series but I refer to this as a courtesy wait list. I would love to have a dollar for every student who has said to me, at least I was wait listed and not rejected. Colleges know that a wait list softens the blow and a courtesy wait list is a quasi-rejection but the applicant never know that.  These usually occur because the consequences of a rejection would not be worth it for the institution so it is just easier to send a wait list letter.  Courtesy wait lists are common with alumni kids, siblings, CBO’s and feeder schools that the college has an important relationship with and they don’t want  to tick off that community because they want to continue to see strong applicants referred to them. An underqualified or courtesy wait list, is not a real wait list. What I mean by this is that the student is NOT going to come off of the wait list. The third category of wait list is the genuine wait list. This is the only kind of wait list that most of the public knows about. This is the kid that you really wish you could take but you don’t have room for them right now. These kids become insurance policies for the college in case they don’t yield (an admissions term referring to the percentage of kids who you accept you enroll in your institution) the students they need to meet their institutional priorities and fill the dorms and have full enrollment with a wide range of kids.

There is a new trend in admissions that is creating a fourth type of wait list. This could be called the, “how badly do you want us” wait list. I talk a lot about yield in the Game Changer videos because it is so important to a college. Even bond ratings are partially impacted by yield. As colleges get harder to get into, kids apply to more colleges and this means that yield numbers go down. Instead of a college accepting a student and hoping they come, they can wait list the student and see how the student reacts. Do they request to stay on the wait list or do they say, remove my name, I am going elsewhere. Do they affirm that the college in question is their top choice? Do they revisit? (Note: Not all colleges even prefer/allow this and their wait list policy needs to be checked)  Will the student be willing to accept being gapped financially because of the honor of being taken off of the wait list? The bottom line is that colleges are in a much better place to predict who will come if they are accepted when they wait list. In the Game Changer videos I talk about how to assess your likelihood of getting off a wait list and I also offer the best steps you can take to increase your chances of getting off the wait list in the video series but let me be clear about something-there are NO guarantees. MIT and Stanford got a lot of publicity in 2013 when they wait listed more than 700 and 800 students respectfully and took NO One off of their wait list, but KC Deane found in his research that 13 of these 100 selective colleges took no one off of their wait list in the 2012-2013 year.