It isn’t yes, it isn’t no…what the heck is it?

In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties many students face when making a final decision about which college to attend. In this post, I want to begin to look at issues surrounding the waiting list.

Like the rest of the college admissions process, waiting list protocol has become more complex and confusing over the last several years. Where once a waiting list may simply have been a kind of “enrollment insurance policy” for colleges and carried a straightforward message, “you weren’t quite strong enough to make the first cut, but hold on for a few weeks and we’ll see if space in the entering class becomes available,” the uses and messages a waiting list carries are anything but simple these days.

In addition to that “traditional” waiting list message, here are just a few examples of the meanings that may underlie a waiting list offer:

* You aren’t quite strong enough to admit, but you applied from a high school where we don’t see much activity. We don’t want to turn you down flat and discourage other students from applying in future years.  
* Your academic profile isn’t strong enough to justify admission, but you have a personal quality or some sort of tie to the college which makes a flat deny out of the question.
* You are an admissible student, but we want to test your interest in our college before we say yes.

From college to college, there is little consistency or standardization of waiting list use, meaning, or advice on what (if any) additional steps a student should take to remain on the list. As a result, students are often at a loss when they receive the “limbo letter.” Though many colleges include “waiting list FAQs” that offer helpful information, unfortunately, this often becomes just one piece in the mosaic of (often contradictory) advice students receive about “what to do if you’re wait-listed.”

Not surprisingly, then, student reactions to receiving a waitlist letter are quite varied. Here are a few I’ve observed:

Surprise: I always thought I’d get a yes or a no, not a maybe.
Chagrin: I did all that work on the application, and they can’t even give me a clear decision?
Reciprocal disinterest: The college doesn’t want me, so I’m done with it.
Increased ardor: The college(s) that waitlisted me is/are the only one(s) I really want to attend. I need to follow up with all of them!
Dismay at expanding time horizon: Oh, man, I thought this would all be over by May 1. Now I have to hang on till sometime in the summer?
Confusion: Why did colleges with similar admissions standards give me different decisions?
Confusion: Why will one college accept a lot of additional information about me when I’m on the waiting list, when another college discourages me from sending anything more than a short update?
Confusion: If I’m admitted from the waiting list, why will one college give me ten days to decide and another college ask for a decision within 24 hours?

What I have come to recognize about the waiting list process is that it so completely embodies and elicits the idiosyncrasies, uncertainty, and panic-driven behavior that percolate through the rest of the admissions process, on the college side and on the applicant side.  It offers the single best demonstration of the volatility and unpredictability that are rife in the admissions process…and the single best demonstration of how individuals and institutions respond to those conditions.

The waiting list period provides a vivid illustration of the mutually constitutive nature of the admissions process.  It’s the college admissions twist on Newton’s third law of motion again: every action taken by one cohort creates an amplified reaction in the opposite cohort. As the demographics and other variables changed in ways that made the admissions process more competitive, students began to submit more applications, which made it harder for colleges to gauge student interest in their institutions and to predict yield. In response to that uncertainty, colleges began placing more students on waiting lists, which in turn created more stress and confusion among students wondering what a spot on the waiting list means, and how they should proceed.

More to come about the waiting list in a subsequent post. For now, I’ll offer this video of Jimmy Cliff, in the hopes that it will provide a musical respite for those in waiting list limbo.