After weeks of waiting, March 10 finally arrives and throngs of aspiring independent school candidates learn their fate. Predictably, there is elation for the admitted, and sorrow for the denied. But for a select few there is, “We are pleased to offer you a place on our waitlist.” For the aspirants who receive an invitation to a spot on the waitlist – the admission industry equivalent of limbo – there is often confusion and many, many questions. Moments after waitlist decisions are communicated, admission office telephones light up. How could this have happened? With interviews, tours, and essays seeming like a distant memory, being asked to wait even longer can feel intolerable.
In our work as independent educational consultants, we help families understand and manage waitlists. Last year a father shared, “I don’t get it, following our interview and tour, we came away feeling so positive; they wanted to enroll our son on the spot – it felt like a done deal!” The steady stream of encouraging emails from department chairs and coaches, expressing excitement about having his son in the classrooms, science labs and sports fields, added to his confidence in a positive admission result. “Frankly, the wait list hurt more than the flat out denial he received from another school.”
For some students, a waitlist is meaningless; he or she may have been admitted to another more highly desired school, so news of the waitlist is a non-event as they head off in another direction. Somewhat more serious is when a student is admitted to one or more schools, but waitlisted at their “first choice” school. The most serious situation, is when a student receives no admits and is dependent on a waitlist transitioning into a “yes.” When a waitlist matters, questions immediately swirl. Why was I waitlisted? Are waitlists ranked? How can I improve my chances? Understanding why a school needs a pool of students who are neither admitted nor denied, but who may potentially fill in day or boarding spots, can help answer these excellent questions.
Not unlike an airline that overbooks a flight in an attempt of fill in for passengers who either don’t show up or cancel, schools also overbook a class, knowing that some students will choose to attend a different school to which they have also been admitted. Schools hope to yield the number of students equal to their target class size. If more students come than anticipated, then they will have overenrolled the class, which may lead to having to add desks and chairs to classrooms, and even additional beds to dorms. However, if fewer than the predicted number of students enroll in a given year, a school will go to its waitlist. This often happens during the period of time leading up to April 10, the date by when admitted students are required to make a deposit at their chosen school.
Is a waitlist ranked? Understanding of how a waitlist is composed can help answer this one. A coed boarding school, for example, will admit a full class of boys and girls into grade 9, but will also admit a number of additional students into grades 10, 11, 12, and sometimes even bring in post graduate students. This reality points to a number of demographic variables within a given year’s applicant pool, and the challenge faced by an admission office to balance a class. Variables include, boys; girls; day; boarding; grades 9, 10, 11, 12, and PG; domestic and international. Within the domestic pool, schools strive to draw from many States, and the international applicant pool is no less complicated. So, when the father of an international grade-nine boarding boy asks, “What are his chances?” The answer is, “It depends!” The school may have overenrolled for grade-nine boarding international girls, but as luck would have it, they may have to go to the waitlist because it under-enrolled international grade-nine boarding boys.
Any seasoned admission officer would share that this is only scratching the surface of the waitlist world; it is a complicated and fluid process. In closing, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that if you have been offered a spot on a waitlist and you want to remain there, you must promptly communicate that to the school. The second point is that although most waitlisted students are not ultimately admitted, some are, and for that reason there is cause to be hopeful.