Chances of Getting off Elite School Waitlists

Was just waitlisted to Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Duke. I haven’t seen too many estimates on waitlist mobility this year so was wondering if anyone might have any advice on the feasibility of getting off the waitlists at these schools. Do most people with several waitlist options get at least one of them? Trying not to get my hopes up, especially in this variable year, but just would love an objective assessment of what the odds of admission may be. Also, while I’m aware most colleges don’t rank their waitlists, is a waitlist indicative of being highly competitive at a particular university, or are there certain waitlist candidates perceived as weaker?


Impossible to say. A few years ago Duke waitlisted more students than they accepted. At elite universities waitlists are often seen as a soft rejection. But this year, as you stated, everything is up in the air.

At elite schools with limited housing, that accepted their usual number of applicants, I can only assume that they won’t be going to the waitlists, because they also have to accommodate the people who took off a year due to the pandemic. So I only see them going to the wait lists to fill in certain gaps for people who had skills/interests that they really want or need, but who chose to go elsewhere.

I have read that the overall number of applicants did not change this year but that applications to elite schools increased by 25-40%. Wait-lists are an entirely different enchilada this year because with this wild increase in numbers, colleges have no mechanism in place to predict how many accepted students will actually enroll. I personally think there will be significant wait list movement this year in late June/early July but there is no way of knowing how many people are on the waitlist. I also think waitlisting gives these schools more time to comb through thousands of applications so I doubt there are any rankings - it’s more like another admissions review cycle. This year I think wait-lists should be celebrated. There were 30,000 no’s at some of these schools so congratulations on still being in the mix! Make sure you follow the wait-list rules carefully - for some you have to proactively accept the offer to be on that school’s waitlist.

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If you are looking for historical data on acceptances off waitlists, you could look at Section C2 of the Common Data Set for the schools you are interested in.

As the other posters note, however, this year is likely to be an aberration in many ways; and waitlist acceptances may not be excepted.

Dartmouth has a big waitlist and the last few years (including last year with covid) they had zero admits. Cornell also has a big waitlist and last year they admitted 190 students.

Sometimes the school newspapers will report in the waitlist #s.

Every single one of those elite schools had a significant number of students take gap years, rather than start during the pandemic. The schools did not reduce their acceptances for the class of '25 by the increased number who took a gap year, so every school will probably be over enrolled this year. I would not expect to get in off of a wait list this year. I suspect that the only time that they will go to the wait list is if they need someone with a very specific skill, to serve a very specific need at the school.

For example. Harvard’s usual class size is about 1660. They had 350 people take a gap year. They accepted nearly 2000. They usually have an 85% yield. Usually, less than 5% take gap years. So assuming 1700 accept, and 100 take a gap year, they have a class of 1950, 300 more than they normally would. Why in the world would they go to their wait list? I have a feeling that the other Ivies accepted accordingly, too.

Make your plans to go to one of the schools you were accepted to, and accept spots on the wait list according to where you’d be happy to go if they offer you a spot, and let it go. I just don’t see how it will happen this year. This is the one year when the schools will be thrilled if their yield is lower than expected.


No. It isn’t like a lottery where if you have enough tickets you become likely to win. If you weren’t as strong a candidate as you hoped then each of these “waitlists” might be a soft rejection and you’ll get off of none. And even if you’re a decent/strong candidate, things are so uncertain in this covid environment that colleges have no idea what their yield will be. They may have few openings even for the waitlist kids they’d like to take.

Wait list usage can be unpredictable, and the uncertainties of more (TO driven) applications, gap years, etc. makes this year even more uncertain.

It’s not in your “elite” category, but I looked up data at Purdue for someone’s similar question recently, from their last two CDSs. 5,000+ offers for the wait list, and 2,500 accepting a position each year, with a 45% admitted rate the first year, 3% the second. From 1200 to 90.

While I don’t disagree with the core premise of your post, I’ve also heard from folks in the know that even the Ivies don’t plan to matriculate even the 18% more that your math implies due to inherent constraints like housing, class size, etc…

But your core math is sound so the Q is about the assumptions. For yield, for example, perhaps they are imputing a 5% lower yield due to the massive uncertainty this year (even for HYPS) - so that would mean:

2000 accept w/ 80% yield = 1600 minus 100 gap = 1500 + 350 = 1850 which is still 200 more than “usual”.

I guess I’m just saying I’d be surprised if any top school can really accommodate say 20% more 1st year students even if they wanted to…esp with all the other challenges these days…they don’t need the money certainly…

I recommend you pick the college you most want to attend from your affordable acceptances and move forward assuming you will not get off any waitlist.