Preparing for College

Neither accepted or rejected by a college?

Question: I've heard there is a way a college can neither accept or reject applicants. How can that be?

The Wait List is college admissions' no-man's-land. You're not in and you're not out. It's not a great place to be and it can be a form of disappointment and slowly fading hopes about being accepted to your most-favored school.


Waiting lists are most common at schools that always have an excess of quality applicants. Have you ever wondered how colleges and universities get just the right number of freshman to enroll every year? Part of it has to do with a term called yield; another aspect is the Wait List.

Let's suppose a college has 1,000 open slots for its new freshman class. After all the thousands of applications are reviewed and final admission decisions have been made, perhaps 2,000 letters of acceptance are sent out. After years of practice, this college knows that its yield is 50 percent. That means that, historically, half of those applicants offered admission will accept. It's a kind of natural phenomenon.

However, the college has to have a contingency plan just in case they don't quite get their 50 percent yield. That's where the Wait List comes in. The Wait List is made up of applicants who were just not quite good enough to be offered outright acceptance, but they have been judged capable of doing the college's level of work. In fact, some Wait List students are the equal of regular admits; there just isn't room to admit them all. If enrollment falls short in any given year, the college goes to its Wait List and offers admission to those students.

Wait Lists can be hundreds of names long. Some schools maintain Wait Lists but never use them because they have such a dependable yield. Whenever a school's yield goes up, there can be problems with housing accommodations. This is what happened some years ago at Penn State's University Park campus and at Princeton University for the first time in its 250-year history. Yield tends to remain relatively constant but can fluctuate with trends in popularity.

If you end up on a Wait List, don't hold your breath waiting to be accepted. Sometimes--at the last minute--a formerly enrolled student will withdraw his or her enrollment. That leaves a hole that can be filled from the Wait List. If you're on that Wait List, it could be you being offered admission. It's a very long shot, though. In most cases a student who is wait listed should pursue other colleges. There are avenues of persuasion such as a final flurry of personal marketing or letters of appeal from counselors or alumni, but these are usually not successful. I hope you're not wait listed.