The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What limbo looks like: A sample of college wait list offers from Harvard, Stanford, U-Penn.

Excerpt from a wait list letter, highlight added. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)

Limbo looks like this to many college applicants: Words of praise from the dean of admissions, plus an offer of a spot on a wait list in case space in the class opens up.

The Washington Post looked at wait list data from nearly 100 prominent colleges for a story over the weekend about why colleges use the lists and what students think about them.

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

Here is a look at some wait list offers that students shared with The Post, with names and other identifying information removed. Most often the news comes electronically, through an online portal.

This is a wait list invite from Stanford, the most selective university in the country. In 2014, the private university in California admitted seven applicants from a wait list of 695, but in 2015 it admitted none from a list of 927.

College wait lists: Many in limbo

Here’s an offer from the University of Pennsylvania. It is much more sparing, in tone, than the Stanford letter. But it provides more information students want: an estimate that about 50 to 200 students a year have been admitted recently through the wait list to the Ivy League school in Philadelphia. U-Penn. admitted 136 from a wait list of 1,600 in 2014, and 90 from a wait list of 1,438 law year, according to answers the university supplied through a questionnaire known as the Common Data Set.

Harvard University’s invite letter required three screen shots for a wait-listed student to send to The Post. William R. Fitzsimmons, the longtime dean of admissions, sprinkled in significant praise about the applicant’s “outstanding achievements and promise.”

Harvard, unlike many prominent schools, does not report any data on its wait list through the Common Data Set. But Fitzsimmons is telling applicants this year that the annual number of wait-list admits at the elite school in Cambridge, Mass., ranges from zero to “over one hundred.” He added: “Over the years, some of our very best students have been admitted from our waiting list.”

Here is a Harvard offer from 2016:

Students seem reconciled to dealing with the tension of wait lists as a necessary evil in applying to selective colleges. But one Virginia parent who wrote to The Post saying that wait lists are a symptom of a problematic admissions process.

“My thought is, if you are wait-listed, then you are not one of their top applicants – for whatever reason,” this mother wrote. “You need to move on. We put way too much emphasis on undergraduate schools, especially here in Northern Virginia. The competition and stress for these students is out of control.”