Decisions on Hold: Examining the Waitlist

Waitlist Letters
Martin C. Ye

This year, thousands of students will open their letters to find that they are neither accepted nor rejected — they are waitlisted.

Ellen C. O’Leary ’14 had just learned the name of her future roommate and was feeling excited for her first year in college at Washington University in Saint Louis.

But on an otherwise ordinary day last June, O’Leary received a phone call informing her that she had just been accepted to Harvard College’s class of 2014.

“I was home alone, and I jumped around in my house by myself,” she recalls.

In the coming days, approximately 2,200 high school seniors will receive a highly coveted large envelope, notifying them of their acceptance to Harvard College. Many thousands more will receive a dreaded rejection letter, crushing what was perhaps a lifelong dream.

However, an undisclosed number of applicants will stay in limbo on the waitlist. Those who choose to remain under consideration may not receive any final word from Harvard until July 1.


Being waitlisted is typically less upsetting than outright rejection for students. But critics say the waitlist process is opaque and uncertain.


The main consideration in placing a student on the waitlist is whether he or she has a realistic chance of gaining admission in later stages of the process, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. This determination is usually a consensus reached by the committee and does not require a vote, he says.

“If there were no chance you were going to take a person off the waitlist, it would be a disservice to the applicant,” says Fitzsimmons.

While Harvard does not release statistics on the number of students that it waitlists every year, the numbers at peer institutions are often close to or greater than the size of the entire class. This year, Yale and Princeton—both with an average class size of approximately 1,300—waitlisted 996 and 1,248 students, respectively.

In the last four years, between 49 and 228 students have been accepted to the College off the waitlist—numbers comparable to those at peer institutions. Only once in the last decade have no students been admitted to Harvard from the waitlist.

This year, as in years past, Fitzsimmons says his office aims to accept between 50 and 125 additional students into the class of 2015.

College counselors offer a variety of explanations for the large number of students on the waitlist.

According to Michael Goran, director and educational consultant at California college counseling firm IvySelect, the large waitlist is all about “coverage.”

“[They need the long list] to be able to go back and have a body of students that they find interesting and appealing,” he says. “In some cases they’re reevaluating those students all over again.”


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