Do Swelling Waiting Lists Increase Admissions Chances?

Colleges all over the country are expanding their waiting lists. In fact, at many competitive colleges the number of wait-listed applicants is three to four times the number of students enrolled in the incoming first-year class. 

Good news for applicants?

College waiting lists are longer than ever before

Probably not. Even though colleges are increasing the size of their waiting lists, the number of applicants ultimately admitted from waiting lists is generally small, usually under 10%.

In fact, when reporters from Inside Higher Ed asked college admissions directors how often they used their waiting lists to admit students, most offered meager numbers. Fifteen percent of admissions directors reported that they hadn’t admitted anyone that way. Over two-thirds (68 percent) said they admitted less than five percent of their incoming class from the waiting lists. Only seventeen percent said that they admitted more than five percent of the applicants on the waiting list.

For example:

  • Last year, Brown University offered admission to 2,566 applicants of whom 1,719 ultimately enrolled. However, at the same time, the university also offered 2,724 applicants spots on their waiting list. What those numbers mean is that even if every originally admitted applicant rejected the university’s offer, the university would still have a surplus of applicants on the waiting list.
  • Last year, The University of Pennsylvania, anticipating a first-year class of 2,445 students, admitted 3,731 applicants. At the same time, they offered spots on the waiting list to around 3,500 applicants. When questioned about the number of applicants admitted from the waiting list, a University of Pennsylvania spokeswoman reported that the number generally ranged between 20 to 175.
  • Last year, Boston College offered 5,689 applicants spots on its waiting list for an incoming class expected to be about 2,400. Just over 100 applicants were admitted from the waiting list
  • Middlebury College, whose incoming class averages about 700 students, offered 1,316 applicants spots on their waiting list. Last year, seven students were admitted from the waiting list.


Do these numbers strike you as puzzling? Me too. So I dug deeper and discovered that no one really seems to know why colleges are plumping up their waiting lists. One oft-repeated theory suggests that waiting lists are a way of appeasing donors and families with connections to the institutions; better to put those families’ children on the waiting lists than to risk offending those families by outright rejecting their children. When questioned, fifteen percent of admissions directors admitted that this was a factor. Others, including John L Mahoney, director of undergraduate admission at Boston College, see waiting lists as an opportunity for deliverance of a sort of clemency. “We do offer the waiting list to many students,” he reported to Inside Higher Education “[who] are talented and deserving of admission, but we’re just not able to admit them due to the quality of our pool. To some extent, we want to be respectful of how hard they’ve worked and how difficult it is to receive an outright rejection.”


While this may seem a kindly gesture by some, many college counselors, including myself, feel that applicants would be better served by being rejected than by finding themselves on the receiving end of this misguided largesse which, as all of us and many parents have seen, often conduces to self-doubt, anxiety ridden self-scrutiny, false hope, and bitterness.


Still have questions about college admissions? Call me.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.