Some of our readers will soon find themselves on the Williams wait list.

Like jittery investors scrambling to hedge their bets, selective colleges and universities are placing far more applicants than usual on their waiting lists this spring as a safeguard against an unusually murky admissions season. But while the policy gives colleges some peace of mind, it plunges students into an admissions purgatory that could string out the stressful selection process for weeks to come.

Colleges have typically been able to estimate the percentage of accepted students who will enroll in the fall with a fair degree of confidence. This year, several factors have conspired to thwart their projections: a shaky economy, record numbers of applications, and sweeping financial aid expansions that make it harder to predict what colleges middle-class families will choose.

Faced with so many variables, colleges are wait-listing more students to fine-tune the numbers and makeup of their incoming freshman class. Lengthening the waiting list creates a crucial buffer of students in a year of deep uncertainty about how many will eventually show up, college officials say.

“It’s always tricky to predict, but this is probably the trickiest year yet, because the landscape has shifted so radically,” said Dick Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College.

For colleges, “it’s like picking the brackets in college basketball,” Nesbitt said. “You might think you’re being scientific, but then you get blindsided.”

Williams, which received more than 7,500 applications for a class of 538, will accept about 100 more students than last year, but will not significantly increase its waiting list beyond last year’s 500 students, Nesbitt said.


1) Newton North is the alma mater of Esther Mobley. Was that discussion only a year ago? Good times! Hope that Mobley likes Smith.

2) I think that, back in the day, the official story was that predicting acceptance levels was relatively easy. College officials had lots of experiences and things were mostly stable from year to year. I think that this was true then but that the world, as Nesbitt describes, is now a different place.

3) Five hundred seems like a huge number to me. Were the lists anywhere near that long five or ten years ago? There has been discussion in the past of ensuring that the College took enough students off the waitlist to ensure that people saw the list as “credible.”

4) I think that the ending of early admission at Harvard and Princeton is playing particular havoc with the Williams process. There are, literally, hundreds of students who, in past years, would have been accepted early by these schools and not bothered to apply to Williams who are now being considered by Nesbitt and Co. What are they to do? They would love for these students to come to Williams but don’t want to admit them all given the knowledge that they are very unlikely to accept. I suspect that this one of the reasons for the 100 extra acceptances. Williams would love to “steal” some of these students from Harvard/Princeton.

5) I heard a story last year that the valedictorian from Newton South was rejected by Williams while being accepted by Harvard. The implication was that Williams had rejected her, not because they did not want her but because they fully expected her to be accepted elsewhere and then to turn down Williams. I suspect that this is a real danger for Williams applicants with superb credentials who don’t give the College at least some hint that they really want to come. For example, if you live in Newton but never visit Williams, I’ll bet that your chances of getting in are much reduced.

6) The best way to think about this brave new world is that there are now three major waves of Williams admissions. First is early decision. If you really want to go to Williams and you are either poor or rich, then apply early. Your chances are, I think, much improved if you do (although there is some debate on this point). The only cost is less power in negotiating financial aid (but that only applies to “middle class” students) and the lost opportunity of applying elsewhere. Second is regular decision. The usual rules apply, but you are even more advised now than in the past to indicate to Williams that, if you are accepted, you will attend. How to do that is left as an reader exercise for the comment section. Third, and this is new, is the wait list. It seems that Williams and schools like it will be taking many more students off the wait list than they have in the past. I hope to do more reporting on this topic. Do we have any readers who came in off the wait list? Tell us about your experience.

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