Margo Bartsch, College Essay Coach

With one year of the Pandemic behind us, many high school seniors are receiving college acceptances during this untraditional application season. This March, the Wall Street Journal reports an 11 percent increase in applications nationwide, although the number of applicants has increased by only 1.4 percent overall. Because nearly all colleges have gone test-optional, students are expanding their college lists. This is resulting in more students being placed on wait lists. If a student is waitlisted at colleges, what does this mean and how can families respond?

Colleges are generally focused on their yield as an important part of their admissions criteria. The yield is forecasting which student is most likely to accept an invitation to attend.  Think of this like the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where there are a limited number of golden tickets available. Most colleges begin their evaluation process with Early Decision and Early Action applicants, who apply around November 1st.  Colleges put a premium value on these early applicants in allotting available slots.

With Early Decision, students are bound to attend if admitted.  Typically, most highly selective colleges have this option and admit between 40 to 60 percent of the overall available slots.  Early Decision offers a competitive advantage for students who are prepared to apply to college near the start of their senior year and are confident that a college is their top choice.

Also, many colleges and state universities have an Early Action option with applications also due around November 1st. Once again, these students have done earlier research about the college when submitting their application. Although they are not bound to attend if admitted, the colleges predict which students are more likely to attend.

For the remaining Regular decision applicants, there are fewer available slots, despite a larger applicant pool. Applications are due around January 1st and students are not bound to attend.  Colleges evaluate their yield as to which Regular applicant is most likely to attend. This year, New York University reports they received 100,000 applications for only 6,000 spots.  The wait list helps the college have a back-up plan to fill their class with a qualified student if an admitted student declines their acceptance.

If a college notifies the student that they are wait listed, this means that they need to wait-and-see if an accepted student chooses not to attend that college, which could open up a spot.  The wait-listed student can select the option to remain on the wait list for further consideration, or they can decline staying on the wait list. In addition, this year the University of Chicago is asking if a wait-listed student would want to take a gap year and be considered for admissions for the following year (enter fall, 2022).

Colleges are reporting that the wait lists could be even larger than previous years, which have typically been long lists. The colleges need to evaluate each applicant to keep a balanced class with a range of demographic, academic, and athletic factors. This year, colleges are expecting to notify wait-listed students of an acceptance throughout the summer if a spot opens.

How can a family plan what school to attend, put a deposit down, and get excited about the college experience ahead?  This is a tricky question since colleges require a student to commit to one college typically by May 1st.  The student will then be receiving housing information, attending online information sessions, registering for classes, and getting a roommate. Also, each college has different deadlines for the first semester tuition and room and board deposits.

If a student is later notified of being admitted from the wait list, they would forfeit their financial deposits from their original choice. For their new college, they would need to commit to the financial fees, register for classes, and choose housing.  This becomes an ongoing cycle for the college, where a spot would then become open from the student’s initial college for another student on that college’s wait list. Colleges are scrambling to fill the upcoming class with deeply committed students.

Considering your wait list options is an important and ongoing discussion. As wait lists become more common with the college notification process, it is essential to weigh various alternatives and timing considerations.  Patience is a virtue in choosing which college will soon become your home away from home.

Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.