The Washington Post

Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Accepted, Denied, or Waitlisted

Apr 07, 2011

This was an extremely difficult year to get accepted into many of the country's top colleges. Most admissions offices reported receiving record numbers of applications and acceptance rates again dropped -- Harvard, the most exclusive of exclusive schools, is now down to only accepting 6.2 percent of students who apply.

And thousands of students weren't accepted or denied -- they were waitlisted, a status that kicks off yet another round of begging and pleading for admission.

My inbox has been filling up this week with questions from parents and students who are not sure what to do -- so let's talk it out Thursday at 1 p.m.

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Happy, happy Thursday!

With May 1 sneaking up on us way too quickly, a lot of high school seniors (and their parents) are trying to figure out what to do. Let us help!

I am so lucky to have Dr. Kat from IvyWise join me today and help answer questions.

Okay... let's jump in. Send us your questions!

Hi everyone, thanks for joining me today! I’m looking forward to answering your questions. Let’s get started!


To all those high school seniors that didn't get into their top choice, how you spend your four years of college is so much more important than the name of your school. I was recently the head of recruiting for my government agency and I would routinely toss resumes from candidates at top tier schools who I could tell were just putting in minimal effort. The applicants who did independent research projects, chose to write a thesis when it was optional or took graduate level coursework were the ones that got interviews, regardless of their college.

Awww.... thank you, thank you for sending in this very important reminder.

If you haven't yet, read the Wall Street Journal piece about rejection letters from about this time last year. It was headlined: "Before They Were Titans, Moguls and Newsmakers, These People Were...Rejected."

Once accepted by a few college, any insight on things to consider when making the decision on which to attend?

Research! And lots of it! You should start today and spend significant time researching each of the schools to which you were accepted. Consider factors such as academic programs, curriculum, extracurricular offerings, campus life, internship opportunities, even location and climate. If you have not yet visited campus, you shoulds do so. Read the campus newspaper and try to speak with current students to get a feel for the campus environment. With enough research, you should be able to determine which school is your top choice among the acceptances.

It sseems like so much is placed on a school's reputation and not on whether it would be a good fit for the student. As a parent of a 12th grader in a "top" Montgomery County school, I haven't been able to be around other parents of 12th graders without the conversation centering around who got into this school or that school. To me, the bottom line is findin a school that is a good fit for your student. I think the education is more about what the student will put into it than which school they go to.

Absolutely, I agree!  It’s important to find the right academic, social, and financial fit, rather than focusing on a name brand or prestige.

Do the Ivies have a quota system in international students recruitment?

No, not that I'm aware of.  There is no quota in the sense that colleges are not trying to take a certain number of students from this country or that country.  They are, however, trying to create a diverse class from around the world and are recruiting from more places.  But at the same time, a school can't fill half of the freshman class with students from China, for example.

Once waitlisted, a senior has to resell themselves to their top choice schools by sending a letter or email. Dr. Cohen said that that letter is binding so only send to the one top choice school. First, how is that binding? And second- isn't that unfair to the senior who is completely in the dark about what the college is looking for? For all that senior knows, they may already not be under consideration for any # of arbitrary reasons or the waitlist may never be used. So to limit their chance to get in one of their top choice schools by writing only one letter seems foolish and unfair to the senior.

Students can write multiple letters, but they can't tell multiple schools that each school is their first choice and that they will definitely attend if admitted from the waitlist.  They can only write that statement to one school.  They can certainly write all the schools that they have been waitlisted at and are still interested in.  But, they would just say in that letter that the school remains one of their top choices.   They can write the same type of letter updating the school on what they are doing, how they would make an impact on campus, etc.  But they can only say to one school that they would definitely attend if they were admitted because the schools are going to take the student at his or her word. Also, we advise students that if you're not seriously interested in attending one of the schools you've been waitlisted at, then write that school and ask to be removed from the waitlist so the spot can go to someone else.

I applied to a competitive school early action and was deferred to the regular admission pool, then wait listed. I was so dissapointed I almost took myself off the wait list, but my high school counselor convinced me to stay on and write a letter to the admissions committee. For some reason that year the school had a much lower than normal rate of students accepting admission and they dipped into the wait list for the first time in five years and I was accepted. So moral of the story is stay on the wait list and write that letter, but be realistic that admissions from the wait list is completely dependent on the student acceptance rate.

Hey, that's really great news! A co-worker of mine still talks about how he barely got off the waitlist at an Ivy just months before school started -- he thinks it was all because of a heartfelt letter he wrote to the admissions staff and his dedication to staying on the list.

With that said... a lot of waitlisted students do not make it off the list. Earlier this week Dr Kat pointed out Penn, which plans to have a freshman class of 2,420 students -- and it has a waitlist of 2,400. So, it's very important to make sure that you have a back-up plan.

I have read in a few places that applicants should follow-up their campus tour with a handwritten thank you note. Do admissions officers actually read these? Is it even worth doing?

I always think writing a thank you note is the polite thing to do.  However, admissions officers are often more easily reached by email and emailing them will enable the admissions officer to email you back if he or she wants to engage in a diagloue.  Some schools say that they don't track your demonstrated interest, whereas other schools do.  The general rule is that the smaller the school, the more open they might be to receiving communication from students.  If you've met with someone, gone on a tour, or listened to an information session, I advise writing a brief  thank you note by email.

The student should decide this, not the parent. (1) It's the student who needs to fit, (2) learning to be self-sufficeint and making life choices is part of the college process.

Yes, the student ultimately needs to choose the place.  The only caveat is that the parent often is paying for the school, so the school should also be a good financial fit.  Parents and students need to have open conversations about what's going to be affordable for the family because students should be looking academic, social, and financial college fits. 

So true -- and yet right now I am working on an article about how parents have become so influential in the admissions process that some colleges have begun marketing straight to them with parents-only brochures, Web chats, open houses and even receptions with administrators.

Michelle Bartol, who is the dean of enrollment at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, put it this way when I talked with her last month:

A lot of parents say, "Oh, my little Johnny is going to pick where he goes." But who is picking the colleges he picks from? A lot of times the parents pick the category. They say, "Let's look at these colleges."

What do you guys think?

What do you think of American students heading abroad to study for four years? As long as the college has accreditation, are there any concerns?

I would say it depends on what the student is planning to study and whether the school is a good fit for that student.  We have students that look at universities in Canada and the UK and you can get some great educational value at certain schools outside of the US.

Yet again this year many colleges saw record numbers of applications. How are admissions offices handling all of these extra applications? Are they still giving each a proper read?

They are giving each a proper read and the workload has increased for some of these admissions officers.  I know that some schools, such as Princeton, have hired outside readers to help with the reading and evaluating.

Darling Child got into several colleges and doesn't want to attend in-state which is in the top 20 of the major and has other perks. Other colleges did not offer enough financial aid to make it work graduating with a minimum of $80k of debt after parents' contribution. Now DC wants to take out unsubsidized loans to attend out-of-state public for 4-5 years. Today's loans are mindboggling when trying to pay back and other parents are focusing on the student's choice. However, how do you let someone borrow money for a Lexus and be on the hook for paying for it for 10 years. Later on life happens and that may mean no retirement, vacation, cars, house, etc. for 4 years of "I like it there". Versus walking out with a degree and no debt. Help!

It all depends on what is the right fit for your student and your family.  Your student needs to look very specifically at the programs offered by each school and see which offers the better program for what your student wants to study.  But if the student is going to be unhappy in the local school, the student may not make the best of it,  might slack off, or might not be engaged.  What's most important is how a student engages with the professors, peers, and the campus community.  If your student is not interested in attending that school, he or she may not make the most of the experience, which ultimately makes the difference in his or her outcome.   If the student is not excited to go to a particular school, I wouldn't advise him or her to go there because they might not be compelled to take advantage of the opportunities they will have there.

My colleague Dan de Vise wrote an article late last year about U.S. students applying to colleges in the U.K. As he reported....

"The population of U.S. undergraduates at United Kingdom schools has spiked 30 percent in five years, to 3,560 in the 2008-09 academic year, the most recent figure available from Britain's Higher Education Statistics Agency. It's a trend driven by price, prestige and - in the case of St. Andrews - a prince."


If your child is waitlisted, do they get any type of priority for the next admissions class (winter or next fall? ) Is it worthwhile to enroll in a community college for a semester or two and reapply?

Not neccessarily.  If the school does not go to their waitlist, your child could re-apply but there's no guarantee that he or she will get in if he or she re-applies.  It might be better for your student to attend his or her next-choice school.

More of a comment than a question from someone in Admissions. As more applicants apply to more and more schools, it really shows on the applications. You cannot put the same effort into 25 (or more) applications that you can into a much smaller number and show genuine interest in the school/program and why the unique characteristics of that school/program are a good fit for you. Another pet peeve - this is not about collecting accepts, but finding a good program where you can excel. Thanks for letting me rant.

Totally, 100% agree.  Great comment.  We advise our students to apply to 10-12 colleges and to really make sure that every single one of those colleges is a great fit for that student.  The list is broken down into some reaches, some targets, and some likelies.  But ultimately, the student should feel some pang of disappointment if they don't get into any one of those schools.  Ideally they should all be top choices that the student knows well.

Some firms recruit solely from pre-selected universities, but how does that arrangement even happen? Do firms interact with those universities in such a way that they know what they are getting when they hire? I know MIT carries some weight. I attend a school that isn't MIT, but it ranks in the top 50. Still, the interviews are so frustrating, because there is this attitude of "we really don't want to hire from this school, but we are required to participate ..."

Well, quite often such decisions are driven by where the bosses went to school! But in many cases, recruiters are looking to find as many well-qualified applicants as possible by visiting as few schools as possible. That's especially true right now in an economy where many staffers have more responsibilities back at the office and there's less money to travel.

So, recruiters often zero in on the largest and highest-ranked programs in their fields. Last fall the WSJ did a college ranking based on recruiter favorites -- and huge state schools ranked much higher on the list than small liberal arts ones.

I have heard that in many states, a number of small- and medium-sized campuses will band together for job fairs so they can attract more recruiters.

Anyone out there have more insight?

I threw this question out on Twitter: "How involved should parents be in the college admissions process?"

And I heard back from @dr_nickiw who says: "they should be fully AWARE moreso than is imperative that parents are aware of this..too many aren't and it shows."

What do others think?

What kind of student should not go to college?

Anyone who has ever vodka eyeballed themselves should be barred from every college campus in America for being an idiot. I think this question should be added to the Common App.

Why do colleges even have waitlists -- especially when those lists stretch on and on with thousands of names. Is this just a nicer way of rejecting students?

Schools use the waitlist to help manage their yield - the number of accepted students who ultimately go on to enroll in that particular school.  In fact, more and more students are getting accepted off the waitlist.  The acceptance rate overall from waitlists was 34% last year, as opposed to 20% in 2005.  Schools need to have enough diverse applicants from which to choose, so if their soccer goalie says no, they have a few more soccer goalies on the waitlist and they can still build a diverse class.  But some schools put a ridiculous number of students on their waitlist and I don't agree with that policy.

Campus visits can be overwhelming -- so much to see, so much to do. Is there any thing that students should make sure to see (or ask about)?

They should definitely do both the information session and the tour, because that way they will hear the perspective from someone in admissions and a current student.  They should also take the time to see the facilities that they would be interetsed in utilizing themselves.  For example, if they like to go to the gym every week, check out the gym.  If they spend a lot of time doing research, visit the libraries and the labs on campus. 

Cautionary tale: My parent forced me to go to 'their' top choice for me, not mine. I was told this in April of my senior year in HS, so it much too late for me to start seriously saving. I went to this school and I didn't get much out of it. It's a school consistently in the top 5 liberal arts colleges, but it wasn't right for me. I did get my degree from a big name school, but I really don't feel any happiness for having gone there. Please, 80K in loans is wayyyy too much. You could see if your DC could defer a year and take some Community College classes to at least knock off a year of costly tuition. Or go to the state school and have the latitude to study abroad, take unpaid internships, volunteer, etc. Is your DC really prepared for almost $1,000 per month in loan repayments after graduation?

Yes, yes -- it's so easy to sit in a financial aid office and hear numbers fly around, it's not so easy to see how those monthly payments factor into your post-college life.

Personally, I went to an in-state school and graduated without any debt thanks to some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, my parents saving up for years, scholarships and constantly working. I got a great education, and am glad I don't have to write that check every month. (Especially since I'm going to have to pay for a $250 bridesmaid dress this month!)

It's different for everyone and every family. Higher ed is a huge investment, and you have to make sure that you have no regrets writing those checks.

Not a question- I guess I had not realized that times had changed that much since I went to college. I remember talking with my parents about schools I would like to attend. They were open to all my ideas and told me i could go any where i wanted but that they would only help pay if i stayed in-state. As we had lots of good schools in NC and they saw no reason to leave the state. At the end after looking at the money and the debt i would take on I choose to stay in state. I went to the perfect school for me and did not have to morgage my future or my parents future. It was a great lesson in being an adult and taking responsibilty for my decisions.

Thanks for sharing!

A random question: Both my and my husband's alma maters are reporting the lowest admission rates in years. They're both top schools, so the number of kids who apply each year is increasing, while each admitted classes stays about the same size. Is the increase in applications due to more kids applying, or is each individual student applying to more schools? When I applied (late 1990s), my school required handwritten application and essays. :/

I wonder if one of those schools was Brown?  Brown used to require handwritten essays and their admit rate dipped to just 8.7% this year.  Yes, students are applying to more schools and the Common Application makes it easier for them to apply.  Five years ago, our students were applying to 6-8 schools on average and now we advise them to apply to 10-12. But, we've heard of students applying to more than 30!

I would also recommend picking up a copy of the campus newspaper -- it will give you a feel for what happens on campus, what issues students care about, what concerts are happening that weekend, etc.

I see you encourage students that have been waitlisted to visit the campus. If I've already visited this campus in the fall, is it beneficial to do so again? If so, who should I look to speak with on campus, if anyone?

Unless the school specifically says not to visit again, then it might show further interest if you do a second visit before May 1.  If so, you should try to meet with the admissions representative who is responsible for reading applications from your high school.  Introduce yourself and re-affirm your reasons for wanting to attend that school.

Thanks for all of the great questions! I enjoyed chatting with you today and hope I've managed to ease some of the college admissions anxiety you may be feeling!


Wow, that hour flew by so quickly! Dr Kat -- thanks so much for taking time to answer questions today. And thanks to everyone who wrote in.

Next week we are planning to chat about dining halls and campus rec centers -- so make sure to stop by.

(I am off to do some reporting at the University of the District of Columbia -- which could potentially shutdown along with the government if the budget isn't passed. If you are on campus today, make sure to say hello.)

And good luck to everyone deciding where to attend college!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog " Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Katherine Cohen

Dr. Katherine Cohen (known as "Dr. Kat" to her students) is the founder and CEO of IvyWise, a comprehensive educational consulting company that works with students globally helping them find and apply to the schools that will be a good fit for them; she is also the co-founder and Co-CEO of ApplyWise, the first online university admissions counseling program, which provides expert advice and organizational tools to families.

Cohen graduated from Brown University and continued her studies at Yale University, receiving two Masters degrees and a PhD. She also received her certificate in College Admission Counseling from U.C.L.A. Extension. Prior to founding IvyWise, she served as a Reader in the Yale University Office of Admissions, evaluating applications to Yale College.

Cohen is a member of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the Independent Educational Counseling Association (IECA), the Overseas Association of College Admissions Counselors (OACAC), and the Western Association of College Admissions Counselors (WACAC).

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