Three years ago Lynn O’ Shaughnessy, publisher of The College Solution book, Web site and workbook, posted an excellent column about the wisdom of the college wait list. Rather than copy the piece here, I’m going to link you to it and add some points of my own.
Lynn’s piece sets apart schools that offer a large number of places on a wait list–she used The University of Notre Dame as an example–but expect to offer admission to a very select few. By then most of these students have sent enrollment deposits, and possibly housing deposits, to other schools.
Lynn states, and I agree, that such practices are very misleading. They delay rejection for hundreds of students who had hoped to gain admission, but offer little hope for acceptance.
If you are offered a place on a wait list, ask the admissions office for a copy of the school’s most recent (in this case the 2015-16 Common Data Set). This is the information that the school’s office of institutional research turns in to the ranking sources such as U.S. News as well as the College Board. If the school is not responsive, you can also Google (School Name) Office of Institutional Research. There you should find links to the most recent Common Data Set as well as others from previous years. This information is prepared to be made public, so the school’s admissions should be able to find and release it willingly. If not, you might want to consider another school that has offered admission.
When you look at the Common Data Set, note the numbers of students placed on a wait list, the number who accepted a place and the number admitted. The more selective the school, the smaller the percentage that will be accepted off a wait list. Admissions offices accept students based not only on their qualifications, but also predictive models that tell them how many accepted students are likely to enroll. At state schools, the office may separate this data by residents and non-residents. Universities such as the University of Florida, University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill which have reasonably low in-state tuition and fees will have exceptionally high (over 60 percent) yield rates from resident students.
If schools do not post their Common Data Set, I encourage you to call the admissions office and ask for this information for the class that entered during the past fall. You might not get numbers, but you can at least find out if the school had to go to the wait list to fill their class. It is not uncommon for excellent liberal arts colleges, though not the most selective ones, to experience “summer melt.” Their admissions offices have accepted students who are on the wait lists at other schools that they might prefer to attend. State schools that offer acceptance to the majority of their applicants are also likely to experience summer melt in admissions as are many mid-sized schools that are not super-selective in admissions.
I do not see accepting a spot on the wait list as a risk–as long as your family is confident that the school is affordable. Students accepted off a wait list receive a lower priority for the school’s need-based or merit-based financial aid programs. The money may have been allocated to accepted students.
By all means take a spot if the school you want costs less than the one where you have sent a deposit. In that case there’s nothing to lose. But if you have you heart set on an ultra-selective school that might cost an arm and a leg, don’t get your hopes too high. It may not be worth stretching limited financial resources on a dream.
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