college waitlist graphic

Are Waitlists at Top-Tier Colleges Worthwhile?

Last year, we posted a piece that advised students on things they could do to demonstrate their continued interest in a top-tier college that had offered them waitlist status instead of admission. However, the actions that we recommended would place additional demands on a student’s time during the busiest part of their admissions campaign, and the impact produced would be marginal. So the question arises… is being waitlisted worth your effort, even in the case of your dream school?

The best way to handicap your odds of ultimate acceptance from a waitlist is to review the history of that school regarding waitlisted applicants. Schools usually follow a steady pattern year after year, although flip-flops occasionally occur when an admissions office has erred significantly in the forecast of its yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who will accept the offer and matriculate in the fall). However, since students can’t predict the pending yield status of a school while they’re waitlisted, history is the only guide.

The graphic below is an overview of the odds of being admitted from a waitlist:

college waitlist graphic

This sample of waitlist statistics from 160 private and public institutions yielded the following key metrics, which are not particularly encouraging:

  • On average, 17% of students accepting a place on a waitlist were admitted.
  • 58% of schools admitted 10% or less of students on their waitlist last year.
  • 41% of the schools admitted 5% or less from their waitlist.
  • 12% of schools did not admit any students from their waitlist.

Let’s review a few Ivy League and other top-tier institution’s waitlist programs to see how waitlisted students have fared lately. Stanford, the most selective university in the U.S., admitted only seven from its waitlist in 2014 and none from a list of 927 in 2015. No waitlisted students were admitted at Bryn Mawr, Dickinson, Lehigh, and Tulane colleges. They had little success at Carnegie Mellon (four) and Duke (nine).

The University of Michigan’s waitlist invitations grew extraordinarily high last year because its application volume had recently spiked. Surging volume increased uncertainty and the University’s yield rate was expected to fluctuate. About 4,500 students accepted spots on Michigan’s waitlist — the equivalent of 75% of the school’s freshman class size. However, their forecasted yield rate proved fairly accurate and they admitted only 2% of the students on their waitlist.

Harvard uses waitlists but reveals nothing about them. Yale disclosed that it invited 1,324 applicants to its list in 2014, about the same size as its entering class, but declined to reveal how many were admitted.

Case Western Reserve University assesses admissions at higher-ranked private schools such as Northwestern, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and Emory. Those schools have, in the past, drawn admitted students away from Case Western. To ensure that the University achieves its freshman class goal of 1,250 students, Case Western keeps a large waitlist and uses it aggressively. The school invited more than 9,000 applicants to its wait list in 2015 and 5,119 of them accepted. The University offered admission to 518 of those students. Not all accepted, but the school met its enrollment goal through its waitlist management process.

The Table below shows the waitlist results for selected institutions, including many of the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S., for the 2015-2016 admissions year. Some top-tier schools are missing because they either don’t maintain a waitlist or they don’t report results. Some institutions report some results but not others, as indicated by “n/a”.Bottom of Form

Table: Waitlist Results for Selected Institutions for 2015-2106

Institution Waitlist Offers Waitlist Size Waitlist Admits  

 Class Size

Amherst 1,398 643 33 477
Barnard 1,195 130 6 635
Bates 1,535 671 11 517
Brandeis 1,553 595 25 802
Brown n/a n/a 192 1,615
Bryn Mawr 872 427 0 385
Bucknell 2,427 922 59 938
Caltech n/a n/a n/a 241
Carleton 1,350 442 16 491
Carnegie Mellon 5,526 2,835 4 1,575
Case Western Reserve 9,446 5,119 518 1,259
Centre 183 42 19 379
Claremont McKenna 919 453 75 343
Colgate 1,896 913 49 773
College of the Holy Cross 1,307 494 8 738
Colorado College 1,119 232 24 583
Connecticut College 1,306 637 61 482
Cornell University 3,583 2,231 81 3,180
Dartmouth 1,852 963 129 1,116
Dickinson 848 261 0 731
Duke n/a n/a 9 1,745
Emory 3,809 1,910 45 1,357
Furman 208 51 14 672
George Washington 3,827 1,354 62 2,589
Georgia Tech 3,397 2,031 38 3,089
Gettysburg 768 n/a n/a 699
Grinnell 1,224 474 18 442
Hamilton 958 365 47 473
Harvey Mudd 534 354 11 214
Haverford 883 354 12 346
Johns Hopkins 2,752 1,747 187 1,299
Kenyon 2,876 998 17 492
Lafayette 1,532 428 3 672
Lehigh 4,232 1,847 0 1,261
Macalester 350 177 0 583
Middlebury 1,304 530 33 589
Mount Holyoke 785 459 7 532
Northwestern 2,614 1,452 43 2,018
Oberlin 1,126 459 86 778
Occidental 705 359 26 517
Ohio State 1,556 304 304 7,023
Penn State 1,473 1,473 1,445 7,626
Pitzer 1,021 895 23 267
Pomona 842 492 38 400
Princeton 1,206 857 39 1,319
Purdue 1,728 1,713 643 6,812
Rensselaer Polytechnic 4,087 2,203 57 1,379
Rhodes 1,290 277 45 562
Rice 2,237 1,659 127 969
Sewanee 1,039 202 21 469
Skidmore 1,742 378 13 686
Smith 773 398 132 609
St. Olaf 729 150 113 763
Stanford 1,256 927 0 1,720
Tulane 3,413 921 0 1,719
Union 1,167 626 64 568
Univ. of Cal. at Berkeley 3,760 2,445 1,340 5,550
Univ. of California at Davis 9,033 2,733 2,030 5,369
Univ. of California at Irvine 7,361 4,035 131 5,756
Univ. of Cal. at Santa Barbara 5,006 2,910 278 4,459
University of Maryland 500 500 0 3,937
Univ. of Mass. at Amherst 5,450 1,278 26 4,661
University of Miami 5,563 1,295 73 2,080
University of Michigan 14,960 4,512 90 6,071
Univ. of North Carolina 3,144 1,513 78 4,076
Univ. of Pennsylvania 2,474 1,438 90 2,435
University of Richmond 4,070 1,547 151 807
University of Texas 1,634 1,168 362 7,743
University of Virginia 4,547 2,081 402 3,685
Vanderbilt University n/a n/a 188 1,607
Washington and Lee 1,983 764 193 454
Wellesley 1,404 843 30 595
Wesleyan 1,877 884 12 787
Whitman 872 370 67 364
William & Mary 3,552 1,676 187 1,518
Williams 1,603 573 53 551
Worcester Polytechnic 2,472 1,373 41 1,093
Yale 1,324 n/a n/a n/a

Source: The Washington Post – Responses to Common Data Set questionnaire by admissions officials

The best thing to do if you’re offered waitlist status by your first choice school is to obtain the advice of your IvySelect college admissions consultant. Together, we will consider acceptance offers that you may have received from the other 12 or 13 schools to which you have applied. Since we’ve already determined that you’d be happy at any one of the schools that you applied to, you may be advised to send a deposit to the most appealing of them by May 1st  and to plan on attending that school in the fall. Then, if you’re admitted to your dream school from its waitlist, we can consider your options again at that point. Using this approach, you’ll cover all bases and have no regrets come fall.