Dealing with a “wait-list” society

As graduating high school seniors receive college responses, many find themselves wait-listed. The wait list has become a rite of passage; neither accepted nor rejected, “listers” are cast adrift in the college application process. Although, I suppose, it’s better than being informed you are “admissions challenged.” If they formed their own school, Wait Listed University would be the largest in the country.

A rejection is at least definitive, a disappointment that can be overcome. Listers are left hanging, not knowing if or when their top choice might accept them. At the mercy of the admissions process, many commit elsewhere for fear of being left out. Parents, too, are frustrated with the process. A friend, whose daughter was wait-listed and then rejected by a prominent college, was later solicited for a donation. After listening to the pitch, he said he would put the school on his wait list.

Imagine asking someone for a date (if there still are such things) and being told you are on the wait list. Before deciding, the object of your affections wants to be sure that someone more attractive isn’t also interested. In order to avoid the pain of outright rejection, political correctness may suggest that wait-listing is softer and more polite and so it may become the new rejection: “maybe” would replace “no.”

There is less drama in acceptance or rejection than there is in “maybe.” Uncertainty is a more valuable lesson about life’s unpredictability. It underscores the often-arbitrary circumstances that affect our lives. I applied to only one college, confident I would be accepted. Back in the 1950s, Boston College apparently accepted any graduate of BC High. If I applied today, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

Losing political candidates should be wait-listed in the event the winner dies or is disabled, or later decides he’s no longer interested. Unsuccessful job applicants would be wait-listed just in case the person selected changes his mind. Perhaps all college applications should be processed through a huge clearinghouse and the schools would then bid on prospective students, who would either accept or put the school on a wait list. Let them see how it feels for a change.

At birth, we’re all put on a wait list. You don’t have to apply or qualify; you’re automatically eligible. It has to do with mortality. At my age, I have moved considerably higher on that list. However, I’m in no hurry to be among the chosen. They appear by the thousands of them in obituaries every day. With every year I advance up the list, but remain quite willing to step aside if someone wants to get ahead of me.

This list is considerably different than that with which college applicants must contend. There, they have choices, and the delay makes their decisions more difficult. My list has few complications. It’s the matriculation and orientation I’m concerned with, assuming there is a place to be admitted. If not, I’ll skip the preliminaries and go directly to oblivion. Nothing happens there.

I’m a believer. I don’t know how or why, but I think there is another reality out there. If this existence is real, why can’t there be another? So life is a wait list, a preliminary or an end in itself. I sympathize with young listers as they struggle with their first big decision. We old-timers are looking at a shrinking horizon. There is not much future out there to embrace. But we remain hopeful that when we reach the end of the line, some of those that have gone before will be there to greet us. That result will have been worth the wait.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.