The Waitlist STILL Sucks!
This column was written by none other than Rick Clark, the Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. Rick’s blog has a tremendous following and he has an uncanny way of separating myth from reality in college admissions. I could have written another column on the waitlist, but Rick’s blog (written in pre-pandemic 2019), is so good, I just felt the need to share. Below, is his straight-to-the-gut thoughts on the waitlist.
The Waitlist STILL Sucks!
- Pink eye.
- A car hitting a puddle and soaking you from the waist down.
- Someone eats the last Girl Scout cookie but leaves the box in the pantry.
- Back pain.
- Your car needs a new timing belt.
Feel free to add to this list of Things That Suck, but I figured I’d get you started. Surprisingly, it can be a bit cathartic to just toss them out there. I find it enjoyable to say these with gusto while leaning in slightly, gritting my teeth, narrowing my eyes, clenching my fist, and adding the disdain only rivaled by Jerry in Seinfeld episodes when he’d curse the name Newman! (Yes, I expect you to click on that link if you don’t know that reference. This is a life-enriching blog.)
In college admission, I’d argue the most Newman-worthy word is waitlist. A few years ago I wrote a three-part series called “The Waitlist Sucks.” Since that time, we have seen political change, population growth, and new world champions crowned. But The Waitlist Still Sucks! Here’s why.
Reason #1: I’m Not That Smart
Why does this admission purgatory exist at all? Well, it depends who you ask. Deans, directors, and other enrollment managers will say it is because predicting 17 and 18-year-old behavior is not an exact science. After all, if we could precisely determine the number of students who would accept our offer of admission and deposit (yield) by the May 1 National Candidate Reply Deadline, waitlists would not be necessary. So in addition to reading applications all year from students who make A’s in classes I can’t even spell or accomplish things in under 20 years I’ll never achieve in my lifetime, the waitlist is an annual reminder that I’m just not that smart.
Waitlists are basically a cushion. Colleges build and utilize historical yield models in order to predict the number of students we think will say yes to their offer of admission. However, because the number of beds in residence halls, the number of seats in classrooms, and the faculty: student and advisor: student ratios are very specific, they intentionally plan to come in slightly below their target. In many cases, they do this in order to account for years when the model changes and students “over-yield.” If you are applying to a school that over-enrolled the year prior (cough… Georgia Tech), you can be sure they will be extremely conservative, e.g. filling an even higher number of spaces from the waitlist.
The waitlist also exists to allow schools to meet institutional priorities. After the May 1 deadline, colleges evaluate their deposited class and use their waitlist to increase desired demographics that were not met in the initial round of admission offers. This could mean more students from a particular state or geographic region to proliferate their college’s brand. Perhaps they just hired a new dean in business who is clamoring to grow the program. Or maybe they are trying to increase male enrollment in their education department. The bottom line is college waitlists are not restaurant waitlists. You are not ranked or assigned a number. Instead, they hand-pick applicants to fill a specific purpose. Cushion, institutional priorities, unpredictable teenager thought process. Call it what you will. Bottom line: I’m just not that smart. Newman!
Reason #2: Waiting sucks (add this, and losing to your rival in the final seconds of a game, to the list at the top.)
You applied. You waited. You waited some more. You took up curling and counted the number of Cheerios in your bowl each morning. You watched the rain fall. Finally, decision day arrives. You take a deep breath, say whatever type of prayer, hex, good luck incantation seems most fitting, enter your password, and… What?! No! Oh no you didn’t.
I wish I had a good tip for you. All I can say is what you already know—waiting is hard. Uncertainty is frustrating and unsettling. Feeling better? Yeah, I get it. I’m guessing you’re also not going to like to hear that life is full of situations just like this one. Will I get a new job, and when? Will the results of this test come back from the doctor with life-changing implications? For many of you this is the first of many big situations that mean waiting, hoping, praying, and learning to be content and joyful in the present, regardless of your circumstances. That is a challenge at any age—you are just getting some early practice. Congratulations??
**Special note/apology: Some of you were deferred and will now receive a waitlist offer. Welcome to the 9th level of admission hell. We don’t like doing it and we know you hate dealing with it. This year UNC-Chapel Hill moved away from that progression by no longer deferring anyone in EA and rather pushing students straight into waitlist. Is that kinder, gentler admission or just Newman showing up earlier in the episode? You decide.
Reason #3: It’s an ego hit.
“What’s wrong with me?” “Why did that other kid get in and not me?” “How is my 3.8 and 1520 not good enough?” Please, hear me adamantly reminding you: This is not a value judgment! Again, as my colleague Pam Ambler from Pace Academy here in Atlanta so astutely put it, “How admission decisions feel is not how they are made.” YOU are amazing! YOU are talented. Yes. I am talking to you. YOU—with the iPad out or scanning your phone, or reading this while you’re pretending to listen in class or to a friend. That doesn’t mean it does not sting, burn, or make you want to scream, “Newman!” (Feels good, right?)
Keep your head up. Don’t let a school’s decision (based on factors well outside your control) shake your confidence. Your goal is to have the confidence to embrace uncertainty as an adventure rather than a burden. Great days ahead, my friends. Where exactly? I don’t know. But walk confidently and keep your head up. You got this.
Being in limbo is tough enough on its own. But adding to the angst, frustration, and ego hit is that everyone else seems to be set and living a smooth, stress-free life as they finish high school. Seems is the key word here. Trust me—they still have their own issues and doubts. They are only posting their (occasional) fancy meals and best hair days on Instagram. And you better believe those pics are highly photo-shopped and multi-filtered.
I understand lots of your friends already know or soon will know where they are going to college next year. I hope you’ll have the vision and character not to spend your energy envying them but rather celebrating with them. This will come back around. This is all going to work out. Love on them now and they’ll be thrilled when you’ve made your final decision too. Trust.
So, what can you do?
- Accept your spot. At most schools the waitlist decision is actually an offer, rather than an automatic secured spot. Typically, you need to take action of some kind to accept or claim your waitlist spot. If you do claim your spot, be sure you also complete anything additional they ask you to submit. Is there a supplementary short answer question to complete? Do they want mid-semester grades sent, or another recommendation letter or an interview? All places vary. Admission 101 = read what they send and do what it says.
- Deposit elsewhere. The college that has offered you a spot on their waitlist should be instructing you to take this step, as it is absolutely critical. Because most schools won’t have a firm sense of deposits until late April, the majority of waitlist activity occurs in May and June. Since May 1 is the National Candidate Reply Date, you need to put your money down at another college in order to secure your spot in their class. Just like the college, you are hedging your bets.
I sort of hate to be the one to tell you this, but just in case no one else will do it… the statistics/odds say you are likely not coming off the waitlist. Yes, there is always a chance. Dark horses win races. It somehow did rain for the 83rd straight day in Atlanta. Don’t hear me say it’s impossible. But if I were you I’d get excited about the school that accepted you and where you chose to deposit in March or April.
- Don’t stalk the admission office. Claim your spot, send in what they ask for, and wait. That’s it. If you really feel compelled to send an email to an admission counselor that you’ve met or corresponded with previously, that could be your other action item. If you do that, it’s a one and done deal. We have seen students send a painted shoe with a message on the bottom reading: “just trying to get my foot in the door.” Memorable, but ultimately ineffective. Admission offices regularly receive chocolates, cookies, and treats along with poems or notes. It is safe to say that a couple hundred grams of sugar and a few couplets are not going to outweigh institutional priorities. There is a distinct line between demonstrating interest and stalking. Stay in your lane.
At the end of the day, my hope is you will not let being on a waitlist keep you from enjoying the last part of your senior year. Have fun on spring break. Go to prom. Take the opportunity to thank your teachers or read something outside of school in which you are genuinely interested.
Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where the admission experience is perfect. Students apply to their one and only dream school (likely without having to write an essay or pay an application fee); the college admits them all with full scholarships; students arrive on campus singing, smiling, and holding hands; they all earn (not get) 4.0 GPAs, retain at 100%, graduate in four years, get high paying and highly fulfilling jobs after graduation, name their babies after the admission director… you get the picture.
Until then… we have the waitlist (and it still sucks!).