Z-Listed Students Experience Year Off

Undergrads take mandatory gap year before coming to Harvard

Danielle Kim

Jason S. Wien ’13 was visiting Northwestern University, the school he had committed to attending, when he got the call.

Katie N. Rice ’14 had already attended her freshman orientation program at the University of Arizona, and Emily M. Orlins ’11 had learned the name of her roommate at Cornell University.

These students’ college plans were set—until they got a call from Harvard.

We don’t have room for you in the freshman class entering this fall, Harvard told them. But if you’re willing to wait a year, you’re invited to attend.




The Admissions Process

The Admissions Process

Each year, Harvard offers admission to a select group of students—known among admissions officers as the “Z-list”—on the condition that they take a mandatory year off before enrolling in the College.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says that of the 60 to 100 students in each class who take a gap year before coming to Harvard, roughly half do so voluntarily. The other half were Z-listed.

Fitzsimmons says that although the practice of Z-listing dates back to the early 1970s, the number of Z-listed students has increased over the years. In 2002, Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70-’73 told The Crimson that there were 20 Z-listed students in each class. Today, that number has reached 30 to 50.

The term Z-list was coined by the office’s computer technicians due to the fact that these students are the final group to be admitted each year. After regular decisions and waitlist admissions have been made, Fitzsimmons says there are always more students the admissions office would like to accept. These students are offered a spot on the Z-list.

“We are 100 percent sure that we want them here next year, not 99 percent,” Fitzsimmons says of the Z-listed students. “We never quite know what next year’s applicant pool is going to bring.”

Samuel B. Novey ’11 says that when he got a call telling him he’d been Z-listed, “[the admissions officer] made it sound like I was trying to book a hotel. She literally said, ‘Next year we may have a bed available.’”

But Fitzsimmions admits that many find this system illogical, since the 30 to 50 beds that would be needed to house Z-listers in the entering class are the same beds being filled by last year’s Z-listers.

“We all know that this is a zero-sum game,” Fitzsimmons says.


Given a year to spend in nearly any way they choose—apart from enrolling at another academic institution for credit—this group of students comes to Harvard with a wide variety of experiences under their belts.