There are very few universal truths about the waiting list. But, there are two general types: traditional and progressive.
Some schools use the waiting list in what I consider to be a traditional sense. That is – they try to enroll the class perfectly. If they want 1,000 students and the expected yield is 25%, they will admit 4,000 students. If they go to the waiting list it is because actual yield was lower than expected yield. There are still many well-known universities that use the waiting list in this manner. Often, these are the schools that take 4 out of 4,500 students they put on the wait list.
Other schools use the waiting list in what I consider to be a bit more progressive (from an enrollment management perspective). That is, they purposely under enroll the class. If they want 1,000 students and the expected yield is 25%, they might admit 3,500 students and expect to under enroll by 125 students. These institutions are also more likely to go to the waiting list before May 1st because it is part of their enrollment plan.
Although there is no guaranteed way to know how a college uses their waiting list (they may change from year to year) looking at Common Data Set values can provide insight.
In regards to getting off the waiting list – yes, all things being equal, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease.
Someone asked whether spamming admissions offices with correspondences is an appropriate way of getting off the waiting list. Of course, first we need to define “spam,” which is subjective both from the perspective of the sender and receiver. I won’t pretend to know how each admissions officer considers multiple correspondences. So, let me simply provide some insight into a fairly simple process.
The Director says, “we need to go to the waiting list.” He or she has determined the appropriate number and likely strategically distributed those offers to various regional admissions directors. Once the regional director is provided the regional target (and any underlying directives), he or she typically then have some discretion of who they take.
Imagine if it were you … It’s late April, early May. The only thing between you, and summer is the waiting list. Would you re-read hundreds of applications to determine who you called first? Or, might you at least take a look at the kid who emailed you yesterday. Generally, the counselor can make an argument for the kid’s name who is still top of mind.
That said – sure, if you email every day … you run the risk of irritating the counselor and never having your phone ring. Generally, I think two emails, appropriately timed during the month of April is sufficient.