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  • Writer's pictureJessica Chermak, CEP, LPC

What's Up with the Waitlists in 2022?

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

It seems that every year, counselors across the USA remark on the unpredictable nature of college admissions. This year feels no different, but one trend that has stood out above the rest is the way particularly qualified applicants are being waitlisted at schools we have previously considered target or likely options.


To be clear, college admissions has never been a “fair” game. There are far more students with perfect grades and scores, valedictorians, and students with remarkable extracurricular engagement than there are seats in the combined classes of highly selective (truthfully, rejective) institutions. But this year in particular, we are hearing from families (students and parents/guardians) about how shocked they are at this point in the process that their high achieving students don’t have as many options on the table as they had anticipated earlier in the process.

 

So, what’s actually happening on the other side of the desk?


The truth is, the college admissions process is seriously lacking in the transparency department. But we do have a few theories that seem to hold water:

  • Many universities are practicing an enrollment method called “yield protection.” For background, colleges typically pay significant sums of money on data analytics to help them to determine which applicants are most likely to enroll. But there’s a fine balance between admitting all high achieving students and meeting their target enrollment numbers. Where yield protection comes into play is when a particularly impressive applicant is not admitted because the school is assuming the student would choose to attend another institution instead.

  • In some cases, schools are hesitant to admit seemingly over-qualified applicants because if their average admitted student GPA and test scores increase too much, the school’s ranking can actually change negatively. In these cases, admitting higher performing students can often shift schools to an entirely different ranking list, awarding them a lower spot than they held on their previous list. While we firmly believe that rankings should not play an integral role in a student’s decision to apply, these rankings remain important in the eyes of the colleges and universities.

  • In the case of high achievers being waitlisted in seemingly larger quantities than previous years, the most logical explanation is that many schools are still making up for all of the unprecedented enrollment changes since the class of 2020 (as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic). In many cases, colleges over-enrolled last year, after accounting for the students who all deferred their college experience in 2020. Many colleges experienced housing shortages, hiring freezes, and fluctuating numbers of enrolled students. For all of these reasons, it appears that many more selective institutions have admitted fewer students, and offered waitlist spots to many more students than in years past.

The first two listed reasons can explain some of the unpredictable waitlist decisions from the Early Action and Regular Decision rounds of admission. The third is more reflected in the results high achieving students across the country are experiencing–way more schools offering these students a spot on the waitlist instead of direct admission to the class of 2026. But what does this actually mean for the high achievers in the high school class of 2022?


Firstly, it means that students have a lot more to think about right now. Primarily, they need to decide whether or not they would like to stay on the waitlist. Some students may feel content with the official options they have for next year and will choose to remove themselves from the waitlist before May 1st. Others will choose to stay on waitlists to try to keep those doors open. For students in this latter category, I encourage putting some thought into what their threshold will be for making a college decision. Students should still decide which college to attend and enroll there by the May 1st deadline, typically called “National Decision Day.” But students on waitlists should consider what internal deadline feels right for them to lean into their decision and remove themselves from the waitlists. Some schools may go to the waitlist weeks after the start of the term in the fall, while others may start pulling students before May 1st. It all depends on how close schools get to reaching their target enrollment numbers. Many students don’t want to suddenly have a new option on the table the day before they move into the previously chosen university, and I don’t blame them! Point being, if you’re choosing to stay on a waitlist, consider setting a deadline for yourself about when you’d need to hear back from that waitlist school to have it be a real option for your situation.


Given the seeming increase in waitlist numbers across the board, all of us counselors and higher education professionals are wondering if students may have a better shot of getting off the waitlist this year than in previous years. At the moment, we have no way of knowing. In general, you can learn previous waitlist statistics (including number of students offered a spot on the waitlist, number of students who chose to stay on the waitlist, and number of students officially offered a spot in the incoming class) by googling the name of the institution and the term “Common Data Set.” These data points may not be as predictive of this year’s numbers, though, so remember to interpret this data with a grain of salt.


Some important things to know about waitlists:

  • Schools that are need-blind for admission are often not need-blind when it comes to pulling students off the waitlist. This means that at many institutions, being able to afford the cost of attending the institution can be advantageous in getting off the waitlist.

  • I mentioned it previously, but it’s important to note again. Many schools offer spots off the waitlist even after the term begins. It can be incredibly unsettling for some students to be notified that they could enroll at their top choice after they’ve already begun coursework at another institution. This is why I encourage students to consider an internal deadline of when they’d need to hear about getting off the waitlist and when they would feel comfortable removing themselves from the waitlist.

  • Some schools have an internal ranking system of the students on the waitlist, and others don’t. As an applicant, schools will rarely, if ever, tell you where you are on that ranking system or if the system even exists. Sometimes this data is reflected in the aforementioned Common Data Set, but many schools actually leave that question blank.

  • Most (if not all) schools will pull students off the waitlist based on institutional priorities. These priorities change daily based on who chooses to enroll, and can include decisions about students of a particular gender identity, race or ethnicity, choice of major, a particular skill or talent, the ability to pay full tuition, and anything in between!

 

What We Do Know


While there are many things we don’t know about how many students may be pulled off the waitlist at each institution this year, we do know a few things:

  • The University of California schools often pull a few thousand students off of waitlists, and in many cases, they do this pretty soon after the May 1st enrollment deadline.

  • Some schools won’t pull any students off the waitlist and the waitlist offer is just a gentle denial. In these cases, a waitlist offer is typically an indication that there were too few seats in the incoming class, but they are acknowledging that the student likely would have been successful at their institution.

  • Sometimes these waitlist decisions don’t make sense to us as professionals, or to students and families. Part of this process is becoming comfortable with the unknowns, and recognizing that there are pieces of every student’s journey that will be out of their control. Students can and should control the pieces they can, and let the other pieces fall into place.


What Can Students Do Moving Forward?

  • As college counselors, we strongly encourage (actually, per our contract with independent families, require) students to apply to a balanced list of schools, including several target and likely options. Remember that every school a student applies to, regardless of selectivity, should be a school the student would be happy attending. (This point applies most to students in the class of 2023 and younger.)

  • Decide if the school that waitlisted you is still a school you want to attend, and determine when you’d need to hear from them about an official determination of admission to make it a viable option. For many students, that is somewhere between the end of June and Mid-July. For others it may be May 1st, or well into the Fall term.

  • Officially submit your decision to either stay on the waitlist or remove yourself. At the same time, complete any steps indicated in the instructions provided by the institution, including responding to any further questions/essay prompts, supplying application updates and/or additional letters of recommendation wherever applicable.


Important Things to Remember

  • It’s really important that all students remember that admission decisions are more about the school’s institutional priorities than anything they’ve presented in their application. Colleges are, first and foremost, businesses, and admission officers are required to make decisions to benefit the school, not to benefit the student.

  • All admission officers are looking for ways to admit a student, not deny them.

  • There are far more impressive applicants than there are seats in incoming classes at selective institutions.

  • Applying to more selective institutions does not actually increase your odds of being admitted to any particular one. We recommend high achieving students cast a wide net to ensure they have options from which to choose by the time April of senior year rolls around.

  • Being waitlisted or not being offered admission to any school is not a reflection of anything the student has done or should have done. There are simply more impressive students than there are spots.

  • There are many great-fit colleges for every student, regardless of GPA, standardized test scores, or extracurricular involvement.

  • Sometimes you can do everything “right” and still not have the outcome you hoped for.

  • The college application journey is a growing experience in a number of ways. At minimum, students improve their writing and critical thinking skills; learn how to conduct valuable research; and reflect on their personality, values, hopes, dreams, interests, strengths, and opportunities for growth.

  • College admissions is not an exact science, and is rarely predictable. But most colleges admit 80%+ of their applicant pool.

Good luck (but I know you won't need it),

Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors





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