Waiting List Cry Babies: Stop the Tears

I have been reading the annual sob stories from students who are stuck on waiting lists at the nation’s snobbiest schools. These are the colleges and universities that reject almost everyone.

The students on these waiting lists, which can contain 1,000 or more names, complain mightily about being stuck in limbo. They can’t psychologically get on with their lives until they receive a final verdict.

I wish I could feel sorry for the teenagers on these waiting lists, but I can’t. Frankly, I just roll my eyes.

Students who apply to Ivy League schools and a few dozen other mostly private schools should expect to get rejected or put on waiting lists, which in the vast majority of cases is the equivalent of being turned away.

What amazes me is how many students are stunned when they get spurned from Harvard, Yale, Amherst and Duke.  Just because a student sacrificed her teenage years to get into these schools doesn’t mean they will.

A tiny sliver of teens in this country will kill themselves by taking five AP classes a semester and volunteering 20 hours a week at a strategically selected charity, while somehow managing to be the captain of a varsity team at their high school. Exhausted after 3 1/2 years of high school, they emerge in the top 5% of their class or higher with a raft of academic awards. Having spent their high school years being sleep deprived, anxious and successful, they expect that they will capture the golden ticket into at least one of these exclusive schools if they churn out enough applications.  Surely they will strike gold if they apply to 15 to 20 schools!

But guess what? Other teenagers, who are blinded by the same prestige bug, have been willing to sacrifice their sanity and circadian rhythm to get into the same exclusive clubs.  While 79% of high school students get into their first-choice colleges, there are no guarantees with the few dozen most exclusive ones.

Waiting List Folly

Do 17-year-olds really know much about these schools beyond their exclusivity? I am stunned that so many students apply to these schools before they have even visited. Can they check any of the following boxes:

  • What do they know about the academic departments of their intended majors?
  • Have they talked to a professor?
  • Have they sat in on a class?
  • Have they button-holed students on campus to ask what they like and dislike?
  • Do they know whether teaching assistants are used and anything about the average class sizes.
  • Are the classes small enough for Socratic seminars and is there opportunity for collaboration with other students? Or are the beginning-level classes — and perhaps even the upper-division classes — lecture style?
  • What about undergraduate research?
  • Do students know professors well enough at this school so they can leave with recommendations?

When teenagers don’t know the answers to basic questions like these, why do they think their life will be over if they don’t get off a waiting list?

If you believe that you will not enjoy a great career, you won’t make a lot of money and you won’t meet people worth networking with if you don’t attend a tiny number of the nation’s snobbiest four-year colleges and universities, then I think you aren’t as smart as you think.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow me on Twitter.

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