Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I've Got a Little "Wait" List -- Part 1

The colleges have spoken, and some students have landed in the limbo known as wait lists.

I wanted to understand clearly the mechanics of this admissions tool, so I consulted someone with more than 10 years' experience as a high school counselor and as a college admission officer. Here's the primer he gave me:

The central fact is that colleges accept more students than they actually want, simply because kids apply to, and are accepted at, multiple colleges. The same kid is admitted to Georgetown, Duke, and UVA; statistically, each school has only a 33% chance of getting the kid to come. There are only a handful of schools that have “yields” higher than 50%; most competitive schools are in the 40’s or even the 30’s.

So, to get a class of 500 kids, College X has to send acceptance letters to 1,200 applicants. They are, essentially, guessing that they will get 500, based on past experience — but it’s hard to predict exactly. It’s a disaster if they get 520 kids — because they have no place to put them, and there’s no way to withdraw an offer of admission. It’s also not good to get 490 — if only because 10 kids represent half a million dollars in tuition.

So that’s where wait lists come in. If the college comes up short, they go to the wait list to get those missing kids. Now, they don’t want to take three times as many kids as they want. For one thing, taking a lot of kids may raise their acceptance rate by a percentage point; in a world driven by US News & World Report rankings, everyone fights to keep the acceptance rate as low as possible. This is why the candidate’s expressed interest is so important. If the student just checks off the box and mails back the postcard, the college may conclude that the chance of the kid coming if accepted is pretty low — so why bother? It's a different situation if the student responds with more passion.

Tomorrow, Part 2 will look at what is required to break through that list.

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