Why you should get off that wait list now

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY I received an email recently from a teenager who desperately wants to attend the University of Notre Dame in the fall.

There's just one problem: Her dream school has waitlisted her. She asked me what she could do to boost her chances of getting off the wait list.

Here's my advice: Move on and forget about Notre Dame. The school doesn't need you.

In today's college environment, getting put on a wait list is a polite way of outright rejecting a student. It sounds more impressive to explain that you've been waitlisted, but few teenagers get off of these lists at elite schools like Notre Dame.

Notre Dame wait list
According to wait list figures that I pulled off the College Board website, Notre Dame offered 1,893 applicants a place on its wait list last year. That number represents almost as many students in the eventual freshman class (2,020). More than half of the spurned students (951) ended up accepting a spot on the wait list.

Guess how many students who were offered a wait list spot ended up getting admitted to the prestigious Catholic university? Just seven. That pencils out to an acceptance rate of .3%. In contrast, the institution's regular acceptance rate was 24%.

Why do schools like Notre Dame, Duke, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Lehigh, Penn, Carnegie Mellon, Yale and many other highly selective schools mislead students with huge wait lists? Because they can treat students poorly and there will be no consequences. Insane wait lists won't prevent teenagers from applying in the future.

What's with monster wait lists?
Of course, that lead to this question: Why do these schools assemble monstrous wait lists when they might only take one or dozen students -- or less. Wait lists are a form of insurance. Institutions use statistical modeling to predict how many applicants will end up attending. If their projections are wrong, a wait list can bail them out. None of these schools, however, need to compile wait lists that contain thousands of students.

The financial price of waitlisting
Students who do beat the odds and get off wait lists can end up getting ripped off financially. Plenty of schools that brag about their great financial aid practices turn into scrooges when they start selecting students off their lists. Wait list survivors shouldn't be surprised if their financial aid packages are stuffed with loans. The wait-listed freshman, who require financial aid, often get treated shabbily.

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