If you want to get my blood boiling (and, as a bonus, get an essay answer to a short answer question), ask me how I’m keeping busy now that May 1 is past and my seniors have made their final college choices.  I’ll try to avoid boring you with a rant about how my time in the spring is consumed more working with juniors than with seniors, but all bets are off once the topic of Wait Lists comes up.

A colleague and close friend stopped by my office yesterday for a venting/counseling session, one of three different conversations I had about Wait Lists during the day. Just when his daughter had come to peace with her college choice, her counselor has asked her cryptic questions along the lines of “would you say yes if asked to go to the dance?” about the school that was her first choice and where she was Wait Listed.  Are the counselor’s questions a signal that she might get a call?  Will a Wait List offer come with sufficient financial aid?  Should the family get its hopes up or stick with the existing situation?  Do they have time and energy to think about all this in the midst of AP exams and her sister’s college graduation this weekend?

I told him he had “appropriate anxiety.”  Just as you’re not paranoid when the thing you’re afraid of is real, angst and frustration are perfectly normal responses to being on a Wait List.

Of course it is not only students and parents (and school counselors) who feel anxiety regarding Wait Lists.  Several years ago I talked with the Dean of Admissions at College X.  There were rumors that University Y might be going to its Wait List.  If they went, there would be a chain reaction.  When Harvard itches, everyone scratches.  She needed to pull the trigger on her Wait List first, she said.

Wait Lists are the admissions equivalent of limbo (the theological state, not the dance).  Students on a Wait List are caught in a netherworld between the known and unknown, between reality and possibility.  The view is always shrouded by fog and the rules are unclear.  It’s not a place you would choose to take a vacation. 

Wait Lists have become a regular part of the admissions process, such that I expect that 10-20% of my senior class will ‘upgrade” and end up at their final destination off a Wait List.  The use of Wait Lists may be the least transparent part of the college admissions process—and that’s saying something. 

The lack of clear rules regarding use of Wait Lists and the impression that Wait List procedures have become the “Wild West” of college admissions led Jake Talmage, the Director of College Counseling at St. Paul’s School for Boys in Baltimore, to ask NACAC to study Wait List procedures in a motion to the NACAC Assembly two years ago in New Orleans.  Jake’s motion resulted in two changes to the Best Practices section of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice regarding Wait Lists.  One asks colleges to utilize written or electronic communication in offering admission off a Wait List.  The other change gives students 72 hours to respond to an institution’s offer.  That provision generated considerable debate, with some colleges arguing that institutional needs dictated moving more quickly down the Wait List.

Those are positive steps but don’t begin to address the larger issues.  Primary among those is the classic question of how large a Wait List should be and what being on a Wait List should signify.  A recent Washington Post article named several institutions that Wait Listed more students than they admitted. At first glance that seems absurd, but I think it’s a more complex issue than it appears.

I learned that after my own professional Black Monday back in 2000.  Over the weekend the decisions from the University of Virginia had been mailed, and as I walked in to chapel that morning there was a buzz in the air.  Six seniors that I thought would be in the gray area between admit and Wait List had been denied.  My instincts aren’t usually that far off, and so I called the late Jack Blackburn and made an appointment to meet with him.  When I got to his office he showed me the folders, and each of the students had been Wait Listed at one point and then moved into the deny pile.  He explained that every spring there was an internal debate within his office about the Wait List.  Some thought being on the Wait List should be a message that a student was qualified for admission but space not available.  That might lead to 2000 students being placed on the Wait List.  The opposing school of thought was that few of the students on the Wait List had a legitimate shot at getting off and that it wasn’t fair to give them false hope.  That spring the smaller Wait List advocates won the day.

One of the incidents that triggered Jake Talmage’s concern about Wait List procedures was seeing a student Wait Listed in December by a rolling admission school, told the Wait List would be reviewed in May.  I see that as a twist on the classic understanding that being Wait Listed is a sign that a student is qualified but there is no room at the inn.  The institution, it seems to me, is saying that the student is someone they don’t want to admit, but might have to.  That might be cruel, but I’m not sure it’s unethical, as long as the practice is transparent.

What has changed is that Wait Lists are no longer used as a safety net but as a calculated enrollment management strategy.  It has been described as “Early Decision 3,” with a number of schools planning to admit the last 10-15% of the class off the Wait List to keep the acceptance rate low and yield high.

The ethical issues raised by use of ED-3 and Wait Lists in general are the same issues raised in all parts of the college admissions process.  Does it serve students, or just the institution?  Is it transparent? Do students know how decisions are made and what they can do to improve their chances?  What role do demonstrated interest, academic merit, and institutional needs play?  Is it equitable? Does it squeeze out students with financial need? Does it advantage the already privileged with access to savvy college counseling?

A veteran admissions dean once told me that the perfect admissions process would be to Wait List all acceptable candidates and admit those who most want to come.  I’m not sure that’s any crazier than the system we have in place.  If Samuel Beckett were to return from the dead and write a modern sequel to his most famous absurdist play, he could do worse than call it “Waiting List for Godot.”