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The Tuesday Q&A: What is a Waitlist?

August 21, 2012 :: Admissionado Team

MBA FAQ, MBA frequently asked questions, bschool questions, mba questionsQuestion:

I’ve heard that sometimes college applicants can get waitlisted. What does that mean?


This is a FANTASTIC question, my friend, because it applies to looooooooots of folks out there.

If college was a popular night club, the waitlist would be the long line of people behind the velvet rope at the front door. Colleges essentially put applicants on-call in case some of the students who were offered admission don’t accept.

Every year, a college figures out how many students they have room for in their freshman class, and every year more students apply than can be admitted. The college has been in this business for a while, so they know that not everyone they offer a slot to will actually accept. The percentage of students that are offered admission who actually accept is called the yield.

So, let’s say Frank University admits 500 freshmen this year. That doesn’t mean that only 500 qualified students applied, of course. It just means that the school only has room for 500 of them. If Frank University historically has a 50% yield, they would offer enrollment to 1,000 applicants, expecting that half of them would turn it down. Out of the rest of the applicants, the ones who were maybe good but not GREAT will be waitlisted.

Now, patterns are very useful… until they’re not. Let’s say only 400 students of the 1,000 offered slots actually accept them. Now Frank University goes to its waitlist and starts reaching out to offer the other 100 open slots. Sounds great, right?

Well, truth is that being waitlisted isn’t the end of the world, but your chances won’t be stellar. If you get waitlisted, most likely you won’t be getting into that school. You can reach out to the school and try to make your case, but with waitlists something topping 500 students, it can be VERY difficult.

This is one of the MOST important reasons for you to apply to multiple schools and to include a few safety schools, places where you know you’re a shoo-in. That way, you won’t get stuck with no place to go come September.

— Jon Frank