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So I’m On The Waitlist… Is That Good News?

Mar 7, 2022

You can expect three outcomes from the regular decision application process: acceptance, rejection, or, the third result that may leave you feeling somewhat unsure, the waitlist.

In contrast to the sharply declining undergraduate acceptance rates, the number of applicants offered a spot on schools’ waitlists remains mostly consistent over time, a curious trend reported by Sam Kagan of The Daily Princetonian. From 2003 to 2020, Princeton offered an average of 1,153 students a spot on their waitlist, and an average of 823 students accepted the offer. Likewise, Kagan analyzes trends from the nation’s top universities including Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, Georgetown, MIT, Stanford, UPenn, and Northwestern.

However, the percentage of waitlisted students offered admission to any given school is largely volatile and unpredictable. For example, Dartmouth saw a rise in acceptance rates for waitlisted students (with a few gaps from 2004 to 2015) but met a sudden and lasting drop in 2016. Stanford saw a gradual decline in its already low numbers, but saw a sharp rise to just under 40% in 2020. Princeton accepted 101 waitlisted students in 2017, but accepted 0 in 2018.

In light of this unpredictable phenomenon, Jeffrey Durso-Finley, the co-director of college counseling at the Lawrenceville School and former admission officer at Brown, responds that typically a competitive school’s “applicant pool is so strong and their matriculation rate is so high, they don’t often need to go to the waiting list because they make their class based on the modeling they use.”

So it’s no surprise when hyper-selective schools accept zero students from their waitlist. Since 2009, Dartmouth and MIT have blanked their waitlists four times, while Georgetown, Northwestern, and Penn have always accepted at least one student from their waitlists.

So, what propels schools to accept students they’ve not yet rejected? Michael Hotchkiss, Princeton’s Deputy University Spokesperson, states that once admissions knows the number of students planning to enroll, they “turn to the waitlist to ensure that all seats in a class are filled.” Apart from meeting required numbers of enrolled students, the waitlist also helps colleges create a well-rounded class. By looking at the demographic or interest-based gaps in their admitted student population, the waitlist is used to “balance the incoming class.”

Durso-Finley emphasizes the importance of balancing an incoming class: “If a hyper-selective school thinks they’re going to go in for 25 kids and they do the analysis of their class and they are over-enrolled in what they predicted the engineering population to be and you’re a kid on the waiting list who’s an engineer, they’re probably not going to go to you.”
This is where your “hook” shines through. Don’t focus on making yourself a well-rounded student but accentuate the feature that helps you stand out from others, and this will create your best chance at getting off of a waitlist. How will you fill in the gap that your dream school is looking to address?

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