Receiving news that you’re on the wait list may soften the blow of not getting into a school, but it certainly is not a guarantee that you will get in. Wait list is really that – a waiting game – with no assurance that you will eventually be accepted.
Why do schools have wait lists? Generally, to protect the yield so that they can be sure to fill their classes. One reason why early decision acceptances have become such a big part of the percentages of the freshman class nowadays is that schools use ED to develop a well-rounded class and get some insurance that they will make their numbers.
But getting off the wait list can be anyone’s guess. Some years, lots of students get in; others, a handful or even none at all. Some schools go to their wait lists fairly often; others rarely. Schools that have to hit their exact targets – often those with residential colleges for freshmen – seem to be more likely to go to their lists, but again, that doesn’t mean that the several thousand on a list will get in. And last year’s wait list experience doesn’t portend this year’s activity. Sure, colleges use all kinds of data and algorithms to predict who will accept offers and who will not, but humans being who they are, students don’t always perform in predictive ways. Some years, schools are actually over-subscribed because too many students accept their offers, and that means that students may well be housed in hotels off campus or that double rooms suddenly become triples. And it means that schools are likely to under-enroll the following year. You see, it’s all about beds. If there aren’t enough places to sleep students, then colleges are in a big fix. So if there were too many beds in use last year, it’s likely that there will be fewer available this year, and hence, fewer students accepted.
One reason why wait lists are so large is that colleges know that some students will drop off their wait lists and attend other institutions, so again, they don’t want to be caught short-handed. Yes, from the students’ end, putting so many on a list that will never come to fruition is a nasty thing to do, but from the colleges’ standpoint, it protects the yield. For some schools, the ones that rely on tuition to fill their coffers, meeting numbers is extremely important to their operating budgets.
So if you are on a wait list, don’t just hang around and wait. Accept another school’s offer on or before May 1 so that you are assured of a place in some college’s freshman class. And then if you get off a wait list, you will have a brief period of time to decide whether to take that offer or stay put. But if you do decide to stay at the school to which you have deposited, please graciously say no to the school that offered you a spot off its wait list, as that spot may go to another student who really wants to be there.