The college admissions season for the class of 2021 has been a wild ride—and it’s not over yet.
Thanks in large part to widespread test optional policies, many colleges have seen record-breaking numbers of applications. The formulas they’re used to relying on to make admissions decisions just won’t work this year. To account for that, many schools are turning to waitlists, so we expect far more waitlist offers than usual this year.
What is a waitlist, and why do colleges use them?
To understand how useful waitlists can be, you first have to understand how selectivity and yield work.
Selectivity is measured by how low a college’s admission rate is. The lower the admission rate, the more selective the school, and the more selective the school becomes, the higher it rises in terms of rankings and prestige. Colleges like being selective.
Yield is the percentage of admitted students who actually end up enrolling. To be as selective as possible, colleges need to have a high yield. After all, if only half of your admitted students will actually attend, you need to admit twice as many students in order to fill your freshman class. If you have to admit more students, your admission rate rises.
And this is where waitlists come in. Schools use waitlists to ensure that they can remain selective while still knowing that they will be able to fill their freshman class, even if yield drops a bit. If fewer students enroll than were anticipated, the school can turn to the waitlist to fill the gaps.
In other words, waitlists allow colleges to have their cake and eat it, too—they get a full freshman class, cushion to manage yield, and the ability to remain selective.
How will waitlists be different this year?
A lot of weird and unpredictable things have happened during this college admissions cycle. Let’s take a look at some of them.
A lot of students deferred last year
Because of uncertainties surrounding the pandemic and what it would mean for colleges, a lot of last year’s admitted students opted to defer enrollment by a year. The result: at some schools, a sizable portion of the upcoming freshman class was already filled before the first applications arrived this year. For example, about 350 Harvard students deferred enrollment to this year. That’s about 20% of the incoming freshman class. That’s 20% fewer spots to fill.
Colleges saw record numbers of applications
Let’s stick with Harvard as our example. Applications at Harvard rose by a whopping 42% this year—42% more applicants to fill a freshman class that is 20% smaller than usual. On the surface, that seems like great news for Harvard since it means they can afford to be even more selective than usual this year, right? Not quite…
The number of applicants stayed roughly the same nationwide
Although applications rose by about 11% nationwide, the number of actual applicants only rose by a little of 2%. That means that students applied to more colleges than usual. And since each student can only actually attend ONE college, colleges will need to compete for students in a way that they haven’t had to in the past.
Increased competition creates a domino effect
Every time a student accepts an offer of admission from the waitlist, they give up a spot elsewhere. That college then turns to its waitlist, and the cycle continues. This makes yield even more unpredictable, which is one reason why experts expect this year’s waitlists to be much larger than usual.
All of this uncertainty likely means much bigger waitlists
Colleges don’t want to sacrifice selectivity or underestimate yield. Normally, the formulas they use to decide how many students to admit bring them pretty close to their targets, so they don’t generally need massive waitlists to ensure a full class. But this year, those formulas are all but useless, so there’s a lot more guesswork involved. And to hedge their bets, colleges are likely to leverage waitlists more than usual—meaning bigger waitlists overall.
Are the chances of being accepted from the waitlist better than usual this year?
In a normal year, the odds of getting accepted off the waitlist are not great. Among all colleges that use a waitlist, about 20 percent of students who choose to remain on the waitlist are admitted. At the most selective colleges, only 7 percent are admitted.
But, as we’ve pretty thoroughly established already, this is anything but a normal year.
Some experts predict that colleges will handle all of this uncertainty by intentionally coming short of a full class—they’ll admit fewer students than they think they really need. This can play out in two ways: either enough students accept a college’s offer of admission that the school barely has to touch the waitlist, or the school will have a relatively large number of open spots and will work the waitlist extensively.
So the short answer to this question is “maybe.” Colleges will likely end up accepting a larger number of students off the waitlist than usual, but they will also be creating bigger waitlists than usual. Whether the give and take of those numbers works in your favor is unpredictable—even colleges can’t predict it!
Are there drawbacks to staying on the waitlist?
If you are truly, deeply interested in attending the school, it may be worth your while to accept the position on the waitlist—but do so knowing that the odds of getting admitted probably aren’t great, and that if you are admitted, you probably won’t get the best of financial aid or student housing.
What should I do if I’m waitlisted?
First, evaluate your offers of admission. Is there an offer you find attractive? Maybe it’s not your dream school, but if it comes close to checking off all your boxes, you might want to just forgo the waitlist.
If you decide to accept a position on the waitlist, do so as soon as possible. This is one way to demonstrate your interest in the school, and many college counselors anticipate that demonstrated interest will play a much bigger role in waitlist decisions than usual. To fill their classes efficiently and lay uncertainty to rest, colleges may want to confirm that a student will attend if admitted before actually making the offer of admission. Anything you can do to show your interest in attending will help—we have more tips for what to do when you’re waitlisted here.
Since the odds of being admitted of the waitlist are at best uncertain and at worst unlikely, the number one thing you MUST do if you choose to remain on a school’s waitlist is to place a deposit at a school where you’ve already been admitted. Otherwise, you may well be left without any college to attend in the fall.
Finally, make sure to look on the bright side. In a period of intense uncertainty, you successfully applied to college and received offers of admission. Don’t let getting waitlisted bring you down!