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By Paul Losch

Wait-List Game Gets Bigger in College Admissions

Uploaded: Apr 4, 2009

Spring Break just ended and April is here. That means for many of our high schoolers and their families that it's College Time -- from campus visits to admission and rejection letters such as those showing up on Palo Alto High School's "rejection wall" bulletin board.

In 2008, it was my turn to complete the college admissions dance and campus visit drill with my Paly senior daughter, Adrienne. In the process I learned of some significant changes occurring in the dance steps on the part of both applicants and admissions officials across the country.

The spring break of my daughter's junior year consisted of visits to a number of campuses, and that was the beginning of exposing her to the alternatives that exist for many students in our community.

The junior-year visits at spring break were to schools on the East Coast. At several campuses and a couple hotels we ran into other Paly families doing the same thing. It almost was if we all got the same Trip-Tik itinerary from AAA on Forest Avenue near downtown.

I am happy to say the trip turned out to be worthwhile. My daughter got home and began putting together a grid of what she liked and disliked about the various places we visited. That was followed by her researching, mainly on her own, other colleges that shared characteristics that were important for her.

The real benefit of her doing this is that she ultimately applied to fewer than 10 highly targeted colleges, which I believe is about 60 percent of what college students are applying to in current times. It also made it easier to visit schools we had not seen on junior spring break during the ensuing summer and autumn seasons.

When the admissions letters started arriving last April, it generated a great deal excitement. Adrienne was not admitted everywhere she applied, but she was presented with some attractive options. Before she committed, we took a few days to visit places she had not yet seen, in the hopes that it would help her make the most informed decision possible.

Here was the complicating factor: not admitted, not rejected, instead "wait" listed at her top choice. After visiting that campus, along with others she had not seen previously, she said the "wait"-listed college remained her top choice, the one that was out of her grasp.

She committed at the end of April to a really terrific school, and we started setting our sites on her attending there. Here came the next complicating factor: In early May, a few days after students from all over the country had committed to a college, a slot opened up on the waiting list at her top choice college, and Adrienne was offered admission.

This posed a dilemma that many families experience these days. Does the student stick with the place to which he/she has committed, or instead opt to take the wait-list offer? Some suggest this is an ethical issue, and each family has to determine that for themselves. My daughter was very torn for several days over the choice she faced, but she ultimately accepted at the wait-list school and withdrew from the college to which she had previously committed. I could tell after she finally made that choice that for her it was the right decision.

Here is how it is working from a college-admissions-office standpoint, based on a conversation I had with an admissions officer at the college my daughter now attends. The cohorts currently applying to colleges are the largest they have been in a generation -- last year's set a record. Also, thanks to standardized testing and the Common Application, it is easy for students to apply to upwards of 20 different colleges, as long as mom and dad are willing to pay the application fees.

These two factors have created a "double whammy" for admissions offices in terms of the volume of applications they must review.

To make matters worse, several prominent colleges, such as UC Davis, have in recent years had more students accept than they had forecast, leading to tripling up dorm rooms, students unable to get into certain classes or labs due to lack of capacity, and a host of other challenges.

So admissions offices are making fewer offers at the start of April. Instead they are "controlling the inventory" by admitting more students off their wait lists after the initial wave of commitment letters are on file. If they have five slots to fill, they make offers to the top five students on the wait list, and continue to make single offers until they have met their quota.

This is the game admissions offices now are playing. They all know the drill, and while they are disappointed when a student that has accepted withdraws to go to another college, they are not surprised and they don't consider it "two-faced."

A student and the family still have to decide for themselves how to handle a situation like this if and when it is presented to them, and each will weigh the implications in their own way. More people are facing it than ever before.

Brace yourselves as you receive your college admissions letters. In about a month, you may be facing the wait-list dilemma.