One morning this spring, very early, my phone “dinged” as a message came through and woke me up: “Shirley, I just got admitted by UC Davis from their waitlist.” It was a student who had already decided to go to Macalester College. When he told me that he would go to UCD instead, I felt a bit sad, because this student and Macalester College are a great fit in my heart. At the end of the day, however, I will always choose to support my students’ decisions after sharing my considerations. Then, just a few minutes later, another message came through from a different student: “Shirley, UC Santa Barbara just admitted me from the waitlist, but I have already declined.” With that, I was wide awake.

During every previous application season, almost all my students would receive a couple of waitlist decisions from this or that college, but only a few of them would later get admitted from the waitlist. Sometimes my students chose to hold to their original decisions while other times, they changed their minds. In the last two years, I started to notice a change, at least for my students: there was more acceptance from the waitlist than ever before.

What puzzled me this year is the level and extent of admission from the waitlist that my students have experienced so far. For example, for the student who got admitted to UCSB off the waitlist, that was his fourth admission this season off the waitlist; other offers came from Brandeis, NYU, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This student has a strong application profile but got waitlisted from all these colleges initially. At the same time, almost all my students this year have similarly received offers from waitlists, and they have changed their minds to accept these admissions. (None of them succeeded during their ED round this year.) My perspective might be biased because I mostly work with international students. My impression and experience this year may not reflect the situation for domestic applicants.

Purely from my students’ experiences, with a very small sample size, the extent of waitlist admission this year did surprise me and make me wonder:

  • What has changed?
  • Is this a new trend going forward or was it just a random “phenomenon” this year?
  • Why?

Some initial thoughts:

In recent years, students have tended to apply to more colleges than before; at the end of the day, they can and will only enroll in one college. Colleges may use waitlists more extensively to do enrollment management and later are forced to go deeper into their waitlist to admit students. To be honest, I am not envious of people who are in charge of enrollment management at colleges at this moment.

The sheer volume of applications for some colleges didn’t allow admission staff to look through the details of students’ applications.

After ED acceptance, not all applicants follow the rule and withdraw their RD round applications. Some forget to do so, while others choose not to. They have taken spots at colleges where they definitely will not enroll later. UC campuses are another situation. I had several experiences where after my students made requests to withdraw applications after their ED acceptance, they were still admitted to one or several campuses of the University of California. Given the sheer volume of applications rushing to the UC system and their level of staff in recent years, the situation might be understandable.

Given my limited exposure, I am eager to figure out whether this is only a one-season phenomenon or if it is a new trend in the making.

The landscape of college admission has always been in the process of changing and reshaping itself. More colleges are offering ED2 versus 10 years ago; more colleges are releasing admission decisions earlier vs. toward the end of March; and now, more colleges are accepting more students off waitlist?

If waiting for colleges’ admission decisions is like riding a rollercoaster, the journey seems to be getting longer (starting earlier and ending later). It can be tiring and stressful for the students and their families. Patience is in higher demand during this journey than ever before. For students and families, it is taking longer to get the complete picture of admission results and figure out where their kids will be heading in the fall. In turn, as IECs, we may be required to put more effort into counseling and consulting with students and their families to manage expectations and stay patient as we guide them through this journey.

By Qing (Shirley) Xian, MBA, CEP, IECA (MN), Soar in USA Counseling & Consulting, LLC