Understanding the Admissions Waitlist

It is that time of year, when letters start pouring in from graduate school programs: acceptance letters, rejection letters (“dings”), and, yes, waitlist letters.

In tomorrow’s post, we will be detailing a process whereby applicants can create a plan of attack for taking full advantage of any waitlist scenarios and leaving as little to chance as humanly possible. First though, we need to explore what the waitlist is and how it works. Understanding the waitlist is critical, because you need to know the rules before you can win the game.

What is a waitlist? The waitlist is a device used by schools to hedge their admissions results. Every program starts the admissions cycle with two critical projected numbers: applications and enrollments. These two “start and finish” numbers inform all of the key pieces of data for that program: acceptance rate, yield rate, financial aid metrics, and so on.

Even when those key numbers become solid (when the enrollment management committee sets an enrollment number and the application pool is finalized), there are still moving parts, because the admissions committee must project what the yield rate (the number of admitted students who ultimately enroll) will look like in order to ascertain how many students to accept. If the yield projection is too low, the school will over-enroll in the fall. On the other hand, if the yield projection is too high, the admissions office will be scrambling to fill the class.

This is where the waitlist comes into play. Obviously, if a program needs to add students at the late stages of the admissions process, they need to have “hot” leads. So when the committee makes decisions on students, they are always sure to keep a number of students in the mix, just in case they need to go and recruit from that pool anew. Therefore, the waitlist is – in its simplest form – a hedge against a bad yield projection.

The waitlist can also be a “soft deny” (a way to let people down easy), a built-in part of the process (winnowing down hundreds of second tier candidates to determine which fifty really want to get in), or even just the fulfillment of the status quo (after all, everyone has a waitlist), but the purest use is as a mechanism for the admissions office to course correct. It’s as simple as that.

What is the timing like? Once you know how a waitlist works, the next step is understanding when it will work. At some schools, there may be internal, telltale signs early in the process that they aren’t going to hit their enrollment numbers and an aggressive waitlist admissions campaign might begin early. Other programs will think they are golden until the last minute, when the big wave of enrollments never comes. Those are the schools that have to really scramble. Either way, you want to get on the record early and often, expressing your continued interest in the program. If and when the school starts to reach out to waitlisted students, you want to be at the top of the queue.

How can you tell if a school will be going to its waitlist? Sometimes you don’t know right way (at least not until waitlisted candidates start chattering on message boards), but there are other times when you can forecast a school going deep into its waitlist. For starters, you can look at recent trends and see how schools have done yielding a class. In particular, look to the previous year and then make an educated guess based on the inverse of that prior year. Schools are very reactionary, so if they yielded tremendously well for the incoming fall 2008 class, you can bet that they were aggressive in building their yield projection for this current cycle. Could be a good waitlist bet. On the contrary, a school that hit the waitlist hard last year is not very likely to admit a lot of students off the waitlist this year, because their reaction is the complete opposite – to get conservative and shrink the projected rate.

Another way you can anticipate a big waitlist push is to figure out which schools are getting leveraged in the financial aid game. What that means is to pay close attention on forums and message boards to get an idea of where the big scholarship awards are coming from … and which schools are often the “other” choice in the inevitable “where should I go?” scenarios. Several years ago, the money was coming from Penn Law and the most common question was “take money at Penn or go to Chicago without aid?” Several months later, Chicago Law School was going to the waitlist, while Penn had its best class ever. This year, Michigan’s law school seems to be flooding the market with cash, putting the screws to NYU, among others. Just looking at the money game, it stands to reason that Michigan will enroll a big class without much waitlist activity, while NYU might have to scramble a bit. So if you got waitlisted at NYU and love the school, get very aggressive about letting them know that. You might just help out both parties immensely.

What is the one thing the school wants to know most about me as a waitlist candidate? Pure and simple, they want to know if you will enroll should they accept you. It sounds a bit crude, but the time for high level matchmaking is largely over – at this stage, the admissions committee simply wants to figure out whether you will be a “one-for-one” conversion. A “one-for-one” refers to the idea that each admitted student off the waitlist will enroll in the program. This is extremely important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the impact it has on the admissions numbers that the school must report at the end of the process. Each additional acceptance letter raises the ever-important acceptance rate and each admitted student that does not enroll further drops the yield rate. Once a program goes to the waitlist (especially if it is unplanned), they are already fully engaged in damage mitigation. Therefore, their primary concern is identifying qualified students (again, this is the value of the waitlist – you can stock a pool of candidates who are all qualified) who will enroll if given the chance.

Many schools will determine this solely by reviewing the materials on file, but others will reach out and try to take the temperature of their waitlisted students. We’ll spend some time tomorrow sorting out the best way to communicate your continued interest, but if you express only one thing, make sure it is this: “If you admit me, I will show up.”

Tomorrow: How to put together a waitlist plan of attack.