05/13/2008 03:01 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Truth About Getting In....Off the Elusive Ivy League Wait List

In early April, some of the most intelligent, well-accomplished and confident high school seniors were placed in college admissions purgatory: they had received a cryptic waitlist letter from the Ivy League school of their choice. For the next several weeks, they lived in college admissions limbo -- would they get in or should they move on?

After last week's headline in the New York Times proclaiming that "Top Colleges Dig Deeper in Wait Lists for Students," my Blackberry, home and office phone were ringing off the hook. Students (and, consequently, parents) stuck in this limbo believed their prayers were answered.

It was then my job to calm them down and give them a dose of reality. It's no surprise that the Ivy League and other highly selective colleges use their waitlists. No college has a 100% yield. Predicting the decision patterns of fickle teenagers is far from an exact science. As desirable as Harvard is, only 79% of the students they accept say "yes" to them (known as "yield" in the business). By the way, did you know that Brigham Young University produces a comparable yield? Not to my surprise, West Point (83%) and the Naval Academy (81%) have the highest yield of any college.

Admissions deans know this and must carefully control how many students are admitted and who will be enrolling. Colleges have to manage their yield almost as carefully as the airlines. You can imagine the problems Amherst (38% yield) would have if it had an extra 100 first year students added to its incoming class of 450. How would the college maintain its small classes? Where would these extra freshmen even sleep?

Although the article gave some hope to students, some of them now have unrealistic expectations. Although the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) estimates that a student's chances of being accepted from a waitlist is roughly one in five, this varies from college to college, and the harsh reality is that being selected from an Ivy League waitlist is usually less likely than being admitted regular decision. For example, Princeton (69% yield) will select about 90 students from a waitlist of about 1,800 students. This 5% admit rate is about half that of this year's record-low admit rate of 9.25%. Also this year, like every other year, some colleges may not take anyone from their often thousands-of-students-long waitlist, diminishing a student's chances to zero percent!

This year, the anxiety is further fueled by the unpredictable nature of two forces. First, this year was unusual for high school seniors because Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia have eliminated their early admission programs. So, several highly selective colleges accepted fewer students than usual with the knowledge that some of their admitted students would rather study in Cambridge or Charlottesville. Second, the system for selecting students off the waitlist is nearly as mysterious as the method used in determining Nobel Prize winners. In my experience, colleges will use the waitlists to round out their classes. For example, if Brown's prospective soccer goalie, star physicist, or published poet did not enroll, they will look for alternates from the waitlist. Did Stanford (with a 67% yield) matriculate the tuba player from Iowa? If not, they will look on the waitlist for a brass player from the Midwest to take the spot.

Here is where my counseling comes in. I advise students to identify their strengths and interests -- both academic and extracurricular -- early on in high school. To drill down deeply into few areas and not to spread themselves too thin. It's better to be a specialist than a "serial joiner." The bright well-rounded student will usually get lost in a waitlist -- unless his or her residency helps enhance a college's geographic diversity.

When it comes to applying, I advise my students to make sure that all their colleges are great matches. These days, it is hard to gain admission to most selective colleges, not just Ivy League institutions.

Of course, a few students will be admitted off the waitlist. If you are one of the lucky few, congratulations. If not, be happy with your other choices. Getting into college (and off the waitlist) means that you've done your job in finding a school that is right for you. College is what you make of it -- and that's the sincere truth about the college admissions process.