Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What To Do When You're Stuck On A College Waitlist


High school seniors will be celebrating on Sunday or Monday. May 1 is known as decision day, when many high school students commit to the colleges they plan to attend next fall. But some students won't be updating Facebook or posting on Instagram - because they have been waitlisted. They may not find out until well into the summer if they are going to be able to go to their college of choice.


Many colleges now waitlist thousands of applicants. At some universities, it's more than 10,000. In a minute we'll hear from a college enrollment official. First, here's Jon Reider. He's a former admissions officer at Stanford University. He now counsels high school students, and he describes life on the waitlist.

JON REIDER: That process can take a week. I had a student admitted off a waiting list a couple years ago in the end of June, and one last year in the middle of July.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there an emotional toll that this takes on the kids?

REIDER: Oh, my goodness. I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk, and it comes into use. I have a student whose mom called me yesterday and said, she feels like she failed. She's got some very fine colleges, and she's going to go to a college that she really likes. And this kid's a very bright kid who's done well. But she's very depressed because she hasn't done as well as she thought she could have. And she told her mother - and I think this is a very common refrain around America - I worked so hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems that all kinds of colleges have these big waiting lists, you know, the super selective, the mediumly selective, big state universities, small liberal arts schools, but there are also many that don't. Why is that?

REIDER: Next week, all the colleges are going to be adding themselves up. If Harvard goes to its waiting list, that has a ripple effect, and there are kids who had deposited at Johns Hopkins who will now take Harvard's offer. And they will withdraw from Johns Hopkins, and Johns Hopkins may now have three or five spaces. And by the way, multiply this by all the colleges. So it's like this gigantic chaos theory. And then it goes down this staircase towards the less selective schools, and they're the ones who really need to go early 'cause they're going to lose kids more or less. Even if it's not Harvard, Northwestern goes to their waiting list and, you know, that affects another school.

JENNIFER CARRON: Fifteen years ago, when I started in admissions, on average a student would apply to between one and three institutions. And now students are being counseled to apply to six to ten institutions and sometimes even more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jennifer Carron of Baylor University. She says with all those high school seniors applying to multiple colleges, it's increasingly hard to predict how many will accept offers of admission, which can have serious implications for the universities. So the waitlist grows and grows.

CARRON: It could be anywhere from a thousand students who would be offered the opportunity to join the waitlist to maybe 5,000 to maybe just 500.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many of those students will be in your freshman class?

CARRON: Any given year, we could have 20 or 30 students who enroll from the waitlist. It could be 70 or 80. It could be just five.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What if enough students don't enroll? What is the worst that can happen to an institution?

CARRON: Quite frankly, their budgets are cut. In some instances, you could have departments that have to make layoffs. There are institutions that, in the past, we've seen axing an entire department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you decide which students to accept from the waiting list?

CARRON: Let's say the school of education has extra space, versus the school of engineering might say, you know what, we're at capacity. And so it could be simply the number of students who are admitted are actually just based on their academic discipline, and every year again it could change. That's why it's so uncomfortable for families. An honest-to-goodness university might not know what's going to be the magic for who can be admitted and who can't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have any help from computer modeling or other sorts of systems that allow you to evaluate this in a more systematic manner?

CARRON: Sure. We're looking to enroll about 3,330 students, but we have 35,000 applications. That's a lot of applications to sift through and to figure out who is the right fit. So we actually do utilize very sophisticated modeling, and so that's based on historical data. If you're enrolling from 50 miles away, than you typically enroll at a certain percentage. If you're coming from out of state, you enroll at a certain rate. And then we can, within a few percentage points, predict the number of students - not exactly which student. And then again that helps us know how many students we should go out to from our waitlist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some of this is counterintuitive though. I mean, if a student comes in and they have a perfect SAT score and they look like someone who might possibly be headed to Harvard or Yale, would you look at that student and think that is someone who will possibly come to Baylor, and then would you offer them that slot? Or would the computer modeling say, this actually is someone who's unlikely to accept a position here?

CARRON: So that is true that our model would say, statistically speaking, this student would enroll at 15 percent. And so certainly that could come into play when we're talking about taking students from the waitlist. But again, also if that student with that 1,600 communicated to us that they really appreciate the educational environment that Baylor offers then absolutely a computer model goes out the window, (laughter), so to speak and then we will look at that student and welcome them, you know, with open arms if we can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jennifer Carron, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. We also heard from Jon Reider, a college counselor at San Francisco University High School. Here's what he tells his students who are waitlisted - write to the college telling them that you are sure you'll attend if selected, and ask your counselor to do the same. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.