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Wait Listed for College--A Growing Phenomenon

Original post made by Paul Losch on May 11, 2008

My daughter Adrienne will be attending a very fine college starting next fall. As of now, I don't know which one, due to the wait list situation she is in. Hers is a case study in something that appears to be an increasingly significant layer of the challenging college application process.

Students learn not later than the end of March which schools offered them admission and which did not. By the start of May, after effort that ranges from going to college visitation weekends, campus tours, on line research, blogs, parents, relatives and friends opining to varying degrees (within and not earshot of the student) to in some case doing very little, the student sends a commitment letter with a check to the college of his/her choice.

At least, that's how it used to be...

Several high school seniors with whom I have spoken at events in recent days are wait listed and still hoping to hear from some of these schools before they actually decide their plans for this fall. My own child got word on Friday that a school she had a great deal of interest in has taken her off the wait list and offered her admission, and she is now torn about how it feels to perhaps turn down a perfectly good school that is really interested in her and to which she "committed." I also have heard some students comment that they turned down offers from schools where they were wait listed, they did not want to protract their plans, and, I pereceive, the anxiety.

There is nothing new mechanically about what is occurring, but the churn rate appears to have gone up by one or two orders of magnitude. The Common App, the ability to "customize" applications thanks to slick computer programs that require just minutes to edit and tailor content to appear "custom" to a specific school, the perception that it is better to apply to a bunch of schools, since it is just a numbers game and a crap shoot who gets in where (a little bit of strategy and a little bit if cynicism here)--all this and more has led to many students and families still with plans in a somewhat suspended state, and an unfortunate and helpless feeling that maybe, just maybe, the student will get into XXX place after all, instead of celebrating accepting at a college and beginning the planning around heading there come fall.

I have had dicussions with many parents about how our parents and we chose colleges to apply to and how we decided where to go. I really am glad that the process we have used with our two kids was much more thoughtful and thorough in supporting our kids compared to what we experienced at that age. Most parents with whom I spoke generally share the same point of view, even though we all largely had good experiences in college, despite the way we went about ending up there.

Still, this "new improved" process that kids are going through in this day and age seems to have had at least one largely unexpected and unpleasant consequence for many students and families. As one college President said in an admiited student function we attended in April--the whole thing is overblown, and the anxiety of choosing between several appropriate options does not really lead to the student's ultimate college choice and experience being improved, except on the margins, in some cases.

It is hard to put this in persepctive as one goes through it, but until this past several weeks, I did not appreciate the way it affects the thinking of the students who are making an important life choice, and the way it protracts the emotional roller coaster ride that Palo Alto and students elsewhere now experience. Unfortunately, I don't think the ride is going to revert back to an earlier, simple time, and many students and families going forward must be prepared for a couple more twists and turns before they finally arrive at the terminus.

Comments (2)

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 11, 2008 at 10:41 am

There are a lot of good arguments in this post.

On top of that, I would like to add the fact that Palo Alto students are competing against each other for the spaces at top colleges. There is the fact that instead of a student applying for maybe 7 colleges at most, many students are applying to upwards of 15 - 20. This follows that the excellent students are getting multiple offers, while the very good students are getting very few offers. It is not only very easy to apply to so many colleges, but for PA students, the cost of the application is not a factor in keeping the applications to a lower number. This means that once again, a very good but not excellent student is getting overlooked and the irony is that if they went to a school outside PA, then with their scores and grades, they would get a place in a very good school with ease.

It seems logical now to see just how many students nowadays are going to Foothill for two years and then transferring in to their first choice college with ease. This puts them in the luxury of getting more acceptances and also graduating out of their college of choice. Who can blame them? It seems to me that this for many is the way to go.


Posted by PA Dad, a resident of College Terrace
on May 11, 2008 at 7:33 pm

Paul -- pity the typical British student, then, who takes 'A levels' in his or her senior year and only hears the results in August. University offers are conditional upon those results. So you don't know where you will be attending until a month or so before you go!

I'm not sure how it is today, but it used to be that you were only allowed to apply to five universities in total -- you picked a couple of stretches and a couple of fall backs and hoped you got a spread of offers from them all. You'd know what scores you need to achieve to enter each of them by March or so, but you need to take your finals in May/June and then wait all summer to know your future.

And imagine the stress levels come the one day in August when all the test results are released at the same time nationwide. It's no fun -- but it does guarantee that you work your heart out your final year. Here, it seems to me, students ease off their work in their final year, which isn't exactly setting them up to thrive in (what you hope would be) the more rigorous college environment.


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