Long Odds Await Waitlisted Students

Many high school seniors at this time of year find themselves on university wait lists, having neither been accepted nor rejected by the institutions to which they’ve applied.

While landing a spot on a prestigious university’s wait list offers the hope of admission, the odds of turning a “maybe” into a “yes” are exceptionally long. It all boils down to numbers.

Rick Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the University of Michigan, sums it up this way: “Our approach is to extend a wait list invitation to all students who were competitive for admission, but not admitted. I think the number last year was close to 15,000.

Consistently around 4,000 applicants accept a spot on our wait list. … We typically do not admit many students from the wait list, often less than 100.”

The yield, or number of students accepted by a college as a percentage of those who ultimately enroll there, varies widely from school to school. In general, the more selective the school, the higher its yield of students enrolled. College admissions offices know what their historic yields are and offer places to students with that ratio in mind.

At Michigan, for example, about 41 percent of accepted students actually enroll. Michigan aims to have a freshman class of about 6,000 spread among its seven schools and colleges. A student who applied to Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance would more likely be offered admission from the wait list than one who had applied to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The wait list, said Fitzgerald, serves “to stabilize the incoming class.”

The Ivy League’s Cornell University, which accepts about 14 percent of its applicants, has an even higher yield, at 53 percent.

“Over the past five years, Cornell has offered between 2,900 and 4,500 applicants a place on the waiting list,” said Jason Locke, associate vice provost for enrollment at the Ithaca, New York school. “We have taken as few as 60 students and as many as 168 for fall admission” from the wait list.

Locke said during the waiting period, “We encourage students to update their application files, and we are particularly interested in receiving new grade reports, information about new honors or awards, and updates on activities.”

Indeed, that is exactly what 2010 Edina High School graduate Jen Rolfes did as she sweated out a spot on Harvard’s wait list. In April of her senior year, Rolfes, who had a 3.9 GPA and a 35 ACT score, accepted Harvard’s wait list offer. She sent Harvard an email saying “that they were my first choice and that if I got in, I would definitely go there.”

Rolfes, an All-American Nordic skier at Edina, felt that having an advocate inside the university was even more beneficial than the email with her updates. Harvard’s ski coach wanted her on his team.

Looking back, Rolfes remembers how stressful the waiting period was.

“I did think about taking myself off the wait list because the odds of getting in are so low.” On June 28, weeks after graduation, Rolfes finally got the call. She would be headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts after all, a rare winner in the wait list lottery.