Podcast: How to Navigate the Waitlist

With all the college decisions that came out in the last week of March, I’m getting so many questions about how to navigate the waitlist. In this episode, I talk about what the waitlist is used for, how waitlist use has increased recently, and what students who are waitlisted should do to both move forward with the acceptances they do have AND put themselves in the best position to get in off the waitlist.


Sheila Akbar: 

They had the raw talent and stats to probably get a very close read and careful consideration at those top schools. But here’s the thing, those top schools had enough applications from Uber talented students, that they were still able to say no to these particular students that I’m talking about.


Hi, everybody, welcome back to don’t force it, how to get into college without losing yourself. I really do stand by that title. But there’s something happening right now that I want to address that I know, makes it really hard to accept that philosophy of being yourself, pursuing the things that you find meaningful, and focusing on your own goals and your own definition of success. Because honestly, that’s what leads to good college admissions results.

What’s happening right now is the increased use of a waitlist that makes it really scary for people to do what I was just describing. This year, I’ve seen more amazingly talented students with near perfect, and in some cases, perfect test scores, with near perfect, and in some cases, perfect GPAs with a lot of recognition, awards, accomplishments, leadership with good recommendations with more importantly, I think, good character, I’ve seen them get whitelisted by some of the most selective colleges, and it’s crashing to the students, because they feel like they’ve done everything right. And still, it didn’t work out in the end.

Now all of these students that I’m talking about the ones that I’ve worked with, that are wait listed at the top, top schools and picture be doing air quotes around the word TOP, they do have other good options to go to very good options where they will get the education that they need in order to move on to the next step in their career, or their educational journey. It’s not like these students didn’t get in anywhere, they got in to a lot of places, but not the, quote unquote, top colleges that they were dreaming about. And that everyone, including me told them did they had a chance at because they did, they had the raw talent and stats to probably get a very close read and careful consideration at those top schools. But here’s the thing, those top schools had enough applications from Uber talented students, that they were still able to say no to these particular students that I’m talking about.

And I think that’s an important thing to remember here. These colleges, their goal is not to offer a quality education to every student who is deserving of one. Because honestly, every student is deserving of a quality education. And one single college can’t make that their mission. The college’s mission is to meet its goals. And those goals may be growth in a particular area of study. They may be a stronger music program, they may be shifting the balance of people who study economics, towards people who study philosophy, I’m just making these things up. They could be any of those things. They could be about money. They could be about geographic diversity, they could be about socio economic diversity. Colleges have all kinds of different goals. And we don’t know exactly what they are, and they shift from year to year. And the particular students that got waitlisted might help them meet those goals. But they were pretty sure that the students that they actually accepted would accept their offer and fill their needs. So they don’t really need these waitlisted students, but just in case, they’re keeping some on the backburner.

And I know it can be really hard to wrap your head around that idea that this process is not about the individual student, but it’s actually about the college getting what it needs from a huge pool of talented students. But that’s the reality. And I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind because hopefully, at some point down the line when students have had a chance to process and to get excited about this via the acceptances they do have, hopefully, this will help them see that they shouldn’t take this personally, that this decision from a college is not related to their potential, it’s not a measure of their potential success in the future. It’s not a statement on who they are as a person, it is not a judgment on them or their choices.

So I want to start with that. Let’s try not to take this personally, even though it feels extremely personal, I know that the next thing to know about the waitlist is that they are a tool for colleges to manage their yield. And yield is what we call the percentage of students that accept a colleges offer of admission. So if a college offers sends out 100 acceptance letters, and only 72, students decide they’re going to go to that college and accept those offers, then they have a 72% yield pretty simple math. Now yield matters for all sorts of different reasons. From the very superficial end of things yield matters because it influences the US News and World Report college rankings. The higher the yield, typically, the higher the ranking. So colleges do want to manage their yield, they want to have a high yield because it helps them in the rankings. And being high in the rankings helps them appear to offer a higher quality education helps them attract more applicants collect more application fees, drive up those application numbers while their spots stay the same. And so their acceptance rate goes down, which also impacts their ranking, and improves the perception of selectivity which majority of people equate with quality. If it’s hard to get into, it must be really, really good. And to borrow a point from Marie Bigham, who I interviewed for the podcast in an episode coming out soon, it creates that impression of scarcity, the illusion of scarcity so that colleges can charge what they’re going to charge for tuition. That’s a whole other podcast, you will listen, you’ll be able to listen to Marie and I talk about that in a in a week or two.

So that’s one reason yield matters because it affects the rankings and all of these other kinds of things that that fall out of that. Now another reason yield matters is because it dictates the logistics of the school, if they only get 72 people and they really needed 100, well, then they’re not going to meet their revenue goals, because revenue comes from tuition. And when they’re not meeting the revenue goals on the order of, you know, 30% here, that could mean people lose their jobs. That could mean certain programs don’t get funded. It could mean certain departments may have to fold could mean all sorts of cost cutting measures. And those are big deal for university, not making revenue is a big deal. On the other end of that, if their yield is too high, the college is going to have to scramble to figure out where these extra students are going to live. Do they need more classrooms? Do they need to offer more sections of a particular required class do they need to hire more educators. So all of a sudden, they’re new costs involved. And maybe it’s not something they were planning on, they have to scramble, that’s never good, either. So colleges have this function called enrollment management that they use to help understand what their yield is going to be what they need to yield in order to meet their goals and operate their business. And the people who are enrollment managers typically have PhDs in statistics like this is complex stuff, there are a lot of variables that come into play here. Now, the reason I’m telling you all about this is because the waitlist is that tool to offer a safety net or a little bit of a cushion, if they don’t yield what they need to. Right, if they only get 72 students to come, they really needed at will pull eight people off the waitlist. And and we got to keep some context in mind here as well to the mechanics of yield and what the waitlist is used for.

But what’s been happening over the last few years, particularly with the increase of the test, optional movement, and also the test optional policies that were not necessarily part of that movement, but were precipitated by COVID and the inability to take standardized tests. What happened was we saw application numbers shoot through the roof at the top 200 colleges that everyone always talks about. And the spaces for students did not change. So all of a sudden Then we have a lot more competition for the same few number of spots. And that’s not necessarily because they were more students, what we saw was more students submitting more applications. And this is a trend we’ve seen, since the Common Application has gone, digital students are on average applying to more colleges than they used to. And that is changing the enrollment equation, it is harder to predict yield, when the factors that used to pretty reliably tell you if a student would enroll would accept your offer admission, if those data points have shifted, and that formula is not as reliable anymore.

Now, that phenomenon has really continued over the last three years or so. And people are catching on that it is more selective. So students feel like they need to do more to be a standout candidate. And they need to apply to more schools to improve their chances of acceptance. And as the spots at those highly selective colleges get more and more competitive, the spots at what we used to consider not quite as selective colleges are also getting more selective. And there’s this sort of waterfall effect, where colleges that would be 15 years ago, parents would have thought of as a safety now is a target, or now is actually quite selective and it might be a reach for a student.

So there are these been these massive changes in the admissions landscape that are really forcing colleges hand towards the waitlist. What we’ve seen over the last, I don’t know 10 years, is that weightless are getting more popular as a tool. And this year, anecdotally, I haven’t seen any research on this yet might be a little too soon. Anecdotally, I think the waitlist have been used this year more than ever.

Now. What do you do if you’re one of these students who’s been waitlisted? How do you navigate this? Well, the first thing to do is to make sure you accept the spot on the waitlist if you truly want to stay in consideration for a particular college. Now if you have an acceptance where you know you’d go there over this other college that is weightless, did you deny the spot on the waitlist, just turn it down, you’re not going to burn any bridges. But what you will do is maybe give another student a chance to get in off that waitlist, where maybe they don’t have any better choices. Often colleges will give you a timeline by which you have to accept the spot on the waitlist, make sure you don’t miss that deadline. So check all those waitlist notifications. If you want to stay on the waitlist, make sure you accept the spot before the deadline.

The next thing you need to do is think about the acceptances you do have and get excited about them. Any college acceptance is something worth celebrating. And if you have a couple of choices, maybe you need to go back to your college research and figure out why was that school on the list in the first place? What else can you learn about it, go on a visit. Most colleges have an accepted students day or program that you could go to some colleges are even doing it virtually nowadays. So go to that and learn what you can about who else is going to be there what your experience is going to be like, really let it let it sink in that this might be a place that you live for four years? And think about how does that feel? How does that sit with you? Talk to current students, look at YouTube videos, look at pictures online, talk to your college counselor and see what they think. And most importantly here is you want to trust your gut. A lot of times a disappointment about a waitlist decision is tied to some concern for what will other people think I got waitlisted at this really great college that everybody’s heard of. But I got in to this other college that I like, but maybe fewer people have heard of it. And students start to feel bad about that. So if your parents don’t make your students feel bad about an acceptance they have, especially if it’s one of the only acceptances they do have and the others are waitlists.

I think we need to be really clear eyed about this. It doesn’t really help to keep hope alive. At this point. You really do want to be looking at what your actual birds in hand are. What are your options here? Because yeah, sure, if you get off the waitlist at a great school, maybe you’ll go but let’s get excited about the realities that are in front of you. Do not just a possibility at this point in the year. So do your research and really soak in everything you can about the places where you have acceptances. And think about how any of those acceptances how those schools and what they offer fit into your larger goals.

So I’ll give you an example of a number of students this year who are on those wait lists at highly selective schools. And they are 90% certain that they will go to graduate school after college, they want to do PhDs, they want to become research scientists, or professors or something that requires a PhD, or a master’s. And in those cases, you know, really doesn’t matter where you go to undergrad, what matters is what you do in your undergraduate education that determines what kind of PhD programs that you’re a good candidate for. So maybe going to a smaller school will where you’ll have more access to a professor, you will have more opportunities to do research as an undergrad, because there won’t be as many graduate students competing for lab spots, maybe that’s actually what you want to do to set yourself up for success for whatever’s next. And you could talk to most people who have a PhD, people don’t really care about the name of the school brand doesn’t matter as much when you talk about graduate study, what matters is who you’re working with, and the specialty of a particular program. So if you think about it from that perspective, if you’re looking at a PhD, maybe the things that you value, and making a choice in your acceptances is very different than if you just think you’re gonna get a bachelor’s degree and then go into the working world.

No, if you think you’re just going to get a bachelor’s degree and go into the working world. That’s another way you can kind of frame your decision here by thinking about what kind of industry might I want to go into what kind of companies might I want to work for? And where do those industries recruit students from, or where do those companies recruit students from. And if you look on the college career offices, websites, there’s usually some information about who is coming to do on campus interviews, what kind of jobs the graduating students have have gotten, and what kind of industries so you can look at those details to see, oh, if I go to this school, maybe I have a better chance of getting into this field than if I went to this other school that these companies don’t ever come to.

So think about it in terms of your goals, and really get excited about one of the places you’ve got an acceptance to, then, and only then will I say, consider writing a letter to the college where you are waitlisted to share any updates about your academics or your achievements, since they’ve last seen information from you. So they will have gotten your mid year grade report usually goes out in February. But if something has happened since December, when you applied, like you won some award or you brought your grades up significantly, and you want to highlight it, those are things that you can put in this weightless letter. I also love when students connect those achievements to something at the school. So if you’ve just won five new science olympiad awards, because you are just a dedicated diligent student who is fascinated with the scientific knowledge that we can gain, tie that to something about the culture of the school, where you’re waitlisted, and how that’s really something that you live and breathe already. And you just know that that’s going to be a great environment for you. And this is one of those ways that you can articulate your specific match with the college.

And sometimes that can help, right, sometimes students are waitlisted, because a college isn’t sure if you’re going to say yes to their offer admission of or not. And so indicating that if you were to be accepted, you would go. And these are all the great things that you would contribute. That’s a sound strategy. Now only do this, if the college hasn’t explicitly told you not to send anything, if they’ve given you specific instructions, saying I’m making this up. There are 100 words in this forum that you can use to update us about anything, well then only use 100 words in that form and don’t email them directly. Don’t call them don’t show up. Don’t do those things. Really, it’s important that you follow instructions here.

So those are the things that you can do right now, to both wrap your head around this weightless decision and process it a little bit, but also to take some action on where you can go and what you can do to hopefully move the needle on getting off the waitlist. There is public information out there about how many students get off the waitlist each year, you can look that up. And it will be sobering information, it is a very small number of students. So keep that in mind.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you may want to set kind of an internal deadline for yourself, if you’re not off the waitlist by this point in the summer, maybe it’s time to give up on that waitlist. Not saying you have to withdraw yourself from the waitlist or take yourself out of consideration. But just mentally saying, You know what, that door is closed, and I’m not going to worry about it anymore. That can be really healthy for a student, because they’ve been waiting so long. To figure this all out. A lot of them started their college applications in the winter of their junior year, and to be on a waitlist, maybe even up until August before college begins is real torture. So don’t do that to yourself, please. So just get excited about a place that you can go.

And know that great people go to all kinds of colleges, and some of them don’t even go to college. So all all that is to say, you’re going to be good wherever you go. And it may feel like a rejection right now. And it may feel like if you don’t get into a brand name school, all of your plans are going to fall apart. But that’s not the truth. If you talk to the vast majority of quote unquote successful adults, they will tell you that things like this have happened to them. They’ve been rejected from a college from a job from a relationship that felt like the rest of their lives were dependent upon them. And it really is a zigzag journey from what sometimes can feel like one failure to the next. That helps us grow and learn who we are, and set realistic goals that are actually meaningful to us. And not just something that feels important in society or in a particular group of friends, it feels important to go to this type of school or do this sort of job. But as you face those disappointments in your life, you start to realize, well actually, those are the most amazing learning opportunities.

And of course, for a 17 year old kid has a hard lesson to learn. It really is. So have some compassion. But as a parent, the more you can believe that they’re going to be okay, wherever they go, the more they will believe it, too. So even if you’re worried about them in those ways, try not to put your worry on them. Because part of their disappointment at being waitlisted is their concern. Or they’re worry that they’ve disappointed you.

So food for thought parents food for thought.

All right, sober episode, not super funny, not super high energy, but I hope it was helpful.

And parents of younger students, this important lesson to learn to is really important that you are prepared for this kind of result, because it’s possible at any kind of school you apply to. So pick the schools that go on your college list very carefully, and be very conservative in how well you expect your student to do. Just keep it realistic, keep those expectations somewhat low.

You know, it may feel like it used to be a safety when you were applying to college. But let me tell you as the game at the top, again, an air quotes, as the game in the top gets more and more competitive. What you may have thought of as second or third tier colleges are also getting more competitive. So please go into this with eyes open. And try not to let your kids internalize it if they don’t get into the schools that you think they belong at. And you shouldn’t internalize it either.

Alright, I hope there was some helpful information in there for you and some consolation to your kid probably didn’t do anything wrong. Those colleges just had such a talented pool to choose from, that they were able to say no to some real gems. All right. Come back for more next week. Thanks, everybody.

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