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The curse of the “courtesy wait-list”

By Lee Bierer

I hate to break this to you, but if your child was wait-listed at a dream school, the stats are not encouraging. Getting off the wait list is totally variable year to year and institution to institution.

According to the 2012 State of College Admissions Report, nearly 45 percent of four-year institutions use wait lists. For a college admissions office, the wait list helps it manage the dynamics of the incoming class. It accepts more students than the college could possibly house, but it doesn’t have control over how many will accept the offer of admission.

If the yield (the number that say “yes, I’m coming”) is high, then it may not even go to the wait list. If the yield is low, sometimes hundreds of students are offered admission in May and June. Students who are wait-listed must notify the college they want to remain on the list. If a college doesn’t hear from a student by May 1, it removes them.

Colleges use the wait list to fill in gaps with students they feel will complement their freshman class. For example, if a college finds itself short on clarinet players, soccer goalies or theater divas, then those students will likely be some of the first offered admission from the wait list. That makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense to me is what is now commonly called “the courtesy wait list.” Colleges seem to think they’re being more polite if they tell a student they’ve been wait-listed rather than rejected.

In most cases, the colleges know they will never accept these students, but they believe it is a gentler way of letting them down. The problem is that they string these students along by falsely raising their hopes that there really might somehow be a chance they’ll be accepted. I believe the truly courteous thing to do would be to tell them the truth the first time.

The courtesy wait-list is often used for children of alumni, friends and relatives of big givers and high-profile applicants with high-profile recommenders.

Most student and families I speak with would rather know upfront. They would prefer to have an answer and move on with their college decisions.

William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, recognizes that most people are aware that the chances of coming off the wait-list are slim. “A lot of the public views it as a fruitless exercise,” he says. “But you have to stay on the wait list in order to get off it.”

Next week: Tips for trying to get off the wait list

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com
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