The Odds of Getting Off a Wait List

This weekend I heard from old friends who wanted to share with me stories of brilliant students who got shut out of elite universities.

At a party on Friday night, a former colleague of my husband’s mentioned that he was stunned that his son’s friend didn’t get into Stanford University. The boy is a stellar student and he only missed two or three answers on the SAT.  He is a gifted jazz musician and throughout the party we were listening to an amazing recording of his jazz quartet.

Yesterday a dear friend in Maryland told me about a young man she knew who was rejected by Johns Hopkins University and some Ivy League schools. This young man has been doing research at Johns Hopkins during his summer vacations and his extracurriculars were just as long and impressive as the kid from San Diego.

“Can you believe that this boy got rejected from all these schools?” my friend asked. I think I startled her when I said, “I’m not surprised. In fact, I would have been shocked if he got in.”

Johns Hopkins University

I am always amazed that brilliant children and their often accomplished parents have a disconnect when it comes to their admission expectations. When they look at Stanford’s admission rate of 7%, they don’t seem to think it applies to them. If anybody can explain this, I’d love to hear it.

The plight, if you can call it that, of these teenagers reminded me of the post that I wrote earlier this month:

What’s Wrong With College Dream Lists

Trying to Beat the Wait List Odds

I’m bringing this up today because many of these students who aimed too high are now hoping against hope that they will be plucked off the wait list of their dream college(s). I heard from one of these teenagers last week who wanted advice on how to get off the wait list of the University of Notre Dame.

I am equally surprised that students who unfortunately aimed too high think they can get lucky on the wait list. My advice to them is simple: Forget it. Move on and be happy with one of the schools that does want to see you in their freshman class.

To show you the futility of being on a wait list, let’s look at the odds. You can find the wait list odds of any school by heading to the College Board’s Big Future website. Type in the name of any school and then click its Applying hyperlink.

Here are Notre Dame’s wait list stats from last year:

As you can see, the number of applicants offered a spot on Notre Dame’s waiting list was nearly as many students as the eventual freshman class! This wait-list overkill, by the way, is all too common. Many schools put an obscene number of students on the wait list. Last year at Notre Dame 951 rejected students accepted a place on the wait list, but only seven were eventually offered spots.

Why do schools put so many kids on their waiting list when there is little to no chance of getting off of them? Because they can. Their callous business decision isn’t going to discourage tons of students from applying the next year. Schools use their wait lists as a way to manage their admission yield. They also turn to the wait list as a way to reject students without completely demoralizing them.

What I find sad is that so many students are pinning their hopes on suitors that have spurned them. This prevents these teenagers from getting psyched for their grand adventure at whatever colleges they end up attending. And that’s a shame.

Read more at The College Solution:

Where the Scholarships are Hiding

 Where College PhD’s Get Their Start

A New Way to Search for College Scholarships


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  1. ¨When they look at Stanford’s admission rate of 7%, they don’t seem to think it applies to them. If anybody can explain this, I’d love to hear it.¨
    First off, the parents of these students and these students are ignorant. Their grades make them feel somewhat superior to their peers and give them a heightened sense of self-confidence. In essence, this egotistical feeling carries over to when they’re applying to college. People don’t understand that most of the applicants to schools like Stanford, Yale, and Harvard already have the grades to get in. Whenever these kids get asked where they’re applying, they tell the adult whatever ivy-league they’re applying to while the adult responds with, “well, you’re gonna need the grades to get in.” Soon after this remark it’s not uncommon to see the student reciting his high school transcript and test scores. These kids think they’re special because people around them are impressed with their academic achievements, while not fully understanding that whoever is applying to those crazy ivy league schools is already smart enough to be admitted. People not understanding this fact contributes to the confidence that academically “superior” students feel. Nobody tells these kids that they’re not special, so naturally they’re gonna feel like god’s gift when applying to such institutions.

      1. Really, Lynn? You couldn’t agree more with Pablo’s comment?

        It’s incredibly insulting to kids who have worked very hard throughout their lives, many without any ego or expectation. It’s presumptuous for Pablo to assume he knows how these students feel or how they presented themselves during the application process. He sounds arrogant and harsh, which is his prerogative. What really troubles me, Lynn, is that you think his observations are excellent and couldn’t agree more. That’s very telling, and most disappointing.

        “First off, the parents of these students and these students are ignorant. Their grades make them feel somewhat superior to their peers and give them a heightened sense of self-confidence. In essence, this egotistical feeling carries over to when they’re applying to college….. Nobody tells these kids that they’re not special, so naturally they’re gonna feel like god’s gift when applying to such institutions.”

    1. Mr. Pablo:

      Are you a student? Have you studied in high school in the 21st century? You have no right to make such a claim because you have not experienced our lives. You call us egotistical for applying to such schools because you think numbers and letters are what motivate us, but you are wrong. I am insulted that you think I am so stupid to not be aware of the other factors that come into play. I work my a** off day and night, with 3 hours of sleep, to keep up with the hardest courses offered at my STEM Magnet school in the most competitive county of the United States while managing internships, extracurricular activities, and a job. Majority of the students put on the wait list are like me. They work hard and are good citizens; and they ARE special. We apply because we deserve it. And so there is a sliver of hope that we may be a part of that 7%. When I was not given a spot in many of the nation’s top universities, I accepted it. I know there are many, many students who deserve it as much and much more than I do. I agree with this article’s opinion that if you are put on a wait-list, you should not expect to get off of it. But shame on you for putting us down, claiming we should not have even applied just because we are not super-geniuses or natural entrepreneurs.

  2. I would like to make a point that nobody is seeming to get a handle on and that is the majority of students that are accepted that are wealthy white students is because the majority of qualified applicants are wealthy white students. The reason that there are a lot of wealthy Asian’s admitted is because there are a lot of qualified wealthy Asian’s that have applied. The cold hard facts is that it is easier to be successful in high school if you have a stable family life that supports the child’s education, hence more highly qualified applicants. The reason that students and parents have expectations that their child will get accepted is because their child is qualified to attend. The reality is that 94 out of every 100 students will be rejected from Stanford, and the 6 that make the cut, look pretty much like 30 kids that didn’t. Twenty years ago, students didn’t feel the need to apply to 10 to 15 schools in hopes that they might get accepted, they applied to 3 or 5 where they “met the benchmark”. However, today children are pushed harder to achieve more at a younger age and, therefore, are easily lost amidst the myriad of qualified students. School’s no longer look at a student, they look at the class an choose students that will create a well-balanced class. An applicant can have a 4.0 GPA with 15 AP courses, a 2400 on his SAT and 36 on his ACT, Varsity athlete and President of Student Council with 300 hours of community service and if the student admitted right before him has the same resume, he is put on the waitlist because every one of the top schools can fill their entire freshman class with 4.0 students with a 2300-2400 on their SAT. Under represented minority groups have a higher acceptance rate among their peers, because there aren’t as many qualified applicants. Those are the cold hard facts.

    1. Excellent reply, Sean. Your answer was much more adult-like and thought out than the previous two. As a parent who’s son who just got deferred from Harvard, rejected from MIT, and wait-listed by U of Chicago, I can tell you the process is very humbling and gut-wrenching. Yes, he IS special, he’s the top student of his class with a 4.6 GPA, 2300 SAT, plus 770 Math, 770 Literature, and 800 Biology on his SAT
      II subject test scores, with amazing extracurriculars showing leadership and innovation. He worked hard to get here and has a right to dream…of getting into one of the nation’s top colleges, because HE believes it will be the key to his future prospects.

      What most people don’t mention is that the process is in no way shape or form a “fair” process. For example, while the colleges boast of “record high applicants..blah blah blah”, they will take someone less qualified, (in some cases MUCH LESS) because they are either minority / ethically diverse / international, because they are trying to fulfill their diversity quota (another meaningless thing colleges like to brag about). And let’s not forget all the cronyism and “who knows who that’s on the board or admissions committee”, and large donations (some last minute) and other corrupt unethical practices going on these days. This politically correct crap is destroying our society. And I am talking as someone who is from the Middle East, but not superwealthy to “buy” our way into college.

      I thought it was all about merit and accomplishments, not if you’re black or white or hispanic? It’s truly disgusting how the colleges violate the very principles that like to boast about.

      So it is now March 17 and we have John’s Hopkin’s responding tomorrow. He already got into Emory as a merit honors scholarship prospect, Washington University in ST. Louis, and UC Santa Barbara. We will know by first week of April and what our choices will be.

      Let’s see how this pans out.

  3. I would like to respond to the author’s question of explaining why parents of “brilliant students” have expectations of acceptance to a school with a 7% acceptance rate. First, one child I know, for example, has been in the top .00001% in virtually everything he has done since birth, especially when compared with same aged peers. He was in the top of his high school, perfect SAT’s, ACT’s and SAT subject tests, and went on to compete locally and nationally, more often than not placing first in a group of students considered the BEST in math and science in the country. He then went on to compete INTERNATIONALLY winning Gold medals (yes, plural) and placing anywhere from 1st to 10th place (leaving out more specifics for confidentiality reasons). He didn’t stop there. He earned awards in other subject areas, won National awards for independent research, was president and captain of clubs (ie: leadership roles), earned Varsity Sports letters, (so he was well-rounded in addition to being “lobsidedly accomplished”), was extraordinarily respected by peers and adults alike, and so on and so forth. (And yes, he did community service too!)

    So, here is a boy who has successfully competed with national and international students and came out on top time and time again, so why WOULDN’T his parents expect him to be EASILY accepted into the top 7%??!!

    Moreso, I think accountability/transparency in a college’s selection process needs to be made in a case like this where one top school rejects or defers him, but several Ivy Leagues did offer admittance. (And all were essentially equally great fits with his academics, social, and extracurricular areas matching up with those of all of the schools applied to). For ex., how does the University of Chicago explain why a NUMBER of students accepted EARLY to Harvard, Princeton, and/or Yale,are wait-listed or rejected to their school? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to parents. (And oh, if any posters here have any concrete answers to my last question, please feel free to comment).

    1. Admissions at top schools work like this: if you meet their standards all around, you are put into a pool of possible choices. Large numbers of underrepresented minorities and women get put in their own category to fill a certain percentage, and thus have very high odds. Students without these factors get put into the large pool. Some adjustments are made for application quality overall (a 2400 will have better chances than a 2200), but otherwise from here selection is random. Admissions offices will invariably say otherwise to save face, and they do work fairly hard to determine these pools, but it doesn’t change the way the cookie crumbles. By the way: nobody is a shoe-in at any school with less than 40 percent acceptance rates.

      1. WKach,

        I wonder where in the world you get your information! About 1% of minorities benefit from higher-ed affirmative action. It is mostly practiced at some (and certainly not all) elite liberal arts colleges and some private universities, but the slots available are quite small. I am stunned that you think women benefit from preferential treatment. They can have higher admit rates at some engineering schools where schools need more women, but that is it. Men can have an advantage at liberal arts colleges and there has been press about how talented women are getting turned down at some colleges because more underqualified men need to be admitted so the gender percentage does not get too out of whack. Women represent 57% of college students.

        The students who receive preferential treatment at the vast majority of colleges and universities are rich students. Nobody seems to bitch about that though.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Dana:

      If people realized that holistic admissions means that admissions to the highly selective elites is more like dating than a strict list ordering, they’d understand better. To give an analogy, just because a certain billionaire wants to marry you doesn’t mean that a certain other billionaire wants to marry you.

      Also, you seem not to realize that it’s actually easier to be accepted EA in to HYP than RD in to the U of Chicago,

    1. White and Asian students are significantly less likely to get into a big name school than African American, Hispanic, or Native American students. One factor in all the major rankings is “diversity”, so those at the top often have spectacularly high numbers of traditionally “underrepresented minorities”. I, for instance, would have had triple the chance of getting into MIT if I were African American. Being female would also have doubled my chances. This is assuming the same academic credentials and test scores. White students are simply less valuable to these schools.

      1. WKach,

        Asian students do have a disadvantage at a few of the most elite schools, but at 99.9% of schools Asians have ZERO disadvantage. In fact, Asians are coveted at the vast majority of schools. There are plenty of high-achieving Asians who believe that there are only a couple of dozen schools (nearly all intense research universities) that are worth applying to. Now that is sad.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. From a student’s perspective, I would just like to say that I’m a little offended by your comments on students “aiming too high,” although the entire message of your writing seems to me a little too generalized.

    I applied to 10 schools, only two of which had statistics that were higher than mine. In other words, 8 schools accepted on average students with GPAs, SAT scores, ACT scores, and class ranks approximately equal to or less than mine. Yet I was only accepted at 4 of those 8 schools; the other 4 put me on their waitlists.

    I accepted all 4 spots. One school has since informed me that I will be accepted if I renounce my need for financial aid, which I can’t do. Another school has accepted me. The other two have not yet consulted their wait lists.

    Furthermore, since Notre Dame seems to be your stellar example in both this and other articles you’ve published, I’d just like to note that two of my friends got off the wait list there.

    While it’s true that you’re UNLIKELY to get off a wait list, there are, obviously, people who do. There are strategies to try, even for white, needy, middle-class females such as myself, and if you’re truly unhappy with your options – as I was, after looking at financials – it’s certainly worth a shot.

  5. In our upper-middle-income Chicago suburb, a common dinner party conversation is about how our kids won’t get in to the same schools we attended, or where we once applied and were accepted and chose not to attend. It’s discussed w/a tight smile, because many of these parents thought their kids would go to Notre Dame, or Northwestern, or UoC, and now it’s not a possibility despite the tutors, the test prep, the college consultants, and the alumni contributions.

    I recall the Grinnell wait-list has something like 1500 student names on it. Scratch that one too.

  6. Hello, Michelle!

    Read in the Chicago Tribune last night that last year Northwestern had 3500 students on their wait-list and not one, not one, made it in off that list. University of Chicago had a similar story, with similarly large numbers for both last year, and now again this year for both schools.

  7. Lynn: You asked why so many parents seem to have a disconnect about the highly selective colleges. I believe it’s because during their (today’s parents) college years, stellar students were accepted to the Ivies, Stanford and MIT more readily. Twenty five years ago, most people didn’t even study for the SAT as they do today. You either scored well, or you didn’t. It’s a different world today.

  8. “I am always amazed that brilliant children and their often accomplished parents have a disconnect when it comes to their admission expectations. When they look at Stanford’s admission rate of 7%, they don’t seem to think it applies to them. If anybody can explain this, I’d love to hear it.”

    YES, me too. I guess this has to do with how people process statistical risks. I’ve tried pictures, scatterplots, individual examples…. It is just something that people find really hard to process. It requires holding two really contradictory of bits of information in your head at the same time. 1. Your kid is great and could totally be successful at this school. 2. Most likely they won’t get in. We are a culture that loves beating the odds.

  9. I think it’s easier for people to blame not-getting accepted on something they have no control over, such as race, rather then looking at aspects that theoretically people have control over such as wealth. I find the reaction to the recent Rubin study on “How they get in” very interesting. Everyone jumped on the 42% underrepresented minority figure for importance in getting in but ignored the the 42% exceptional talent number which has a lot to do with wealth. And these were only for schools that looked at institutional fit first rather than academics.

    Next everyone is upset because the article says that admissions go back to the underrepresented minority pool if they don’t get as many as they want. But the very same article says that it’s the wealthy that benefit from this tactic more than anyone else. Just look at how many schools where the percentage of students who don’t receive any financial aid at a lot of the prestigious schools easily exceeds the number of minorities or students with Pell Grants. No one wants to talk about the “Full-pay” hook. There are 20 colleges where 40% or more of the students don’t receive any financial aid and I don’t think they’re using it to fund more financially needy students.

    1. As usual Michelle, you make an excellent point. The percentage of full-pay rich kids as places like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, heck all the Ivy League, FAR exceed the number of Pell Grant (poor) kids at these institutions. It’s extremely hard for poor kids, much less minority students, to get into these schools. As mentioned earlier, many of the minorities in these schools are rich foreign students.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. For all you parents who need relief from the college application syndrome, please look at last week’s episode of “The Middle”. You will appreciate EVERY minute. When will parents not be so wrapped up in their child’s success. The best thing I appreciated from Lynn was her comment on success from not getting into the Ivys. So true.

    PS- I am proud to say my son made it to not one, but FOUR wait lists! Close, but no cigar, as they say. And what is he going to do? Accept where he is going, and become a stellar undergrad, and survive to go to graduate school, after all the rest of the college grads give up. And he will have the money to be able to attend the best grad school for the $$. PS- the average seasoned car mechanic makes about $150K/year – just ask your dealer.

  11. To add to Paula’s comment, if those stats are even available, don’t forget “non-wealthy.” if you’re wealthy, you’re far more likely to get in to the elite schools, which Lynn has pointed out many times.

    I have heard white middle-class parents complain that the acceptance stats for minorities show preferences that aren’t fair (the anti-affirmative action opinion) but how often do you hear people complain about rich people getting all the advantages? Private schools can admit whomever they choose, and if you’re not rich, it really does seem like a crapshoot.

    Michelle also made an interesting comment about the failure of the education system. I recently told a friend with a Ph.D. in a science field that my son, also interested in science, would probably attend a small liberal arts college. She was confused, “Why would he go to a liberal arts school if he likes science?” Maybe the collapse of the Calif. universities, which is sending more kids out of state, will also open minds to all the great colleges across the U.S.

    1. Most of the highly selective schools are “need blind” so a student’s ability to pay does not enter into the admission decision. But I think you do see an inordinate number of “full pays” at some of these schools because many of the students come from educated families, have had access to the best schools and experiences and are cultivated to attend these highly selective schools.

      I think that two distinct sets of students are now attending these schools: kids with lots of need who get it all met (often without any loans) and kids whose parents can afford to write the big checks without batting an eye. Middle class kids with no need based on FAFSA and Profile are often choosing to go to less expensive schools or schools that give large merit awards rather than pay out 55K or more per year, especially when there are other children in the family to educate. But there are middle class families who, if a kid gets into an Ivy, will gladly write that full check because they feel the name is “worth it”. But, back to my original question: How do you get in?

      1. HI Paula,

        I’d argue that money does come into play so I don’t think any schools can really be considered need blind. Most of the students at Ivies range from affluent to really rich.

        I think people would be much better off if they stopped agonizing about how they are going to get into the Ivies. They aren’t going to get in! And that’s okay because there are better choices for undergrads out there. I get insulted when someone calls a liberal arts college a little Ivy. I think that’s insulting to liberal arts colleges. After all, these colleges are completely dedicated to educating undergrads. At the Ivies, undergrads are nowhere near a priority.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy.

    2. Hi Denise,

      I think the reaction of your PhD friend just shows how much ignorance there is about college choices. You are more likely to become a PhD in the sciences if you attend a liberal arts college. I wrote a post about this earlier this year:

      As for minority preferences, those are small potatoes compared to the preferences of the wealthy. Many, if not most, of the minority students at Ivies are wealthy foreign students.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  12. I share Lynn’s feelings about avoiding these highly selective schools (for many reasons) but let’s put that aside for a moment. I recently received an email from a local high school guidance counselor asking me for suggestions on how to get admitted to an Ivy (for example). She’s feeling pressure from parents. How would you respond (other than look elsewhere)? It would be interesting to see some bio’s and stats of non-legacy, non-minority, non-athletes who were admitted.

  13. There are over 36,000 high schools in the US, each with a valedictorian. Some of those are also in the 21,000 plus students who scored in the 99th percentile or higher on the SAT. That should give people some idea of the odds they’re up against. And given that all of the most competitive schools admit significant numbers of students who aren’t valedictorians or in the top 99% of SAT scorers, the numbers provide only the smallest of baselines.

    But people only see the talented individuals in their own world and forget about all the people they don’t know. The number of talented students has continued to grow while people still only seem to “know” about a dozen of so worthy schools to apply to. Talk about a failure of the education system.