The Wait Lists Game Theory

by Howard Greene and Matthew Greene

This college admissions year was a difficult one for many students for several reasons. In addition to the continued rise in competition for selective college admissions, we saw the aftereffects of 9/11, the faltering economy, and rising college costs at public and private institutions. Students and parents seemed more confused and stressed than ever. Changes in admissions plans, early decision pressures, and the announced loss of the SAT Score Choice option did not help the situation.

We found that the students who did best focused their attention on several appropriate colleges early in the process, and continued to express their interest through the year. As a rule of thumb, we can expect that half the seniors in a class now apply "early something," but fewer than half get in. That means students need to understand that all of their senior year matters, since upwards of three quarters of the class will be going through regular admissions.

We now encourage all students to apply to at least one appropriate target or probable (i.e., not reach) school of interest through rolling admissions or non-binding Early Action. Those who had such an acceptance by December during this cycle felt more relaxed during the winter and spring, and most considered the school a serious choice in April. But there were many students affected by what we observed as a rising use of waitlists.

Rising Use of Wait Lists
Susan, for example, is a good student who applied to eight colleges in which she had varying interest. But she was confused and dismayed about acceptances and denials at several competitive colleges and waitlists at others where her individual profile put her in the top part of the applicant pool. Perhaps it is "A Beautiful Mind" that has made everyone aware of game theory, with its emphasis on probability, strategy, unclear information, and multiple decision makers.

Admissions committees seem transparent to counselors and families in their accelerating use of waitlists to better the odds of increasing one institution's gain to the disadvantage of competitors. Deciding which candidates to admit and which to keep in reserve seems game theory gone awry.

We understand holding some qualified applicants in reserve each year. It is difficult for admissions staff to predict yield, the percentage of accepted applicants who decide to attend. Students with strong academic credentials know about competition for spaces in selective colleges, and apply to seven or more. Each institution protects itself by creating a list of qualified and appealing candidates to whom they turn if they misjudge expected yield. Additionally, some colleges suggest that they use the waitlist to indicate to students that they are talented and qualified for admission, even though they did not make this year's cut. Others defend a large waiting list as a diverse reservoir of strong and interested applicants, from which they can choose the right mix of students if spaces become available. The fact is that these days, even with students applying to more colleges, the numbers of talented candidates are real. Many, if not most, of the selective colleges and universities found that their yields were again very high this Spring.

The newer admissions strategy, serving mainly the self-interest of institutions, is waitlisting a huge cohort of qualified applicants who seem not to have demonstrated the interest and commitment that would help the school predict yield. The irony is that students such as Susan with outstanding grades and test scores risk being waitlisted by appealing colleges, because the schools are convinced these students will not enroll. But if a student does not gain admission to the most selective schools to which she applies, she may have no options.

This is especially true — and tragic — because many colleges with extensive (we could say excessive) waitlists admit few, if any, students from the roster. This year, we expect little or no movement on the Ivy League's waitlists. At some large selective public universities, there are a thousand or more students on the waitlist, even though they have not accepted any students from the waitlist in recent years. At two competitive middle-sized private universities with which we spoke, the waitlists (1,725 and 2,100) this year and last were larger than the size of the incoming class, almost twice as large in the second case. In both instances, fewer than 100 students were accepted from the waitlists this year and last. At one small college we spoke with, the same held true: over 600 students on a waitlist for a school with a first-year class of about 500, and only 30 accepted from the waitlist. Even while these schools encourage students on the waitlist to consider their other college options, they offer increasingly complex options for families to consider. Wake Forest offered applicants three different dates up to which they would remain on the waitlist, the implication being that those who chose to wait on the list until the last date in July were the most interested in attending.

The waitlist letter (let alone a phone call to students) is often a thinly veiled (and unpleasant) plea to "put your money where your mouth is": will you demonstrate commitment to our college? Can you give us an answer in three days? Is this Early Decision Round III?

What's Wrong with the Game?
Students often see a waitlist as a polite rejection or a teaser by a second choice school that does not recognize their talents or interest, though this is not necessarily the case. The college process is so fraught with anxiety and vulnerability for students that they disdain dragging out admissions for another month. Admissions committees often misinterpret applicants' level of interest.

Many accomplished students are unable to visit campus because of commitments to studies and activities, or for cost reasons. Many applicants are never contacted by alumni for an interview, and too few schools offer on-campus interviews. Also, one institution's admissions committee cannot forecast which other colleges will accept a candidate. Each has its own mix of applicants, evaluates them in comparison with one another, and tries to determine special goals for the incoming class. Finally, we are dealing with adolescents who are able — okay, likely — to change their perspectives dramatically during senior year. This development is necessary and important.

What Can Students Do?
Treat every college like a first choice. Visit, interview, and cater to each college, wherever and whenever possible. Students need not apply ED to get into college, but they do need to let schools know about their level of interest. Counselors can help by talking with their students about their preferences, and helping them convey their level of interest during the admissions process and after a waitlist.

If students do get waitlisted, they shouldn't count themselves in or out. Colleges will want to hear about why they are interested in them, and whether they will go if accepted from the waitlist.

What Can Colleges Do?
In the future, we would like to see more colleges take a more conservative approach to the waitlist, using it only for appropriate candidates who have a reasonable chance for admission later in the Spring, and explaining clearly in their waitlist letter the overall numbers and history of movement on the waitlist. Maintaining diversity on the list is important, but it is inconceivable that a college would require a waitlist the size of the first-year class, when only five percent or fewer students will be taken from the waitlist. Even if only half of students offered a place on the waitlist choose to stay active, that still amounts to only a ten percent acceptance rate. It is important to realize that these figures are common not just at Ivy institutions, but at many selective colleges and universities, often those most in danger of losing attractive candidates because of the game theory we have described.