Dirty Secrets of College Waitlists

As acceptance letters hit mailboxes, record numbers of students could be stuck in waitlist limbo. In a Daily Beast exclusive, admissions officers dish about the tricks of getting in off the list—and why you shouldn’t send cookies.

03.30.09 6:01 AM ET

Plus, check out the 25 best value colleges.

The waitlist. It’s the fate that awaits hundreds of thousands of high school seniors this week as they open college admissions letters. The bad news? As few as 15 percent will make it off the waitlist at the most selective schools, and waitlists are likely to be longer this spring than ever before.

“We always have the parents who want to buy us a Mercedes or pay our mortgages. Usually we’d laugh them off, but money is tight this year. I’m telling my staff: Send them directly to the development office.”

The prospect of waiting even longer for a final answer can drive students—and their parents—to desperate acts. “I had one mother last year who called me every single day for two months, sometimes multiple times a day,” says an admissions officer at an Ivy League school. “I finally had to say, ‘Your son is not getting in and you may wish to seek psychiatric help for yourself.’” ( Jump to the next page for more quotes and stories from admissions officers)

But this may also be the year that waitlisted students have the best shot ever of getting in… if they’re smart about it, because more students may turn down their top choices. As the economy continues to spiral downward, admissions officers say they have little sense of what to expect in terms of waitlist activity over the next two months.

That’s because this waitlist season appears to be shaping up to mimic last year’s—a spring that totally baffled admissions departments nationwide. Several factors made the admissions cycle volatile: the high school class of 2008 numbered nearly 3.4 million, the largest in U.S. history; there was a swell of kids submitting eight or more college applications; and Princeton, the University of Virginia and Harvard got rid of early admissions. Add in the precarious economy, and dozens of colleges overestimated their “yield”— the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enrolled.

“It got harder to separate the very committed from the applicants just window-shopping,” Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Schools hedged their bets by upping the number of applicants they put on the waitlist.”

Certain schools suddenly found themselves in an unprecedented position: selling their programs to talented applicants. Harvard ended up taking some 200 students from its waitlist, up from 50 the previous year. Princeton and Boston College both doubled their number of waitlist offers; the University of Pennsylvania let in one-third more. Swarthmore College’s Dean of Admissions Jim Bock tells the story of one girl who wrote a letter exuding her deepest desire to attend Swarthmore and promising it was her first choice. But when he offered her a spot off the waitlist, she turned him down. "She said, 'Why didn't you just take me in April?’” Bock says.

So what's the secret to getting in off the waitlist? The Daily Beast spoke with high school guidance counselors, college consultants, and current and former admissions officers around the country about the best strategies for getting out of limbo and into your first choice.

Be persistent
“Write the school, call, follow up, update your grades and send an extra teacher recommendation letter. Let them know it's your first choice and where else you got in. You can't just sit around and wait for a miracle.” — Michele Hernandez, former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and author of A is Admissions: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges

But don’t pester
“I had one mother last year who called me every single day for two months, sometimes multiple times a day. She couldn’t help herself. I finally had to say, ‘Your son is not getting in and you may wish to seek psychiatric help for yourself.’” — Ivy League admissions officer

Follow the rules
“We tell students: Send additional academic information only. Still, students will send us seven additional recommendations, email us endlessly or have everyone they know call us. It doesn’t help. We know the affluent students from Long Island and California will fly here to tell how much they want to come, but we want a level playing field for the northwestern Indiana students who don’t have the gas money in their pocket to visit.” — Terry Knaus, senior associate director of admissions at Indiana University at Bloomington

Work the system
“Washington University in St. Louis has notoriously huge waitlists— they won’t even tell you how long. My bet is they put over 10,000 kids on the waitlist every year for a class of 1,350. The thing is, though, they don’t count you on the waitlist until you tell them it’s your first choice. It’s a despicable practice, but it’s a popular place and they can get away with it.” — Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School

Let schools know you can pay
“It never hurts to remind schools know you will be a full-paying student, especially this year. The rules even change at need-blind schools when it comes to the waitlist. It’s not an official practice, but admissions officers are human. They know endowments are down and cost-cutting is essential. If a full-paying student says he’ll definitely come, letting him in can be a relief.” — Karen Crowley, consultant for College Coach, a national education-consulting firm, and former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania

It’s probably too late for bribes…
“Anyone using the development angle successfully has started much earlier, probably last fall at the latest. And families who can build buildings don’t just pop a check in the mail. They are much more tasteful, major gifts officers seek them out. If only to spare the child the stigma that they’ve paid their way in.” — private college counselor Nina Marks, formerly director of college guidance at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral School

…except perhaps this year
“We always have the parents who want to buy us a Mercedes or pay our mortgages. Usually we’d laugh them off, but money is tight this year. I’m telling my staff: Send them directly to the development office.” — Director of admissions at a small New York liberal arts college

It pays to be coy
“Last year was basically a total [mess]. Admissions folks’ biggest fear is not filling their class, and we were about 100 students short. Students flaunted their five other offers, even at state schools or schools not in our tier. I was on the phone begging some of our most-sought-after kids to come. I never have to do that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I had to do it again this year.” — Admissions officer at an elite Midwestern private university

Leverage your offers
“Vanderbilt will probably end up the hottest school this year. They can offer a lot of good merit aid. We already had kids last year turning down Duke, Georgetown and Penn to go to Vanderbilt with lots of money. So why not use a more lucrative offer to try to get off the waitlist? Then again, with financial things so bad, Vanderbilt’s admit rate could go below 20% this year.” — Gavin Bradley, college counselor at Atlanta’s Pace Academy and former admissions officer at Columbia University

Sweets don’t work
“We always have people bringing us cookies and cakes. It’s terrible for my waistline and it doesn’t work. One young woman sent a box of red and gray M&Ms, some stamped with her name, some with ‘Wants UGA.’ They’re still on my desk, but I don’t even remember her name…We did let her into our January class, but she was not too pleased about that. Her mother called to complain.” — Nancy McDuff, director of admissions at the University of Georgia

Neither do pineapples
"We get the pineapples from Hawaii and the cookies and candy. One girl had a petition signed by the mayor and everyone in her town. She even had the dean of Swarthmore sign it when she came on a campus tour. It was clever. Those things don't get you in, but they put you on our radar.

“But they can backfire. We heard about one guy who was writing [online] about how badly he wanted to go to Swarthmore, but he was waitlisted. He was saying some pretty nasty things about us. He also said we shouldn't have listened to his teachers' recommendations, which were, in fact, glowing. It was anonymous, but he said where he lived and we'd only put one boy on the waitlist from that state, so we knew who it was. So we just didn't want to go there. You have to be careful what you put on the Internet. We don't go looking, but we can't ignore it when we hear about it." – Jim Bock, Swarthmore College

Pen a tune
“I always tell students that, at this stage of the game, a gimmick won't hurt. It's go-for-broke time. I know one student who sent admissions folks a photo of himself in front of the gates of a rival college, adding a clever caption about what his fate would be if he moldered on the waitlist. An aspiring composer [could] write an ‘Ode to Oberlin’ or a budding poet pen ‘The Ballad of Barnard.’ Yet you have to be aware that what tickles the fancy of one admissions officer may make a colleague barf.” — College Confidential counselor Sally Rubenstone, a former admissions officer at Smith College

No, really, pen a tune
“We had a student years ago who used the music of our alma mater and wrote new words telling us why we should admit them. Creative and cute, but not over the top.” — Jean Jordan, director of admissions at Emory University

Don’t repeat yourself
“One of our applicants when I was at Penn wrote his essay on baking popovers, and one day he showed up at the office with a batch of freshly baked popovers. We all thought it was fairly ingenious— until we heard through the grapevine he did the same thing at Princeton.” — Karen Crowley, consultant for College Coach, a national education-consulting firm, and former admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania

Make up your mind
“We offered a spot to a student off the waitlist a few years ago only to find he’d made deposits at two other Ivy League schools before May 1 as placeholders. Before May 1, double deposits are unethical and illegal. It’s also stupid. We ended up rescinding our offer, and I heard the other schools did as well.” — former Ivy League admissions officer

Get psyched about where you did get in
“For day one, I tell kids to be excited about the schools they did get into. They applied to those schools for some reason in the first place, and that school thought they’d be a good fit. It also puts you in a better bargaining position if another offer does come around.” — Brad MacGowan, college counselor at Massachusetts’ Newton North High School

And don’t count on the waitlist
“I can’t stress this enough to families: Put a deposit in at some school before May 1. Yes, more and more are willing to walk away from that money if a better offer comes in, but we hear terrible stories all the time about kids who ended up with nowhere to go in the fall.” — Brian Hazlett, director of recruitment at Binghamton University

Plus: Check out our College Admissions page, for full coverage of who's getting in, who isn't, and how the system really works.

Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.