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Get out of the game: the growing use of wait lists is one application of game theory that is going awry. (The Admissions Angle).

It's happening again this year--only more frequently: Qualified college applicants keep finding themselves wait-listed.

Take Jessica and Tom, for instance: Both are excellent students; each applied to eight colleges. Yes, they had varying degrees of genuine interest in attending each school. Yet they were confused and dismayed when they discovered that though they had been accepted by two or three competitive colleges, they were offered only wait-list status at several schools where their individual profiles put them in the top or middle segment of the applicant pool. What's going on? they wondered.

Perhaps game theory (immortalized by Sylvia Nasar's book, A Beautiful Mind, about Nobel Prize winner John Nash) is at play here. In game theory, agents make decisions as strategic reactions to other agents' actions, instead of solely to the issue or force at hand. The growing use of the wait list by many selective colleges is looking a good deal like this to us: a blatant effort to better the odds of increasing one institution's gain, to the disadvantage of its competitors. The truth is, admissions committees are diligent in their application of strategies to maximize gains and minimize losses in the admissions process--and those efforts are usually all but transparent to school counselors and families. It's game theory, yes, but this is one application of game theory that is going awry.

Certainly, we understand the traditional rationale for holding some qualified applicants in reserve each year: The current culture of competition means that qualified high school seniors must submit applications to multiple institutions. And high college costs mean that over half of all students need to receive financial aid if they are to enroll. Understandably, it is difficult for admissions staffs to reliably predict their yield. The historic patterns they might have relied upon have now become trends of the past that do not necessarily speak to today's volatile admissions marketplace. It makes sense for each institution to protect itself from the multiple-application scenario by creating a list of qualified and appealing candidates to whom they can turn if they misjudge their expected yield from the accepted pool of applicants.


What we are speaking about, however, is a relatively new admissions strategy that serves mainly the self-interest of the institution. It is the practice of wait-listing a huge cohort of highly qualified applicants who (the school perceives) have not necessarily demonstrated the interest in and commitment to the individual college. The irony is that students with outstanding grades and high test scores can be wait-listed by colleges that actually do appeal to them. That's because, for the sake of predicting higher yield, those colleges have convinced themselves that these students are not likely to enroll. Here's the greater irony: If a student does not gain admission to the most selective schools to which she is applying (those schools that are able to perceive her genuine interest in the institution, but choose not to accept her for other reasons), then she may be left with no options at all This is especially true--and tragic--because many colleges with extensive wait lists often admit few, if any, students from the roster.


Regardless of the true potential for a student to be admitted in May or thereafter, the wait-list letter often amounts to a thinly veiled plea to "put your money where your mouth is." Translated, it says: "We will put you on hold and keep you there unless you demonstrate a true commitment to our college." Is this Early Decision Round III? Maybe.

Under the rules of the new admissions game theory, what are the indicators that lead admissions personnel to wait-list a qualified candidate? It appears they are:

* Failure to visit the campus during the application season

* Lack of on-campus interview (if offered), or interview with alumni in the home region

* Applying by Internet and/or using the Common Application

* An academic grade-point average and/or test scores that are well above the average of the traditional applicant pool

* Preference for academic disciplines that are not necessarily a main feature of the college

* Not applying early decision

* Enrollment in a public or private high school that has not had many applicants in recent years, or which has had applicants who have been accepted but have decided not to attend

* Geographic location that is out of the traditional recruiting area of the college

Many of these factors are obviously counterintuitive and go against prevailing notions of what makes for successful college admissions.


Yes, admissions offices are utilizing every indicator they can to increase the yield of accepted candidates and the predictability of that yield, And yes, this helps to control the incoming class size and create an image of ever-greater selectivity. But there are multiple problems with this approach:

One--Many students see a wait list as either a polite form of rejection, or a "teaser" from a second-choice school that does not recognize a student's talents or interest.

Two--The college application process is so fraught with anxiety and vulnerability for high school students that the very thought of dragging out the admissions process for one or more months is abhorrent to most of them.

Three--The odds are that the admissions committee has actually misinterpreted the applicant's level of interest in their college, and that individual's likelihood of attending. In other words, the indicators used to gauge that interest can be misleading. For example:

* Many accomplished students are unable to visit the campus because of their commitment to their studies and their activities.

In addition, students may not be able to afford the cost of visiting some or al of the colleges they are considering, and may need to wait until they are certain they have been accepted.

* Alumni volunteers are (sorry to say) not always reliable; every year, far too many applicants complain that they were never contacted by an alumni representative in their home area.

* Students tend to follow college instructions conscientiously, an thus will apply by one of the various means made available to them (e.g., common application or Internet) relying on college assurances that such applications are viewed equally to hardcopy applications.

* Students may be rejected by their "reach" schools, and may become very exciting candidates for somewhat less selective colleges.

* Candidates' interest and potential to attend can be misinterpreted, which means losing strong academic students, and perhaps full-paying students or others who would add to the diversity of the college.

Conclusion: Focus on the yield number distracts from awareness of other "numbers" that are important to colleges.

Four--One institution's admissions committee simply cannot forecast which other colleges will accept a particular candidate. a Each college has its own peculiar mix of applicants and will evaluate them in comparison with one another and try to determine what special goals they have set for the upcoming year's class. The mix of legacies, non-traditional students, athletes, artists, and internationals will vary annually, and the renderings of the institution may vary in kind. This year's admissions fallout proves the point: High school seniors experienced a highly mixed pattern of acceptances and rejections to relatively comparable selective institutions.

Five--(And perhaps most significantly) we are dealing with adolescents who are able--okay, likely--to change their opinion and perspectives dramatically between the beginning of their senior year in high school and the spring of that year. By spring, many are more mature. And many, many students experience a complete turnaround about the kind of college they prefer, in the months following their initial inclinations.

Simply put, a college or university seeking interesting, talented students should not make a mathematical, theoretically based determination to put so many appealing candidates on hold. Rather, it should accept them outfight and then undertake its best efforts to inform the students about the distinctive advantages the school has to offer. This is, in the long run, the effective and honorable way to help students make the decision a college hopes for. Under the present gamesmanship, good colleges are losing individuals they would want to have as members of their community. They are also leaving many with a lasting negative feeling about their institution.


Clearly, many colleges have been drawn to binding early decision programs to seek out maximally interested students and improve yield numbers and forecasting ability. But early decision has its own flaws and unintended consequences. Non-binding early action and rolling admissions programs offer a better way for students to indicate early preparation for and interest in a college. Applicants learn early in the year that they have been accepted or rejected and thus can be confident about making a commitment to that school when they are ready, or, if rejected, can apply to a more realistic group of colleges.

In addition, as colleges receive enrollment deposits from accepted students under an early action or rolling plan, they can then more effectively begin to forecast their yield and freshman class size, while continuing to accept qualified students through the year. Early action and rolling admissions are game theories that work; wait-listing is a game gone bad.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene, independent education consultants (, are the authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning.
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Author:Greene, Matthew
Publication:University Business
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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