It’s that time of year. High school seniors around the country are celebrating or commiserating as college admission decisions are released. Application numbers at highly selective schools continue to break records. With more students applying to more colleges, it’s difficult for colleges to predict how many admitted students will actually enroll. Many schools are being conservative with offers and using wait-lists to round out the freshman class.
All University of California campuses except Merced use a wait-list. Private colleges use them as well. The number of students offered admission from a wait-list varies from one school to another, and can be dramatically different at the same school from one year to the next.
California students are a priority at many colleges, and if a school does not receive enough enrollment deposits from California residents, that could mean good news for some local wait-listed students. Colleges that are primarily need-blind in admission decisions can become need-aware when they go to the wait-list. If financial aid resources have already been committed, they can only bring in students who don’t need aid.
Schools have other institutional needs, which can change. At a recent meeting with an admissions officer from a highly selective university, he said the school is building its athletic program, which means recruiting athletes. The school has a new art building and would like to bring in more aspiring art students. So there is an element of luck and timing in applying to college. If you happen to apply in the year that a college is starting a new bioengineering program and that’s your field, you may have better prospects for admission.
Some colleges ask wait-listed students to write a brief essay about why they want to attend the school. Even if a college does not ask you to do anything other than opt-in, it’s essential to let the admissions office know that you are very interested in attending the school. There may be thousands of students on the wait-list, which can be bigger than the size of the freshman class. If an admissions officer is able to take two students from the wait-list, he will choose them from the 30 who emailed him rather than the hundreds of students who made no effort to convey their interest.
If you are certain you would accept an offer of admission, write that that in the email. If you cannot honestly say the school is your first choice, you can still cite the reasons that you are excited about attending the school. Rather than focusing on how that college will help you get into medical school or help you get a job, focus on the experience you will have at the college. Mention an unusual academic program and describe how it meshes perfectly with your interests. Perhaps there is something about the campus culture that especially appeals to you, like a student run honor code.
Once you have made your best case for admission, send the email and turn your attention to the colleges that have admitted you. Once you invest emotionally in a school, you will find much to love about it and could very well end up turning down any offers that come from a wait-list.