"Waitlisted" is basically a synonym for "rejected," at least according to the Wall Street Journal, which today takes a look at the likelihood of college applicants actually getting off the waitlist. Among its burst-your-bubble stats: Cornell ended up accepting a grand total of zero of the 2,998 students on its waitlist last year; Carnegie Mellon took six of 5,003. Not all elite schools' stats are quite that bleak; Harvard (which gave the OK to a record-low of 5.9% of applicants this year) took 31 off the waitlist last year, though it wouldn't reveal how big that list was.
The Journal explains that the waitlists are so huge in part because many schools want to seem oh-so-exclusive by giving a place to fewer students on the first go, but still retain a nice, varied pool of back-ups. Another factor: mom and dad. If you're related to a donor or alumni, you may get a "courtesy spot." A few schools have been trying to reduce the size of waitlists, and the Journal points to Stanford as example; it cut its list from 1,078 to 789 this year. But its dean of undergrad admissions offers some sobering perspective: Comparing this year to last, "it's a million to one instead of a billion to one that you're going to get it."