College Waitlist Secrets Revealed

Grades, dedication to the college, and home state can help applicants get in.

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As if the college applications process wasn't drawn out enough, more colleges are putting a greater number of applicants on waitlists, a survey of admissions officers finds. 

[Explore this Guide to College Admissions.]

But the good news is that many colleges eventually accept more students off those lists. And colleges are starting to reveal details about how they decide whom to choose from their waitlists. Many students may be surprised to learn that besides standard factors such as the student's grades and eagerness to attend the college, some colleges also consider an applicant's prospective major, home state, or ability to pay the school's full price. 

[Read about how to get accepted off the waitlist.]

In a report released Oct. 20, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that 39 percent of colleges put some students on a waitlist in 2009, which is higher than the 35 percent average over the last five years. And many colleges, including campuses of the University of California and the City University of New York, started waitlists for the first time in 2010.

Nearly half of the colleges with waitlists reported increasing the number of students whose admissions decisions were deferred past the standard April 15 deadline in 2009. And many colleges, including elites such as Duke University, Yale University, and Dartmouth College, reported further increases in 2010.

About half of the colleges also reported accepting more students from waitlists in 2009: 34 percent, up from about 30 percent in the three years prior to that. The odds were much worse for applicants to selective colleges, which accepted only 12 percent of those on their waitlists, NACAC reported. NACAC is just now collecting data on the percentage of students admitted from waitlists in 2010. But anecdotal reports give mixed signals. Cornell University admitted no waitlisted applicants for the class of 2014. The University of Washington accepted 426, which was down from the 1,079 of 2009, but a big jump from the 25 lucky waitlistees who were tapped off of the 2008 waitlist.

[Read about what to do if you've been placed on a college's wait list.] 

The big question for applicants is, of course: how do admissions officers decide which waitlistees to pick? College admissions officers say each college has different rules. Syracuse University, for example, looks for the best-qualified students who fill enrollment gaps in particular majors, says Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, Syracuse's vice president for enrollment. The University of Washington has three different waitlists to fill holes in planned enrollment for in-state residents, out-of-state applicants, and international students. Within each group, admissions officers consider waitlisted applicants' entire files—including grades, essays, and activities, says Philip Ballinger, UW's assistant vice president for enrollment. It's a lot of work, but UW managed to make all its waitlist decisions by the middle of June this year, Ballinger says.

NACAC asked colleges whether they used any of the following factors in making waitlist decisions. Some schools reported using more than one. 

  Public Colleges Private Colleges
Academic credentials 36% 62%
Interest in attending 19% 53%
Ability to pay 7% 35%

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Dartmouth College
Yale University
Syracuse University
Duke University
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