Why ARE Those College Wait Lists So Long?

Apr 21, 2014

In today’s Washington Post, Jay Mathews writes about the dramatic increase in the length of college acceptance wait lists. His focus is on the strategies wait-listed high school seniors might pursue, but let’s consider just why those wait lists are so long.

Mathews suggests that admissions departments (a) don’t want to hurt applicants’ feelings and (b) want a cushion against too many applicants turning them down. Reason (a) is neither valid nor plausible, but reason (b) is spot-on, in large part because of the strategies used by today’s high schoolers.

From a fairly large sample – family and friends, cocktail parties, inquiring of applicants I’ve interviewed for my alma mater – I cannot recall the last student who applied to fewer than ten colleges. Twenty or thirty years ago, four or five applications was the norm. What’s changed? Well, when it is a widely-held belief that the college(s) of your choice is(are) becoming much more selective, applying to lots of colleges is the rational thing to do.

Gone forever are the days when a few juniors or seniors would hop in a car, visit a few colleges, interview with the admissions departments, and get a sense of which college felt right. And because the applicant pool is so large, many admissions departments won’t interview applicants – it’s not only expensive, but to do so would favor students with the wherewithal to travel to visit colleges, or ones at high schools that the admissions department chose to visit. Also, the Common Application has made it easier and less expensive to load up on applications.

As a result, colleges may have a pretty good sense of whom to accept, but almost no sense at all of who will accept them. In that environment, using a wait list protects the college from both admitting too many applicants and admitting too few.

Mathews also takes the colleges to task for extremely long wait lists, citing Stanford – 800 for an incoming class of 1,700 freshman – and MIT – 700, for a class of about 1,100. But if colleges have a poor sense of how many will accept them, they certainly won’t have a sense of which students will turn them down. So the wait list needs to have the requisite violinists, physicists, and philosophers to fill the unexpected gaps.

Extremely long wait lists – and the enormous increase in college applications in general – is the result of rational behavior by both applicants and colleges. But the resulting outcome certainly isn’t desirable.

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