Oberlin Blogs

Demystifying the Waitlist

April 30, 2009

Elizabeth Houston ’06

As soon as admissions decision letters go out, our phones start ringing. These calls range from the sad ("but WHY didn't I get in?") to the tentatively hopeful ("Oberlin is great, but can I please have more money?") to the elated ("I'm so excited! How do I register for All Roads?"). Quite a few of these calls, however, come from students (or affiliated parents) trying to make sense of what it means to be offered a spot on the waitlist. To save you a phone call, I'd like to shed some light on the subject by answering some of our most frequently asked questions about the waiting list.

(For those of you who may be waitlisted at other schools, please keep in mind that every school handles their waitlists differently, and this information is all specific to Oberlin's waitlist.)

Why is there a waitlist?

First things first--why can't we just make "accept" or "reject" decisions on all applicants? Why are we prolonging the agony?

Well, the fact of the matter is, deciding how many students to admit involves a complicated process that doesn't produce perfect results. Sure, we know how many students we would like to enroll in the incoming class, but we can't just admit exactly that number, because we know that some will choose to go elsewhere. Quite a bit of statistical analysis and educated guesswork goes into determining the optimal number of students to admit in order to meet our enrollment target, but we know that we won't be exactly right. Since having too many students enroll can cause some pretty big problems on campus (think students living in dorm lounges), we make those numbers slightly conservative and expect to fill the final slots off of the waitlist.

Why am I on the waitlist?

The number of applications to Oberlin has been steadily increasing every year, but the number of positions available in the incoming class has remained constant. Because of this, we simply do not have enough spaces available to grant admission to all qualified applicants. If we offer you a position on the waitlist, it means that we think you would do fine at Oberlin, but that we're not sure we'll have space for you in the incoming class.
Obviously, it also means that there were lots of other people with applications that stood out more to us than yours did, but we won't be able to point to a single deficient part of your application as a reason for not offering you admission. Because we use a holistic review process, and your application is read by two different people and then discussed by an entire committee, we're simply unable to replicate the entire decision-making process when you call us up and ask, "So why wasn't I admitted?"

How does the waitlist work?

To remain on the waitlist, you must return the card stating that you wish to accept a spot on the waitlist. Otherwise, we will assume that you are satisfied with your other college options. We have an unranked waitlist, which means that you won't be first or fifth or seventy-eighth in line for a spot in the class. As positions become available, we re-evaluate the entire pool of applicants remaining on the waitlist to fill those positions. We will begin making decisions on waitlisted students shortly after the May 1st reply deadline, and will continue to do so throughout May and June.

What can I do to stand out?

You are welcome, but are not required, to submit supplementary materials to help your application stand out in the re-evaluation process. Common items include personal statements describing how awesome you are and how much you want to come to Oberlin, and additional recommendation letters. If you already sent us five recommendation letters, please don't send us another, but sometimes an additional recommendation or two can be helpful, especially if they are from people who know you from different settings (ie, work/community service supervisor, etc).

We have also received things like artwork, newspaper clippings, cookies, envelopes full of broken glass (true story, something broke in transit!)... We're not susceptible to bribes, but we do like to know if you're really very interested in attending Oberlin.

What are my chances of getting in?

Sorry, but we don't really know. The whole purpose of the waitlist is to correct for unforeseen variables, so if we were clever enough to know how many students we would take off the waitlist, then we wouldn't need one. The number of students on the waitlist and the number of spots available will all depend on how many accepted students choose to enroll, and how many waitlisted students choose to remain on the waitlist. Since you don't have to mail in your responses until May 1st, we won't have a good idea of how many people we can accept off the waitlist until about week after that. Even after all the intent-to-enroll cards are in, there will still be some fluctuation in availability, as some of our enrolled students will be accepted off of waitlists at other colleges, defer their enrollment for a year, or otherwise change their plans.

But don't you secretly kind of know?

Well, sort of. We do know how many people have enrolled or accepted spots on the waitlist so far, and we can compare that to how many we had in previous years, and project what will happen with the final numbers. But our projections could easily be wrong, and we would rather not say anything than tell you something that ends up being inaccurate. This year, without knowing how the economic uncertainty will affect our enrollment, we are being particularly careful to not count our chickens before they send in deposits. In the past six years, we have accepted anywhere from less than ten to more than 100 students off the waitlist, out of a pool of 200-600, with a significant variation in both numbers each year. The only number that has remained fairly consistent is the number of letters we send out offering positions on the waitlist. So, yeah, we may know a bit more than you do, but we are still far from certain.

Sorry, but the truth behind the waitlist is that you really do just have to wait!

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