Due to the recent surge in applications and the growing unpredictability in students’ college decisions, the use of college waitlists has also become harder to forecast. Many schools vary their usage of waitlists from year to year, based on how many students they want to accept, as well as the “yield,” or percentage of admitted students who choose to attend. Students can hear about waitlist admission at any point between May 1st and late August.

Yield, the percentage of students who accept offers of admission, increased at many selective schools for the Class of 2025. Although college enrollment overall is decreasing, student interest in attending the most selective schools is increasing, as reflected in the charts below. Stanford’s yield approached 100%, Harvard’s and MIT’s approached 90%, and Princeton and Yale’s bounded past 80%. Early Decision programs play a role as well. For example, Tulane’s yield rose to 45% last year as the school now fills 55-58% of the incoming class through its Early Decision program. In 2016, Tulane’s yield was only 26%.

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As colleges struggle to predict the responses of admitted students, their use of their waitlist will depend on a variety of factors, including yield, deferrals, and institutional priorities. It is notable that many schools saw a dip in yield for the Class of 2024, most likely caused by uncertainty as a result of the pandemic.

How Likely is Waitlist Admission?

It is important for applicants on a waitlist to be realistic about their chances. Although being placed on a waitlist is more hopeful than being denied, the NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) survey reported that overall in 2019 only 20% of students were accepted after taking waitlist positions and only 7% were admitted off a waitlist position to the most selective colleges.

When colleges accept students from the waitlist, they are typically looking at how many spots still need to be filled in the freshman class, which majors, residency locations, or other “hooks” are needed to round out this particular class, and how likely you are to attend if admitted. Consider how your top college choices have used their waitlists in the past.

Analysis of Historical Waitlist Data

Highly Selective Schools

For perspective on how waitlist use can vary from year to year, the charts below show a comparison among several highly selective schools of Waitlist Accepted Offers versus Waitlist Admission from 2018 to 2021. These highly selective schools have an overall admit rate that is under 10%.

Cornell had been accepting about 150 or more students from the waitlist from 2018-2020, but in 2021, only 24 students were accepted from a group of 5,800 students who had accepted the waitlist offer. This could be due in part to an increase in yield that year.

According to Dartmouth’s Common Data Set, they have not admitted anyone off the waitlist for the years 2018, 2019, and 2021. In 2020, 95 students were accepted from the waitlist, but it is important to note that this was a year when many colleges were grappling with uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Stanford also shows a significant jump in the use of their waitlist for the Class of 2024.

In 2021, Princeton surprisingly admitted 150 students from the waitlist, but that could have been due in part to their cancellation of the early action program that year, which was prompted by COVID-related testing cancellations.

Other Selective Private Schools

At another category of schools, selective private, the use of waitlists also varies year to year. Their overall acceptance rates are greater than 10% but less than 40%.

Lehigh’s waitlist can have either a lot of movement or very little. From 2018-2020, the number of students on the waitlist declined steadily, while the number of students who accepted waitlist offers increased steadily – culminating in the surprising development for the Class of 2024, in which 90% of those who accepted a waitlist offer were admitted. Yet for the Class of 2025, that number fell to only 5%. Over the past few years, some schools like Lehigh are making more offers of admission before turning to the waitlist after May 1.

Looking back the past four years, Miami has admitted as few as 13 waitlisted students and as many as 781. They fall into the general pattern of admitting many waitlisted students in 2020, when pandemic uncertainty was high, and admitting very few waitlisted students in 2021. In 2021, Miami’s yield rose 5 percentage points to 23% and over 400 more students accepted offers of admission compared to the previous year, prompting little use of the waitlist.

According to NYU’s Admissions office, 

“The number of students who have been admitted from the waitlist has varied widely in previous years. While during one recent year, we were not able to admit any students from the waitlist, in others we were able to admit hundreds of students. Again, the number of admission offers we can extend is contingent on the number of responses we get to our initial offers of admission, and we will have a better idea of what space is available after the admitted student response deadline.”

In contrast, some schools have not turned to their waitlist at all. Tulane has been focused on increasing yield through its ED program. While they offer waitlist spots, the last time that someone was admitted from the waitlist was in 2018, when two people were admitted. So do not expect to get off the waitlist there!

Selective Public Universities

Among prestigious public universities, there is also much variation in waitlist use each year. Last year, the number of students who accepted their waitlist offer at Michigan rose to over 13,000 (73% of offers were accepted) and only 68 students were admitted from the waitlist (1%).

At UC-Berkeley there has been a fairly steady use of the waitlist from 2018-2020, averaging around 1,400 admitted students. However, last year only 359 waitlisted students were admitted. For the Class of 2025, a larger class enrolled (6,931 students) compared to the prior year, when only 6,117 students enrolled. UC-Berkeley has also been increasing the number of admissions offers extended in the regular admissions cycle. In 2021, 16,410 students were offered admission, and in 2019, only 14,676 students were admitted. Their yield has remained steady, averaging around 42%.

Penn State provides yet another snapshot of how unpredictable waitlists can be. For the Class of 2024, when other schools were using their waitlists more heavily, Penn State had no waitlist. Then last year, when many schools were over-enrolled and being conservative in waitlist use, Penn State admitted 1,451 students, almost 96% of its waitlist! Overall Penn State’s yield has been falling (19% in 2021 compared to 27% in 2018) and its number of admits has been rising (45,269 students admitted in 2021 vs. 29,793 students admitted in 2018), very possibly as a result of declining yield.

If you want to get a sense of your chances, it is very important to look up waitlist information in the Common Data Sets for your top schools. If the number has been close to zero in the past (as with Tulane), it might be time to move on. If the number is in the hundreds or thousands, then reach out and show your interest!

Tips for Improving your Chances of Waitlist Admission

#1 Let the college know that you want to stay on the waitlist! Make sure you also commit and deposit at your top choice of your admitted schools.

#2 Send a letter to the waitlist college expressing your continued interest, and include any updated information about academics or activities since you last contacted them. In your letter, be genuine. If you would attend if accepted, say so. If not, state that you remain strongly interested in the college. If you have re-visited since you applied, discuss the specifics of your visit in your note. Summarize why the college is an excellent fit for you and mention unique strengths and experiences you would contribute to campus. If appropriate, include updates on awards, special academic achievements, or extracurricular projects that have occurred since you submitted your original application.

#3 Find out if the college will accept additional information, such as grades or letters of recommendation. Look at the college website and your waitlist offer to see what new information the college is willing to receive, if any. Colleges vary widely in this regard.

#4 Stay engaged in your academics. Colleges will be reviewing your senior year final grades. Strong grades will strengthen your chances of acceptance at your waitlist colleges.

If you would like assistance in writing a letter of continued interest, weighing your college admissions options, or with any other aspect of high school planning and college admissions, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help!

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