Philosopher Tim O'Keefe (Georgia State) writes:
I’d like to speak up against having “secret” or “hidden” waitlists, as the practice has been described to me by applicants to graduate programs. (Those are their names for what’s going on.) Basically, programs accept, waitlist, and reject a bunch of applicants, but there is still a group of people in limbo, hearing no word about the status of their application for a long time. In at least in some cases, programs are using this group of applicants as a sort of backup, informal “hidden” waitlist—applicants who have a very low chance of ultimately getting in, but who are being held in reserve just in case they end up being needed. (That this is what is going on is confirmed by word from some departments after they’re contacted by applicants asking what’s up.)
I think that this is a really crappy way of treating applicants. They deserve to know in a timely manner what’s going on with their applications so that they can start making informed decisions about what they’ll be doing for next year, and being kept in limbo when a bunch of decisions from a program have been released sparks a lot of anxiety. It also jams up the overall admissions process as people can’t start accepting offers when they don’t know what’s up, and they have to contact departments individually to try to find out where they stand.
I can’t think of any good reason to do this, but maybe I’m missing something, and I’d be curious to hear from departments that do this what their reasons are. (Or more generally, reasons for not informing people of their status fairly soon - within a couple of weeks - after making their initial round of acceptances.) Why not just decide on a reasonable size for the WL pool, based on past admission seasons and factoring in how uncertain things are, and then put that number of people on the WL and formally reject everybody else? Or if people think they need a backup pool, then go ahead and explicitly inform people that that’s where they stand. Say something like the following: “We are not formally denying you admission at this time, and if an unexpectedly high proportion of people we admit (including people currently on our waitlist) turn us down, there is a possibility we’ll offer you admission. However, the chances of this happening are fairly low.” Obviously, this wouldn’t be the most welcome news to most applicants, but they’d greatly prefer hearing it than simply being kept in limbo with no word. And I don’t see the benefit to the graduate programs either in keeping people in the dark, rather than letting people know where they stand.
Thoughts from readers?