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Move over ED and RD: It's Late Decision Time Now

It's getting late in senior year, and it's crunch time! Not for those seniors who (like almost all of my students) deposited at their top choice institution by May 1. Those students are winding down, thinking about Prom and maybe the beach, looking forward to the last summer tethered to their childhoods.

But for the high school seniors who deposited at a lesser-choice institution, who are crossing their fingers, hoping to get in off the wait list?

Welcome to Late Decision season!

Early admission options offered in the fall have received plenty of press in recent years, fueling arguments about acceptance rates (higher), opportunities for lower-income applicants (lower) and possible antitrust activity (according to the Department of Justice).

But that season of Early Decision, Early Action, Single Choice Early Action and Restricted Early Action is long gone. It was replaced in February by Regular Decision season. First students waited anxiously to learn their fate, and then began a frenzy of activity in late March and April to examine their options. With students applying to more and more colleges, seniors often contend with more and more offers, all of which have a universal reply date of May 1.

So Happy May 1, and the beginning of the round three: Late Decision. Make no mistake, this round is just as important -- for colleges and universities -- as Early Decision and Regular Decision.

To understand why this would be, think about two key factors in calculating the all-important rankings in U.S. News. These factors are Selectivity and Yield.

Selectivity measures how many applicants are offered admission, divided by the number of applications received. Colleges and universities almost all seek to make that fraction smaller. There are two ways to do this: increase the denominator or decrease the numerator. We all know how hard colleges work each cycle to generate more applications, using advertising, internet buzz, high school visits, "express" applications, etc. They try as hard as they can, right up until their application deadline, to get as many applications in the door as possible.

But how can a college shrink the numerator -- that is, offer admission to fewer applicants? Institutions have to admit enough students to bring in a class that meets their revenue goals, while filling its dorms, sports teams and array of majors. Each college wants to make the fewest offers of admission that will still produce enough paying customers to reach their goals.

Which leads to the second main factor involved in Late Decision season: Yield. Yield represents the number of applicants accepting offers of admission divided by the number offered admission -- and it directly relates to selectivity. Harvard University last year boasted a yield of 83%. This allowed Harvard to admit just 2,037 students to bring in a class of 1,687 students. That low number of acceptances (numerator) in relation to its 39,506 applications (denominator) resulted in an admit rate of 5.2% -- making it very selective indeed! Harvard University's high yield helped lower its rate of admission because it could confidently shrink the numerator of the selectivity fraction.

In contrast, Georgetown University's yield rate is closer to 50%. It therefore needs to accept two applicants for every seat in its freshman class. Last year, Georgetown accepted 3,313 applicants (out of a pool of 21,465), and the resulting admit rate was an impressive 15.4%. But with a higher yield -- say, 60% -- the university could have accepted just 2,705 students, and achieved an admit rate closer to 12% and Ivy League territory.

While colleges can increase their number of applications (the denominator) during the Early and Regular rounds, that number is fixed by Late Decision time. By then, colleges can only work on the numerator to improve their selectivity. They need to find a way to increase the yield on offers of admission, so that they can send out fewer acceptance letters.

Enter the wait list. Colleges used to use wait list primarily as a back-up plan, in case yield was lower than anticipated. But in the last few years it appears colleges are also using the wait list to increase their overall yield. Compared with a Regular Decision round, in which a typical college might have to accept three or four students to get one to enroll, that same college will hope to get closer to 100% yield off the wait list.

This presents an opportunity for the wait listed student. Clearly these applicants have a better chance if they can convince the admissions office that they WILL enroll if offered a spot. Some things the student can do:

  • Tell them you will enroll. Send a letter to your admissions rep, restating your interest. If you have extra information to include (such as additional awards or activities), that's fine. The key, though, is to communicate that Dream School is your first choice.

  • Don't expect financial aid. Most colleges are quite clear that they are "need aware" in choosing from the wait list. There may be some merit money and financial aid freed up when other students decline, but not much. If you have not applied for financial aid, you might include that fact in your e-mail to the admissions office.

  • Remain accessible by phone. Often a wait listed student will receive a call from Dream School's admissions office: "If we were to make you an offer from the wait list, would you enroll?" Do you think that student would receive a formal offer if he or she said "No"? Be ready for that conversation, and be ready to say "Yes"!

If you want the best chance to avoid wait list anxiety, work with me from the beginning to craft a compelling application. Click the "Contact Me" button below, or call me at 847-660-8625, to get started.

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