The What, When, and How of Wait Lists

Denver — Admissions wait lists have been described as crucial enrollment-management tools, as a necessary evil in a time of uncertainty, and as a cruel means of stringing along hopeful applicants. Whatever your view, it’s a fact that the use of wait lists has grown.

Nearly 45 percent of colleges surveyed use wait lists, up from 32 percent just 10 years ago, according to a new report that the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC, released here at its annual meeting. From 2007 to 2010, colleges admitted fewer than one-third of students from wait lists, on average.

The report, based on survey responses from 369 four-year institutions, was commissioned to reveal more about how colleges use wait lists. Some high-school counselors say that more colleges are maintaining wait lists well into the summer, and the report confirms that the practice is common. Although more than half (‭55 percent) of colleges stopped admitting students from wait lists in May or June as of 2011, 29 percent did not do so until July, and 13 percent did not do so until August.

Concerns about the amount of time colleges give wait-listed applicants to accept or deny an admissions offer had prompted the association to examine the practice more closely. At last year’s NACAC conference, some counselors complained about colleges that had apparently pressed students to accept an offer within hours of notification.

According to the survey, about 37 percent of colleges give applicants admitted from wait lists a standard amount of time to respond, regardless of when the offer is made. Among those institutions, most (72 percent) give students seven or more days to decide.

Thirty-nine percent have standard response times, but the length of time may vary depending on when the offer is made. A quarter of respondents said the time allowed varies for reasons other than the time of the offer.

One knock on wait lists is that they’re secretive: Students often don’t know where they stand. In 2011, the survey found, nearly three-quarters of colleges (72 percent) did not inform students about their position on the wait list or the likelihood of receiving an offer. But only 16 percent of respondents said that they ranked students on wait lists at all.

Nonetheless, more than half of respondents (55 percent) said they “divided” wait lists according to students’ academic credentials. Forty-two percent considered applicants’ “demonstrated interest” in attending, and 21 percent considered students’ ability to pay.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents said that they may consider applicants’ financial need when deciding whom to admit from wait lists. Less than half (48 percent) reported giving grant aid to all students admitted from wait lists. And most (86 percent) reported that they provide housing to all such students.

As of Saturday evening, the report was not yet available online. Readers may request a copy by sending an e-mail to

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