It takes a major miracle, it seems, to get off a wait list and onto the acceptance list at a highly selective college. In other words, the wait list email isn't a whole lot better than the deny message.
It appears the wait list is where kids are sent who, while appealing/intriguing/definitely smart, just didn't make the first cut. This year, for instance, Princeton had a 7.86% admission rate, with 1,472 waitlisted. In the past several years, Princeton has taken from none to 164 students from the list after May 1, when most schools will know how many kids are accepting them.
Here's the depressing look at news from the wait list that appeared in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. Last year, Stanford admitted only 13 from a list of 1,078 applicants. This year, it shrunk the list to 789. But waitlisted students shouldn't, for one moment, think the smaller list increases their chances. Says Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid, comparing last year's chances to this year, is "like playing the state lottery versus the national lottery. It's a million to one instead of a billion to one that you're going to get it."
Meanwhile, students need to make sure they've accepted a position on the wait list, if they want it, and are figuring out one or two ways to update the application, write a letter that makes a difference, etc. Here are some additional thoughts.
My final advice? Sure, stay on lists if the school is one you'd attend, make sure (tastefully and in a non-pestering way) you let the school know the wait list acceptance isn't pro forma but that you'd really like to attend, and then start moving on. Start envisioning yourself at the favorite school where you've been accepted. Maybe some good news will come from the wait list school. If so, great! If not, you are already emotionally ready to embrace the school that did want you, first time out!