College applicants who are put on a wait list—unable to rejoice at their success or fully wallow in rejection—may not know just how to feel about the news. At a handful of ultra-selective colleges, the answer is unambiguous: A spot on the wait list is tantamount to rejection.
Last year, Stanford University put 659 hopefuls on its wait list. Just seven—barely 1 percent—were admitted from the list, according to numbers in the school's Common Data Set, an institutional report many colleges publish annually. In the two preceding years, Stanford didn't accept a single person from the wait list. Stanford did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Among the 40 most selective colleges that release wait list data to the public, according to U.S. News and World Report, Stanford took the smallest share of students from the wait list. Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Middlebury College, and Bucknell have each accepted, on average, less than 4 percent of applicants on the wait list since 2011. Several selective schools, including Harvard, Brown University, and Yale University, do not release numbers regarding their wait list practices.
Despite the low likelihood that a wait list spot will translate to an acceptance, some school officials maintain that the list is a painful but necessary step toward enrolling the right number of students every year.
"We in admissions offices are trying to predict the behavior of thousands of 17-year-olds at a time," says Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon. "It's no fun managing a wait list, but it's there because even Harvard and other super-selective schools will have people who turn them down."
There are far many more students on wait lists than could ever expect to be accepted. It's not uncommon for wait list figures to exceed the number of students who are admitted. At Johns Hopkins, for instance, the wait list has swelled to as many as 3,256 people, from 1,032, in four years, even though the school typically enrolls 1,300 freshmen every year. The school did not respond to a request for comment.
Some admissions consultants believe elite colleges may use wait lists as a way to let promising students—and influential parents or schools—down easy. "Are there students on the wait list who have no shot of getting off? Absolutely," says Brian Taylor, director of Ivy Coach, a private college counseling firm. "But there are some high schools, or major donors, that colleges don't want to jeopardize their relationships with."
Schools don't promise anything to wait-listed applicants. "True story: it's likely that most people on the waitlist will not be admitted," Kris Guay, communications manager at MIT admissions, wrote in an FAQ for the school. Stanford tells wait-listed applicants not to send more letters of recommendation, research papers they've published, or certificates they've earned. Don't try calling to ask why you weren't accepted, either; they won't tell you. What's more, being on the wait list doesn't give someone a better chance of getting in the following year, should they delay college for a year or try to transfer as a sophomore. "The compelling letter your high school counselor wrote won't matter as much, one year out," Taylor says.
Being on the wait list at a highly selective school has few upsides. For their own sanity, students may be best off treating the decision as a flat-out no.
"There are students who might think the wait list is a neat way to know they were close to getting admitted," Rawlins says, "but there's others who will wish they'd just been denied."