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US College Admissions: Weathering through being put on the dreaded waitlist

What does it mean to be ‘waitlisted’?

Being on the waitlist at a graduate school or college means that while the admissions committee of the particular institution(s) liked one’s application almost as much as the selected and saw promise in the student, they could not formalise a place in the spots officially. And, the committee might admit the waitlisted candidate if slots open up (subject to one choosing to be on the waitlist).

Now, finding oneself on a waitlist is a big bummer, especially for first-generation or low-income international students from third-world countries like India. For it not only throws them in limbo but also substantially on the backfoot than their affluent counterparts towards their college education goals. After a year(s) of planning, undergoing the gruelling admissions process, and availing of the high application fee cost (for those ineligible for or inaccessible to college application fee waivers), just falling short of making it to the dream institute(s) can very well throw them off-kilter. Uncertainty, self-doubt, and disappointment set in. 

But this is the time to take a deep breath, weigh the pros and cons of the out-of-hand situation, and remind oneself that it is not the end of the road for one’s dream admissions that year, at least not just yet, and certainly not for life. 

It becomes necessary to begin the bounceback with an awareness of ‘why’ the waitlisting strategy by institutes operates. 

Why do top US universities and the Ivys keep a waitlist?

On the whole, the thriving business of international education, like every business, is shaped by the market forces of demand and supply. The US Ivys, namely, Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell University, along with non-Ivy top schools like Massachusetts University of Technology, Stanford University, University of Chicago cash on the currency of the envious legacy of their exclusive culture of knowledge production, merit-based lower acceptance rates for their cohort, while holding the substantiated promise of a glorious career in the aftermath of the one-of-its-kind community and learning experience.

While the waitlisting methodology and criteria are distinct in each US institution, the overarching, simple math here is an increasingly higher pool of applications versus the limited spots. Thus, in line with enrollment objectives, student enrollment management by the committee requires adherence to financial aid policies for low-income students and meritorious ones, more time to review each application duly to finalise the selections, and various other factors, calling for a waitlist as a means to these ends.

Unsurprisingly hence, as per the findings in NACAC’s (National Association for College Admission Counseling) 2019 State of College Admission report, the waitlist activity of US institutes has increased, with a low probability of acceptance from the waitlist. For the Fall 2018 admission cycle, 43% of institutions that responded to the survey kept a waitlist. The number of students offered admits on the waitlist from Fall 2017 to Fall 2018 increased by 18% on average, but the ambitious colleges were less considerate to admit students on a waitlist. 

2019 onwards, the uncertainty and disruptions brought about by the ongoing COVD-19 global pandemic in college campuses have further complicated the admissions cycle and the already complex US college applications process. As per a CNBC article, the admissions declined dramatically in the 2019-2020 school year. But propelled by various factors such as postponement of SAT and ACT tests amid the pandemic, as of November 16, 2021, the number of college applicants saw a rebound by 13%. In comparison to 2020, the total applications submitted increased by a substantial 22%.

As conveyed to the U.S. News & World Report, Jenny Rickard, the President and CEO of Common App (the popular application portal for applications to US colleges) acknowledged a rise in international applications by 19% for the 2020-2021 school year and 13% for 2019-2020.

Hence, receiving a barrage of applicants, the Ivys tightened the grip on their low acceptance rates and waitlist admits. As per the data for the academic year 2019-2020 on collegetransitions.com, Princeton University had only 902 students on the waitlist, out of which 668 students stayed put and only 1 student made it through. Brown University, on the other hand, did not keep a waitlist.

Admissions experts have opined that the absurdly low acceptance rates in the US Ivys and top schools will only go lower in the forthcoming years. It is safe to deduce that getting off the waitlist (given that the school decides to keep one with you in it) would be exceedingly challenging.

On being waitlisted, don’t sit tight!

Every US College applicant is fearful of being waitlisted, all the more because a waitlist is typically not ranked. No telling the exact methodology for one’s chances of being selected, just like one can never accurately know why they were on the waitlist at the outset.

The college admissions experience for each student is unique to their situation. But, on being waitlisted, waiting it out is almost always counterproductive. First up, one needs to mull it over and decide if they want to remain on the waitlist(s). This boils down to the individual scenario. If it’s your dream institute put on the borderline, write a letter to the admissions representative while CC-ing the dean of admissions before May 1, expressing your continued interest to be on the list and affirmation of enrollment on being admitted. The tone should not betray your state of mind but reiterate your conviction in your suitability for the program and the institute, and vice-versa. Putting in newer details (different from your supplemental essays) in terms of the course modules and the faculty, your contribution to the cohort might give that extra edge to your waitlisted candidature. Meanwhile, secure your seat in the next best available option (which might be a slightly less prestigious university but an overall good fit for you) by submitting the non-refundable deposit by May 1. Make a note of the deposit deadline for your dream institutes to buy time for yourself and put plan B into motion.

Plan B comprises being an impactful work in progress for the admissions committee of your dream institute to take notice of. Keep the committee posted on your new accomplishments, awards and honors, updated standardized test scores. Try to keep up your grades at your school in the final year of your existing program, and accentuate your experience with added internships and, or part-time work experience. Throughout, consult your college admissions counsellor to help map your step-by-step action plan. Add newer materials in due counsel from your counsellors, such as recommendation letters, and keep in constant touch with the admissions representative but desist from over-communication through phones or emails that can border on badgering and reflect negatively on you. 

If you are on several waitlists for most of your dream institutes, don’t want to settle for any lesser just then, yet do not make it off the waitlist at a particular or few dream schools, do not lose heart. For chances are you have applied to a balanced list of apt-fit schools that meet your overall goals. Hence you could still consider accepting admits to a good but lesser ambitious school. Later, you could always make inroads to your dream school as a transfer student.

If the situation demands, you could also wait for other universities with later application deadlines if you are keen on starting college that year itself. If being in college in the same year is not a prerequisite, you could consider taking a gap year to work on your profile across the spectrum single-mindedly and come back bigger and stronger next year. In this scenario, waiting for the fall intake of the upcoming year is most plausible because it is the major intake in the US admissions cycle, wherein a variety of courses and financial funding open up to one’s advantage.

The bottom line is to try taking the situation in your stride and not let the process or outcomes break your spirit. For there’s a next time, if not sooner, then later. Before second-guessing your choices, remind yourself why you chose international higher education in the first place; as a stepping stone to help you find yourself in your career aspirations, and there is more than one way to get there.

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