Early Admission From Waiting List

In a break from tradition, some private colleges offered some additional spots before a final count was in on how many accepted applicants were coming.
May 4, 2009

The first week in May is traditionally the time that some private colleges turn to their waiting lists. If "yield" -- the percentage of accepted applicants who said Yes to the college -- is a little low, the waiting list is used to fill extra spots. This year that process started early at some colleges.

For most private colleges with competitive admissions, May 1 is the deadline by which those offered admission must have postmarked their replies, so this week would typically be the time period during which waiting list offers start to go out. (For many public colleges and universities, and other privates, the calendar isn't as geared to a May 1 deadline, and for competitive publics this year, flooded with applicants, admission off the waiting list may not be in the cards for many.)

This year, Lawrence University, Union College in New York, and Washington University in St. Louis -- all institutions with competitive admissions -- turned to their waiting lists in recent weeks, before the final tallies were in on how many accepted applicants were coming. Their actions and those of other colleges (plus some rumored but not announced officially) have left students on waiting lists trading information online about which colleges have already started going to that group. In an admissions year in which strategies of many colleges and applicants are in recession-related flux, this is another twist.

Steven Syverson, vice president for enrollment at Lawrence, said that as it became clear two weeks ago that the university would have some extra slots, he decided not to wait until the arrival of mail from May 1, and to send out 15 more acceptance letters, taking people off the waiting list earlier than normal.

Syverson said that he has heard from colleagues elsewhere a growing interest in admitting from the waiting list prior to May 1 because the value of the list seems to "really dissipate" after May 1. Some applicants "simply are tired of the process and want to be done, so once they have sent a deposit somewhere, they're much less likely to be interested in a slot opening up."

Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment at Union, said that several factors were at play in its decision to go early to the waiting list. One factor having nothing to do with the recession is that this is Malatesta's first year in his position so he said he wasn't "tied to any practice from the past."

He said that the strategy relates to the limitations of using other approaches in this unusual admissions year. He said that some private colleges, expecting yields to be down a bit as students explore many options, have upped the number of acceptances they sent out originally. But Malatesta said that's risky if you are a college that fills every residence hall and doesn't want to get larger or see classes get larger.

Last year, Union enrolled more students than expected, and repeating that pattern a few years in a row -- while potentially helpful to a college's bottom line -- creates educational problems, he said. So Union didn't up its offers, but with acceptances of those offers running slightly behind last year's (which is where many private colleges have been reporting themselves in the last 10 days), Malatesta said it made sense to make offers to the top 20 students on the waiting list.

Malatesta stressed that these are students "we would love to have taken in the first place." They will be given an extra week beyond May 1 to decide whether to accept Union's offer.

There are benefits for those on the waiting list as well. While the obvious one is that they get in, there is also a financial bonus. Colleges that follow the traditional waiting list calendar encourage those on the list to place a deposit at their first choice among colleges that accepted them. By going to the waiting list as soon as the numbers coming in suggest it would happen anyway, "those who haven't yet decided on another college and who want to come here don't have to put money down at another college."

Some colleges have tried for some of the gains of going to the waiting list early by flagging for those on the list either that such a move was possible (Providence College) or that the yield estimates (while not final) suggested a decent chance that the waiting list would be used some time after May 1 (Vanderbilt University).

Several admissions officials said that going to the waiting list early doesn't mean that those who still haven't been called with good news won't still get the call they are hoping for in the next few weeks. So when the May 1 postmarked mail has arrived, more offers are possible.

Nanette H. Tarbouni, director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, said that going to the waiting list early there was a result of a pattern of "under admitting" in the first round, and then adding students. In Wash U.'s case, the completion of a residence hall project after the first round of letters went out was a key factor, when it became clear the project would be done in time to house some of those admitted.

Tarbouni noted an extra benefit of admiting students off the waiting list: "It's always fun to call and hear the happiness and excitement in a student's voice -- you never really get the same experience when initial letters are sent."


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