Updated: Friday, April 25 at 12:43 p.m.
When high school senior and Houston native Letay Thompson was waitlisted at GW, she said the second chance to earn admission brought disappointment, not relief.
“It made me think I’ll have another month of false hope and anxiety,” she said, adding that she has enrolled at another school, Loyola University in Chicago but may switch to GW if she gets in.
That would make her part of the small fraction of students who are accepted off GW’s growing waitlist – about 11 percent of the 986 students who took waitlist spots last year.
GW has increasingly relied on its waitlist to maintain an incoming class with mixed backgrounds, academic interests and regional makeup, which admissions experts agree is a tougher goal as students apply to more colleges and require more aid. When accepted students with certain characteristics – such as race, major or state – take GW off their list, the admissions office is then looking to replace him or her with a student who looks nearly identical on paper.
“That is a part of the reason that having a robust waitlist is important – so we have students with varied academic and extracurricular interests and personal characteristics as we aim to build a well-rounded class,” Laurie Koehler, the senior associate provost for enrollment management said in an email this week.
The number of students that GW waitlists every year has tripled over the last decade, mirroring a national trend in which colleges have trouble predicting enrollment. GW declined to say how many students were waitlisted during this year’s admissions cycle.
Several of GW’s top competitor schools have grown their waitlists even faster. New York and Vanderbilt universities now waitlist about five times as many applicants as they did a decade ago, with more than 5,000 students placed on each of their lists in 2012.
“You need to fill the holes and the gaps,” Karen Spencer, a college admissions consultant at the advising group College Coach, said. “Everyone enrolls in May, and if you find that you under-enrolled in the business school, have way more women than men and nobody from Oklahoma – then it’s good if you’re a male student studying business from Oklahoma.”
But securing a spot on a waitlist does not necessarily mean a student will be picked to fill those holes. The University of Southern California had even less movement off its list, offering about 1,900 students a spot on the waitlist and admitting a total of three. In 2012, Tulane University – another of GW’s competitors – placed more than 3,480 students on its waitlist and did not accept any.
Those long waitlists act as insurance policies for admissions offices who struggle to forecast how many students will enroll – a statistic known as the yield rate – as high schoolers apply to more and more colleges.
“Since every year’s applicant pool and admitted pool is different, no matter how much data modeling we do, we can’t predict from year to year exactly how many students will accept our offers of admission,” Koehler said.
Nearly half of colleges nationwide now use waitlists, compared with one-third of schools in 2002, according to a 2012 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Though the size of GW’s waitlist has steadily increased, the number of students admitted off the list fluctuates depending on how many accept a spot at GW in the first round.
For example, in 2010, GW placed 2,845 students on its waitlist but offered admission to just 20. The year after, GW waitlisted about 2,477 students and offered admission to 112 students.
To help maintain that balance, schools have started hiring enrollment managers to oversee the process. Koehler, the senior associate provost for enrollment management, was hired last fall to merge the financial aid, admissions and registrar’s office for the first time.
KC Deane, a research associate in the education policy program of the American Enterprise Institute, said more students are applying to dozens of schools as they try their luck at getting accepted in a highly competitive applicant pool and aim to win scholarships.
The recession made it harder for some families to foot massive tuition payments, she said, which has been one factor in expanding waitlists.
“Most schools make a bet with the class they’re admitting and then use the waitlist in case that bet goes wrong,” Deane said.
Students may have a better chance to be placed on the waitlist if they can’t pay full tuition – especially at a school like GW that has a relatively small endowment.
The University revealed for the first time in October that it uses a “need aware” strategy when looking at applications, placing hundreds of otherwise acceptable students who cannot afford tuition on the waitlist each year. Administrators say that strategy helps them to fill more needy students’ financial gaps with scholarships.
Like most schools, GW invites students to accept a spot on their waitlist instead of automatically placing them on the list to ensure only the most interested candidates are considered.
“We invite them to be on a waitlist because we don’t want to waste our time going back to someone who didn’t even care,” said Jim Rawlins, the director of admissions at the University of Oregon and former president of National Association for College Admission Counseling.