In this article we take a look at actual waitlist data for the class of 2022, courtesy of the great website, Kickstarter. We share the data so you can see how hard it is to get off the waitlist at certain schools and we examine the reasons why it is so hard to get admitted when certain schools waitlist you.

Based on a well-respected survey of 132 public and private colleges, 63 percent of the schools admitted 10 percent or less of the students accepting a place on the waitlist last year, and 51 percent of the schools admitted 5 percent or less. An alarming 16 percent admitted no students—that is, one out of every 6 schools literally took no one off the waitlist. In case you are thinking, well, did they only put 5-10 students on the waitlist to start with? Nothing could be further from the truth.

American University waitlisted 4049 students and took zero off the waitlist. Tulane put 5596 on the waitlist and took no one, and Boston College put 6477 on their waitlist and took no one. Okay, so know you are thinking, I’m done with waitlists. That would be a mistake: Syracuse admitted 46 percent of the students who choose to stay on the waitlist. Oregon took 92 percent of the students that opted to stay on their waitlist.

Waitlisted applicants are on the rise. According to a Wall Street Journal article on April 27 entitled, “Did Your Kid Get Placed on a College Waitlist? Don’t Hold Your Breath”:

“The University of Virginia increased the number of applicants invited onto waitlists by 68% between 2015 and 2017. At Lehigh University, that figure rose by 54%. And at Ohio State University, it more than tripled.”

What is going on here?

Keep in mind that selective colleges are usually trying to accomplish something that is quite challenging: They are trying to enroll the most talented class while simultaneously having a lower acceptance rate every year. They want a lower acceptance rate because the public values “scarcity.” Scarcity allows a college to have a better chance of getting the students they really want to enroll because if they are admitted they are likely to come because they are so flattered by the acceptance letter. Scarcity allows a college to implement a binding Early Decision program and have students jump at the opportunity to commit early if it helps them get in. The other way a college can significantly increase its chances of increasing the probability of an admitted applicant attending is to waitlist the student, see who opts to stay on the waitlist, and see who is committing to coming if admitted.

In other words, colleges don’t like to waste admits on students who are not coming. This is one reason that programs like Early Decision, that offer a better chance of admission in exchange for an early notification and a binding commitment, are quite popular. Not every student is going to apply through an Early Decision program. Some schools don’t give them this option. Some students need to compare their aid awards before they commit, and some don’t meet the early decision deadlines.

Here is what that same Wall Street Journal article says:

    Some schools are locking in more students through binding early-decision offers. They are also keeping a deeper bench of backups to whom they can turn to if, when it comes the deposit deadline, they are still short of enrollment targets or don’t have quite the right mix of students. Waitlisted applicants usually accept admission offers, allowing schools to control enrollment numbers.

“It’s an admission dean’s dream. You see where you are on May 1, then you round out the class by going to the waitlist,” said Michael Steidel, Dean of Admission at Carnegie Mellon University.

Here is how Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University HS, put it in the same Wall Street Journal article: “You can take stock and ‘fix’ or refine the class by gender, income, geography, major or other variables … A large waiting list gives you greater flexibility in filling these gaps.”

How are you to know if a waitlist is a deferred denial or a genuine waitlist? Put in the school in Google and do a search for the Common Data set. If the school pops up, go to section C2 and you can see how many students were waitlisted, how many stayed on the waitlist, and how many were admitted off of the waitlist. If the percentage admitted off of the waitlist is low, treat it as a deferred denial, move on, and embrace the schools that admitted you. As one of my friends in admission likes to say, “Love the school that loves you back.”