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Many are convinced that next week, when Ivy League and other competitive colleges theoretically tell applicants if they were admitted, they actually won't -- for thousands of students. Those students will be placed on waiting lists. And while colleges are quick to say that any student placed on a waiting list could succeed at the college, many students find waiting lists particularly frustrating -- arguably more frustrating than rejection.

This year, waiting lists are expected to be the worst ever (meaning the longest ever). The pandemic has led to a surge in applications at the most competitive colleges -- public and private. The new applications include minority and low-income applicants who in the past felt unwelcome or who are attracted by the fact that many of these colleges were test optional for the first time. (Colleges that cater to these students struggled for applications.) Many of the top colleges also admitted large early-decision/early-action classes. The result of all of these changes is that predicting yield -- the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll -- is likely to be more difficult this year. And when colleges are worried about yield, they tend to rely more on waiting lists than they do normally.

"I predict that we will see more waiting list activity this year due to the uncertainty institutions are facing around yield," said Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "With students applying to more schools, yet fewer unique applicants, enrollment officers are worried about whether or not students intend to enroll at their institutions. Students may apply to 15 schools, but in the end, they can only show up at one."

While some expect waiting lists to be "obnoxiously long," others aren't so sure. They note that colleges have lots of ways to guess whether particular groups of students will enroll if offered admission.

One important fact to remember is that many college waiting lists have been "obnoxiously long" for years.

For the class Brown University admitted for the fall of 2018, it admitted 2,566 applicants for an incoming class of about 1,720. The university has also offered spots on its waiting list to 2,724 of its applicants. If every single admitted applicant rejected Brown’s offer, it would have wait-list candidates to spare in building a class larger than the last one.

The university is hardly alone with a substantial waiting list. The same year, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 3,731 applicants for the next first-year class, anticipated to be 2,445 students. In Penn’s case, the figure for the waiting list was around 3,500. In recent years, a Penn spokeswoman said, the number admitted off the waiting list has ranged from 20 to 175.

Colleges give a variety of reasons for using waiting lists that are so large (in a normal year): wanting to be sure that every kind of student they admit has backup on the waiting list (especially athletes) or not wanting to offend alumni when colleges reject their children are two common reasons.

The bottom line is that for most students, being on a waiting list is not a ticket to getting in (in a regular year) except for a lucky few students.

Some expect that to be the norm this year as well. Claudia Marroquin, director of admissions at Bowdoin College, says the pandemic didn't change waiting list philosophy at the college.

"Things were fairly business as usual at Bowdoin despite all the uncertainty that continues to swirl in admissions," she said via email. "Our waitlist this year is about the same as it’s been in previous years and our applicant pool was about the same in size as last year. The summer of 2020 did lead us to use the waitlist more than usual with a slight uptick in gap year requests and waitlist activity at other institutions. There have been years where we did not have to utilize the waitlist at all and other years where we called students to finalize the class."

She stressed that "not every student who is offered a place on the waitlist will accept and those who accept a place when a decision is released might no longer be interested once the May 1st deposit deadline has passed."

Marroquin added, "Colleges have to be prepared for the possibility of not yielding their class and having a larger group of students request a gap year. Colleges use data and yield models as best as we can, but at the end of the day the final decision is in the hands of students across the country and the world."

Hamilton College published a guide for those on the waiting list.

The guide says that several hundred students a year are offered a spot on the list, but nearly two-thirds of the students decide not to stay on the list. The number of students who are eventually offered a spot "is unpredictable, and has varied in recent years from as few as 12 to more than 50."

The guide also explains, "There is no numerical ranking on Hamilton’s wait list. If there are any openings in the class, all candidates in the active waiting pool will be reviewed, and selections will be made on the basis of overall academic and personal strength, as well as degree of interest in attending Hamilton. In admitting students from the wait list, we also make an effort to balance the overall composite of the first-year class."

Monica C. Inzer, vice president for enrollment management at the college, said via email, "We were one of those schools that was up a bunch in applications (26 percent), and this was Hamilton’s most selective year on record (14 percent admit rate). Figuring out who not to take is always the hardest part of our job, and never was it harder than this year. I assumed we’d catch more families off guard with our decisions this year, given how many tremendous students ended up denied or on our wait list, and prepared for a few rough(er than usual) days after our notification date."

She added, "Maybe this is a silver lining of the pandemic, but never before have our families responded with more grace and kindness, even when the news they received was not what they hoped. I’m not the only one who has noticed. I was talking with a few of our admission officers last week who said the same and they are all hoping spots in our class open up later so we can admit some of these smart, compelling, and nice students!"

Even if waiting list activity grows only at the most at the most competitive institutions, it will affect others.

Meg Ryan, interim vice president for enrollment at Allegheny College and (as of June 1) vice president for enrollment at Muhlenberg College, said that "it's hard to predict what's going to happen with wait lists this year. All the data that is being reported and shared indicates that the institutions that drive the market (large flagship state institutions, highly selective private schools) are most likely to have the biggest change to their wait lists, in both size and activity, and I expect that activity will trickle down to other institutions."

Many of the other colleges were already test optional, she said. "At institutions like ours (both Allegheny and Muhlenberg) we don't expect a significant increase in our wait list size, but we do expect that other institutions' increased wait list activity will impact our admitted student pool. We all lost a lot of important data that helps us attempt to predict our class -- the change in the number of students who submitted test scores, the change in the ability to visit campus. Additionally we hear about the increase in the average number of applications per applicant, which means that the behavior of our admitted students is likely to change this year."

Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment and communications at Lawrence University, said, "Colleges have an even lower confidence this year in their predictive analytics, which is likely to lead colleges with the capacity to build larger wait lists to do so as a hedge to protect their ability to stick the landing with their class."

He added that "ballooning applications at the top of the market -- and across a broader swath of the top of the market -- might mean that a lot of students are going to be on a lot of wait lists, which will have implications for the next tier of colleges, who will be waiting for those students, which will have implications for the next tier of colleges, and so on. This great sorting that happens each year will likely take longer to work itself out, which means that fewer colleges will probably know where they stand by May 1 this year."

One college counselor at a private high school, who asked not to be identified, said, "I believe wait lists will be huge. Admissions offices in many ways flying blind."

A counselor at a public high school said, "We see wait lists at some big publics and some privates but nothing much different … We will know more next week when the Ivies and other similarly competitive schools release."

Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology, blogged about waiting lists last week. He offered advice for students ("Don’t stalk the admission office") and explained why colleges have waiting lists.

But he agreed that they are frustrating. Wrote Clark, "Whether you are an admissions dean, a student, a school counselor, or a parent, we can all agree on this: The Waitlist Sucks. It’s like the brain freeze of admissions land; it’s the seventh layer of admission purgatory; it’s our collective Newman! Why? Why! Why?!"

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