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Is it Ethical for Colleges to Use Extended Waitlists?

An extended stay. Extended warranty. Extended sale. It all sounds good to me. But what about the "extended waitlist" that many colleges use throughout the summer? Is it a good thing too?

It all depends on one's perspective. Some students feel like they are getting strung along for months on end by the college of their dreams. Others would wait as long as they have to if it means a chance to be admitted off of the college's waitlist.
Here's everything you need to know about the extended waitlist:
The extended waitlist is a much smaller group of students from the college's original waitlist, which is often thousands of students deep. This smaller group is handpicked for the chance of being admitted sometime over the summer after the original waitlist is discontinued around June 1st. Just like with the original waitlist, the college will ask this smaller group of students if they want to remain on the extended waitlist. The college will only want serious students on the extended waitlist as they hope for a 100% yield (meaning that if admitted, they will enroll) on these students this late in the process. The extended waitlist is used to fill open spaces in the freshman class that become available due to "summer melt."
Summer melt happens at every college in the country. Whether it is just a handful of students or more, the college expects that not everyone who submitted an enrollment deposit will ultimately enroll. This usually occurs because some students "double-deposit" (even though this is forbidden) and decide to attend another college. 
When I was an admissions dean, I looked at historical data on summer melt and how many students decided not to enroll each year. This influenced our admissions model, and helped us to determine how many students we admitted and how many students we anticipated enrolling to avoid an extended waitlist. However, some colleges insist on using an extended waitlist. Small and large institutions like Haverford College and Georgetown University have invited certain students to stay on their extended waitlist in the last few weeks. It is an intentional choice that colleges make.  
If students are given an opportunity to be a part of a college's extended waitlist, they need to be aware that there is no guarantee of admission. I recommend that if a student decides to stay on a college's extended waitlist, they do it and forget about it—unless the college reaches out to admit them. This is the only way a student can start to invest in the college that admitted them in the traditional admissions cycle. Students need to pick roommates and classes this summer. It is hard to do that knowing that there is a possibility all of that could be left behind if they get a late acceptance. 

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Extended waitlists are a strategy that colleges use to keep students engaged and interested just in case there's more summer melt than expected. It is a reminder that colleges have a bottom line: to fill every spot in the freshman class. I just beg these colleges not to extend this uncertainty much longer. Students need to know where their home is in the fall. A home is a place that nurtures, supports, and welcomes those who live there. Let's focus on doing that for our students.