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At that time of the year, graduate schools in the United States are notifying applicants that they have been placed on a wait list.

I read this email sent by a top-ranked University's computer science department:

Our Committee on Admissions has asked me to tell you that we have placed your application (along with about 50 others) on a "Wait List" for any openings which may occur. […] in the past several years we were only able to offer admission to only a few students who were on the "Wait List".

As a reference point, this University's department accept around 100 student every year.

What is the point of having a waitlist of size 50 while intending to eventually offer a position to only a few applicants?

  • 3
    Why don't you ask them? – aparente001 Mar 11 '18 at 2:17
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    It doesn't require any particular extra work to have a longer waitlist (just more rows in a spreadsheet somewhere), and conversely it is bad if the waitlist is not long enough. So it's clear that the incentive is to make it plenty long. – Nate Eldredge Mar 11 '18 at 4:38
  • @NateEldredge I assume it generates extra work (some wait-listed applicants will update their applications, check their status, ask questions ... some wait listed candidates will pressure the admissions committee to hurry up a decision b4 they make a commitment to another university), but in this case OP's top ranked university successfully passed some of that work on to StackOverflow. However, if it really did not require any extra work, the logical thing to do would be to accept some applicants and wait list everyone else. – emory Mar 13 '18 at 0:31
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In my experience, most members of admission committees usually agree on who the star applicants are, or which applicants are simply unqualified. However, there's a lot of disagreement in the middle, and it comes down to essentially arbitrary decisions among a sizable group of applicants who might or might not be admitted. This is a strong incentive to have a big wait list:

  1. It can function as a polite form of rejection, to minimize hurt feelings among applicants who genuinely might have been admitted under other circumstances.

  2. It plays the same role for admissions committee members. If someone is strongly in favor of a particular candidate but there isn't a consensus for admission, adding them to the wait list can be a good compromise. Insisting on rejecting them outright just leads to pointless arguments.

This role as a sort of "honorable mention" is essentially independent of the chances of admission from the wait list. However, having a large wait list can have important practical benefits even if there's no chance of admitting more than a few people from the list. The key insight is that the list isn't necessarily rank ordered, with the first few candidates likely to be admitted but the fiftieth having almost no chance. Instead, who is admitted may depend on the department's needs, based on which of the previous admissions decisions were accepted. For example, it may take into account the representation of different subfields in the entering class. From this perspective, a 50-person wait list may effectively amount to 10 different 5-person wait lists, with no one knowing in advance which of the smaller lists will end up being used.

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    Also, the sizes of the waitlists are probably also reflective of the actual matriculation rate in previous years, ie. they don't fill their waitlists with people they wouldn't admit anyway. – Alex Reinking Mar 12 '18 at 9:05
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The wait list might simply be a list of all the applicants who were considered reasonable candidates (i.e., could probably succeed in this program if admitted) but were not ranked highly enough to be admitted yet. The fact that only a few wait-listed students were admitted in the last few years doesn't mean that the department can count on that being the case again this year.

Anecdote from about 20 years ago, when I was in charge of graduate admissions for my department: We had applied to the (U.S.) Department of Education for fellowship support for a rather large number of graduate students. We were awarded that grant, so a lot of students who would otherwise be teaching (either recitation sections or their own sections of freshman courses) not only could but must be given fellowship support instead --- "must" because the grant money came with the requirement that it be distributed immediately. Unfortunately, we were notified of the grant in August, with fall-term classes about to start in September. So we suddenly needed a lot more teachers. I started checking which of our reasonable-but-not-admitted candidates might still be available, while other department administrators started looking for possible visiting faculty. That year, I would have been very pleased to have a big wait list. (The problem was alleviated somewhat, because we had assumed earlier that we'd get at least a small grant from the Department of Education, so we had admitted a few more students than usual, but of course we couldn't admit a lot of extra students and risk not having funding for them.)

18

To answer this question statistically we need to know what is the chance that a person on the wait list would accept the position if they were offered it. Your question seem to imply that the chance is large, which may be true if the position were offered fast enough. However, if administrative delays are significant, most candidates from the waiting list are likely to accept offers elsewhere (or die of old age before receiving the offer), and the chances of acceptance are small. From the size of the waiting list, I assume the chances of acceptance are about 2%.

Or it may be just a random number invented from the blue sky by an admission officer who has a lot of other important things to do this day.

  • Thanks. The chance that a person on the wait list would accept the position if they were offered is >50%. – Franck Dernoncourt Mar 10 '18 at 20:36
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    @FranckDernoncourt how do you know that? I assume that most grad school applicants will apply to many schools and the yield of accepted students is less than 50% - even at top schools. Why would wait listed students behave differently? ... because wait-listing forces them to make alternative plans which (1) they might either prefer (eg school b is actually better than school a); or (2) which they become committed to (eg sign a hard to get out of lease before being moved off the wait list) – emory Mar 11 '18 at 1:42
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    Basically, the only way you’re likely to get somebody off the waitlist is if (1) it was the student’s top choice all along or (2) the student hadn’t finalized plans for the following year when the offer from the waitlist comes. – aeismail Mar 12 '18 at 14:24
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Adding to the other good answers: there is also a genuine issue of "limited capacity" of mentoring/advising in various specialties within a "subject". I'm thinking of mathematics, for example. As an extreme case, if an applicant has a very strong record, but is ardently interested in a specialty in which absolutely no faculty in our department have interest, would it be good to admit the candidate? More usually, there is a question of having enough faculty in topic X to advise students interested in X. If we're already fully booked, the qualifications of further candidates (expressing ardent interest in X) are perhaps not the primary issue. That is, strong students without (effective) advisors are in trouble, usually, even if they are willing to try to "go it alone".

Also, there is usually a limit of Teaching Assistant funding, and in mathematics the vast majority of grad students are funded by TA-ships. If we have more excellent applicants, that does not mean that we get more TA funding. Limited capacity, again.

EDIT: to be clear, then, a big reason to have a large "waiting list" is that not all (well-qualified) applicants are interchangeable (dues to interests...), and, at the same time, we cannot admit all well-qualified applicants.

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    if an applicant has a very strong record, but is ardently interested in a specialty in which absolutely no faculty in our department have interest, would it be good to admit the candidate? — NO! This is not an argument for putting someone on a waiting list; this is an argument for rejection. – JeffE Mar 12 '18 at 2:54
  • @JeffE, perhaps, but, on the other hand, although I'd not want to second-guess peoples' avowed interests, to outright "reject" seems rather strong. Not to mention that people have been known to change their minds, upon acquisition of more information. – paul garrett Mar 12 '18 at 11:52
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The wait list is not there for the convenience of the students; it's there for the convenience of the institution. Universities know that some of the students they admit will turn them down. It happens everywhere - Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, West Bumstumble Tech - all of them get turned down. That's why they have a "wait list" - a collection of acceptable-but-not-their-top-choice students who they'll offer those "turned down" slots to. And those students who are wait-listed may be told "You pay full price - still want the slot?", so if they decide to attend they may actually be more profitable to the institution that an "early" or "regular" admit who will be offered more financial aid. An unfilled slot is money they don't get, so at most institutions there's a strong incentive to fill every slot. The wait list will be kept larger than the number of unfilled slots they believe they'll have, because the percentage of rejections from wait-listed students is higher than the rejection percentage from early and regular admits.

2

There's another purpose and that's the role that professors have in pulling strings to get people pulled off a wait list. If a professor knows one of the waitlisted candidates personally and knows that the candidate would be a good fit, he or she can call the admission office and get that person admitted if space permits, regardless of where that person lies on the list.

The other reasons about subspecialties are true as well.

Bottom line is - if there's 50 people on the waitlist it is surely not a top-to-bottom queue.

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In addition to the other answers, I would add that the wait-list sends more of a "try again next year" than an outright rejection does. These are often candidates who didn't make the "admitted" list in large part due to attributes of the applicant pool outside their control, prediction, or knowledge. The applicant might make it on to the "admitted" list with an application the following year which is similar (and maybe improved a bit depending on what the applicant does in that year).

Since the school's rating depends in part on acceptance rate, it is beneficial to the schools to encourage more applications, especially from candidates they think would be qualified to come even if those candidates don't make it to the top of the stack for any one specific year.

I have seen candidates who in the first year of applications did not get accepted to anywhere they wanted to go, but did get waitlisted at more than one. After a year of additional experience and probably a stronger effort in preparing the application materials, in at least one case the applicant got multiple offers of admission and matriculated at a top choice school.

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