The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top colleges put thousands of applicants in wait-list limbo, and some won’t admit any

Apollo Yong, 17, a student at Washington-Lee High School, at his home in Arlington, Va. Yong is among thousands on college wait lists. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Students applying to top colleges crave to hear “yes!” when decisions roll out in March and brace themselves for “no.” But huge numbers get a vague answer that is neither admission nor denial — a tantalizing “maybe” — with an invitation to join a wait list.

Wait-list offers far outnumber seats in the entering classes at many of those schools, a Washington Post analysis found. The University of Michigan last year invited 14,960 students onto its wait list, by far the largest total from among dozens of schools that The Post reviewed and more than 25 percent of all applicants to the state flagship in Ann Arbor. Of the 4,512 who accepted a wait-list spot, just 90 — 1.99 percent — were admitted to a class of 6,071.

[See wait list data from nearly 100 selective schools]

Wait lists prolong the tension of the grueling college search for tens of thousands of students a year, giving a glimmer of hope that often ends with no payoff beyond the satisfaction of learning that elite schools considered their bids worthy of a verdict other than outright rejection.

For colleges, wait lists provide peace of mind during admission season, enabling enrollment chiefs to plug unexpected holes in a class — perhaps nursing students, or prospective engineers, or out-of-state residents interested in business. But for teenagers on the cusp of high school graduation, the massive lists exact an emotional toll after they already have spent many stressful months in pursuit of their college dreams.

“I definitely do still feel like I’m in a limbo state,” said Apollo Yong, 17, a senior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. He is wait-listed at the University of Chicago and Dartmouth College, and is wondering what his final choices will be as the May 1 deadline looms for admitted students to choose a school: “There’s still, like, hope that I’ll get in.”

A strong International Baccalaureate student with an interest in biomedical engineering, Yong plays violin in the orchestra and picked up the mandolin for a part in the spring play “Dark of the Moon.” He has been admitted to the University of Virginia, Georgia Tech and the University of Texas at Dallas, and said he is “really happy” with those options.

Chicago and Dartmouth both praised Yong’s “impressive accomplishments.” But instead of admission they offered him places on their wait lists. “Initially I thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ” Yong said. He acknowledged feeling a curious mix of disappointment, frustration and hope in knowing that he qualified for those two ultra-selective schools, if only space would open up.

It is difficult to say what the chances are that Yong will get into either school. At the most elite schools, wait-listed students seem to face prospects ranging from slim to none.

Chicago reveals little about its wait lists. Data from Dartmouth show that it is hit-or-miss: Last year, Dartmouth admitted 129 from a wait list of 963, amounting to roughly 10 percent of the entering class. But Dartmouth did not admit any wait-listed applicants in 2014 — of 1,133 names, zero made it to the New Hampshire campus.

The Post reviewed wait-list results for 2014 and 2015 at nearly 100 selective schools, drawn from responses to the Common Data Set questionnaire. Some colleges will start to make admission offers from their wait list in late April. Many, though, will wait until after the May 1 deadline for admitted students to make an enrollment deposit. Then, when they know how their classes are shaping up, they might dip into their wait lists. Or they might not.

Some famous schools, such as Harvard University, use wait lists but reveal nothing about them. Yale University disclosed that it invited 1,324 applicants to its list in 2014, about the same size of its entering class, but declined to reveal how many were admitted through that route.

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Stanford, the nation’s most selective university, admitted a mere seven from its wait list in 2014 and none from a list of 927 in 2015. Wait-listed students also were shut out last year at Lehigh and Tulane universities and at the University of Maryland, as well as Bryn Mawr, Dickinson and Macalester colleges. They had little success at Carnegie Mellon (four admits) and Duke (nine).

The dynamics of wait lists provide a stark illustration of the pecking order in higher education at a time when top-flight students often apply to a dozen or more schools.

Consider students who have accepted admission to a school ranked in the top 25 by U.S. News and World Report but not in the top 10. If those students get an offer from a top-10 school via a wait list after May 1, they might well accept it and forfeit their enrollment deposits elsewhere. But that, in turn, leaves the first schools they accepted with a suddenly vacant seat. So those schools must go to their wait lists, creating a cascading effect through the market.

Case Western Reserve, a private university in Cleveland ranked 37th nationally, keeps an eye every year on the flow of students to higher-ranked private schools such as Northwestern, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and Emory, as well as public universities such as Ohio State, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and the University of California at Berkeley. Those schools sometimes lure strong candidates away from Case Western.

“What happens there matters to us,” said Rick Bischoff, Case Western’s vice president for enrollment.

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To ensure that the university hits its freshman enrollment target of 1,250, Case Western keeps one of the deepest wait lists in the country and uses it aggressively. The school invited more than 9,000 applicants to its wait list last year, and wound up with 5,119 names. Ultimately, it offered admission to 518 of those students. Not all accepted, but the school met its enrollment goal.

Bischoff said that it is vital not to admit too many students through regular admission. In 2012, the university overshot its enrollment target by 30 percent, leaving the school to scramble to find beds for hundreds of unexpected arrivals and to schedule more courses. “That’s bad,” Bischoff said.

Now, Case Western doles out regular-admission offers conservatively and plans on filling about 10 percent of its class through the wait list. Bischoff said that he starts making offers from the list in late April.

“We love our wait-list kids,” Bischoff said, noting that their academic profile is as strong or stronger than the overall entering class. “It’s not that these are sub-par students. These are terrific, terrific kids.”

When the school pulls from the wait list, he said, “we’re making some kids’ dreams come true.”

Sometimes, schools activate nearly their entire wait list. Penn State admitted 1,445 of its 1,473 wait-listed applicants in 2015 to its main campus, a year after it wait-listed no one. Ohio State let in everyone from its list in 2014 (239 students) and again in 2015 (304).

Vanderbilt University works its list heavily. In 2014, it offered admission to 210 of its 4,536 wait-listed students to help fill a class of about 1,600. Douglas Christiansen, the university’s vice provost for enrollment, said Vanderbilt must ensure that it has strong candidates for its schools of music, engineering, education, and arts and science.

After students join Vanderbilt’s wait list, the university keeps close tabs on their desires, asking them twice to confirm that they want to remain under consideration. Usually, some drop out during that back and forth.

“Our whole intent with the wait list is to be upfront, transparent, fair and expedited so these youngsters are not in greater level of continued agony of what they’re trying to do,” Christiansen said. “And they and their families can move on — whether that’s ‘Yay, moving on to Vanderbilt’ or to somewhere else.”

What wait-listed students most want to know is what will boost their case for getting in. Christiansen said that Vanderbilt’s guidance is to reconfirm interest and then stay in touch via email with a regional admissions officer. (But in moderation: Too many emails can backfire.) And forget about trying to lean on the school through connections.

“You don’t need to pull out your parents’ influential friends. You don’t need to send letters from senators, representatives, movie stars or wealthy people,” Christiansen said. Big-name testimonials “will not make a difference at all.”

Nation’s prominent public universities are shifting to out-of-state students

Michigan said that its wait-list invites grew to that high level last year in part because application totals spiked 75 percent over five years. Surging demand creates more uncertainty as the university tries to predict a final class size based on how many offers of admission it has made, and Michigan also is seeking to maintain high standards for each of its seven undergraduate schools and colleges that admit freshmen.

“All of which, in our view, supports a desire for a robust wait list in the event that the wait list would be needed to stabilize the incoming class,” said Rick Fitzgerald, a Michigan spokesman.

About 4,500 students in both 2014 and 2015 accepted spots on Michigan’s wait list — a number that is equivalent to about 75 percent of the size of the school’s freshman class. Fitzgerald said that the university plans to scale back its invites this year, but could not say by how much.

Meanwhile, wait-listed students everywhere are spending April, and perhaps part of May, in high suspense.

Jasmine Ben Hamed, 17, a classmate of Yong’s at Washington-Lee High, said that she has an offer from American University and is wait-listed at George Washington and William and Mary. A varsity tennis-team captain who is involved in community service, Ben Hamed said that she is interested in international relations and humanities.

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It was hard to get the wait-list news, she said. “It was telling you, ‘You’ve done a good job,’ ” she said. “But if I had done one more thing, would I have gotten in?”

Sally Ancheva, 17, another Washington-Lee senior, was admitted to UC-Berkeley, UCLA and U-Va., as well as Stetson University in Florida, with a scholarship. She said she was wait-listed at Harvard, Stanford and Chicago.

She recalled getting the Stanford decision in late March: “A part of you always thinks it’s going to be a yes.” But she was realistic, ready for a no.

The “maybe” caught her off-guard.

“I wasn’t prepared for that. I took it like a rejection. It was very tough,” she said. Now, she is reiterating her interest to her wait-list schools and trying to stay flexible. “I’ve come to peace with the whole thing.”

College wait lists: Many in limbo

Many selective colleges push hundreds or even thousands of applicants into limbo in April by placing them on wait lists, leaving open the possibility of admission if space in the class opens up. Here is an analysis of how dozens of prominent colleges and universities used wait lists in 2014 and 2015. First, they offer places on the list. Then, students decide whether to accept or forgo a wait list spot. Finally, colleges let students know (usually in May) whether they will be offered admission. Note: Categories marked as “n/a” indicate that data was not available.