The Dirty College Admissions Trick

Why are wai lists so long this year? Marc Zawel on the increasingly common practice of "double depositing," and how a few bad apples could land you in waitlist limbo all summer long.

Why are waitlists so long this year? Marc Zawel on the increasingly common practice of "double depositing," and how a few bad apples could land you in waitlist limbo all summer long.

For the nation’s college-bound high-school seniors, tomorrow is D Day: Decision Day.

May 1—the date on which students must tell most colleges whether they plan to attend this fall (by sending them a big chunk of deposit money)—is the capstone for what has been one of the most competitive admissions cycles in history. Seven of the eight Ivy League schools saw a decline in overall acceptance rate this year. Harvard College accepted just 6.9 percent, its lowest rate ever, and the numbers were not much better elsewhere: 7.2 percent at Stanford, 8.2 percent at Princeton, 11.5 percent at Dartmouth, and 23 percent at Northwestern—all record lows.

Along with the ultra-low admit rates came swelling waitlists. Cornell wait-listed 2,563 students. Amherst: 1,098—about the same number of applicants it admitted. At Duke, the number was north of 3,000. And the University of California and the California State University systems put applicants on waiting lists for the first time ever.

“These students are essentially saving a seat that they’re not going to take,” says one college counselor.

But it wasn’t just the low acceptance rates that may have made waitlists resemble Soviet bread lines. Faced with deciding which school to say yes to, students and parents are increasingly doing something called “double depositing,” sending deposits to two schools—saying, "yes, I’d love to attend" to both of them.

This sort of bet-hedging buys prospective students more decision time. What it also does is leaves thousands of students stranded on waitlists. And while universally discouraged, anecdotal evidence indicates that it’s an increasingly common practice.

“Families are frantic and are unsure how to make a decision,” said John Boshoven, counselor for Continuing Education at Community High School/Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan. “We’re seeing more [double depositing].”

The practice is less prevalent in Midwestern high schools and concentrated instead on the East and West Coasts, where the admissions climate is generally more hysterical. No matter where they live though, Boshoven added that students and parents have an ethical obligation to commit to one school, and one school only.

“Be honest with the college that you’re going to and be honest with the colleges that you’re not going to,” he advises, if not only for ethical reasons, then because double depositing can also blow up in your face. For one thing, guidance counselors caution that they are required to send a final transcript to the college selected by students, which could mean that a secret double deposit will only stay a secret until students tell their counselors which schools to send that transcript to. Also, some colleges share information about admitted and enrolled students, which could catch double depositers red-handed in the act and potentially lead to a rescinded offer.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization of admissions professionals, frowns upon double depositing. “You may confirm your intention to enroll and, if required, submit a deposit to only one college or university,” reads a governing document titled “Student Rights and Responsibilities” put out by the group.

Why does double depositing wreak so much havoc? Ask any admissions officer: Admitting the correct number of students in any given year is like trying to hit a dartboard bull’s eye while running on a treadmill. Kids who double deposit throw a wrench into the delicate science of projecting incoming class size. So to cover themselves, schools may increase the size of their waiting lists, according to the College Board. The more students who are double depositing, the longer the waitlists become.

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It’s the impact on these applicants in waitlist limbo that makes double depositing such a sensitive issue among parents and guidance counselors. “The students are essentially saving a seat that they’re not going to take,” says Lisa Sohmer, the director of college counseling at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, New York. “Because of that, another applicant is not being admitted.” Which not only makes waitlists bigger, it leaves wait-listed students on the waitlists longer, according to NACAC President Jim Jump. “Double depositing can delay colleges from going to waitlists, which hurts students hoping to get off them,” he says.

Who’s responsible for this mess? Sohmer says double depositing is “almost always a parent’s decision. They think that it will give their child more time and take off some of the pressure. But it’s just delaying a decision that has to be made.”

The practice contributes, at least in part, to another phenomenon called “summer melt,” in which incoming classes shrink as the fall enrollment date approaches. Other factors that cause summer melt include families’ changing financial situations, student illnesses, and run-of-the-mill cold feet.

Summer melt leaves some prospective students on waitlists through July and August, and their ultimate college destination up in the air. “For some students,” Sohmer said, “there is no such thing as too late.”

Students still juggling a decision can consider two strategies other than double depositing to make a decision before Saturday’s deadline. First, “Identify and list all the things that make each school appealing,” says Sohmer. “What is it that sets one apart from the other?” Applicants can then clearly compare the pros and cons of each option in a methodical way.

Or, Boshoven suggests that students “go home and announce a decision to their family and then see how they and their families feel in the morning about that decision.”

Worst-case scenario? “There’s always transferring,” says Boshoven.

Marc Zawel is the co-founder and CEO of EqualApp, a virtual college counselor that provides lessons, application tools, community and support services.