Wait listed…now what?

The following is a detailed post I wrote a few years ago on what it means and what you should do if you receive a wait list decision from your target school(s). I review and update it as necessary, and re-run it each year. I hope this gives you some ideas in terms of next steps as well as some measure of comfort.

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When you applied to schools, you probably mentally prepared yourself for one of two fates: acceptance or rejection. And then the decision arrives, and you are told you are wait listed. The admissions committee tells you that they recognize your “strong achievements” and that they remain “sincerely interested” in your candidacy but they cannot offer you a seat just yet. What does this all mean, and what can you do?

First of all, what it means to be wait listed

As someone who has both experienced the torture of being wait listed and monitored wait lists at Harvard, I can tell you a lot from experience.

When an admissions committee puts an applicant on the wait list, this is what they are saying: “You are great. We like you. You have most or even all of the things that we are looking for in a candidate. However, we don’t have the space to take everyone that we like, and some applicants are a little stronger and/or fit our current needs more. At the same time, we don’t want to lose you. Now, we have made XXX number of offers, and not everyone is going to accept our offer. Therefore, if any spaces open up, we will consider you once again.”

If you’re an MBA applicant applying in an early round, this could also be translated into “We think you are great, but we also want to see what else is out there. So we will review your application again with the next round of applicants.” Try to think of this in a positive light; instead of being rejected, you’re instead given two (or more, if you get wait listed again) chances at admission in one season.

Secondly, how does the wait list work?

Common questions with regard to the wait list include:

  • How many people are on the wait list?
  • Is the wait list ranked?
  • Is there any guarantee I will be offered a seat off the wait list?

The answers are typically 1) it depends on the school; 2) no; 3) no.

Let me talk about the latter two points.

Admissions committees will almost always tell you that the wait list is not ranked. However, in my experience, I would be lying if I said that there aren’t some people closer to the top of the wait list than others. Quality is one criterion while other factors will be those beyond your control. Admissions offices at MBA programs admit to using the 3rd round as a time to “round out” their classes and to look at balance in terms of diversity (e.g., Do they need more people from a particular racial group, geographic region, career field?). The wait list is another such time.

As for whether or not you will come off the wait list, and when, there really is no guarantee at all and the admissions officers are being completely honest with you when they say “I don’t know.” I once worked with a client who got off the wait list 2 weeks before school orientation started!

At the beginning of each season, admissions directors make their projected yields; that is, how many offers they need to make in order to yield their ideal class size. Let’s say that ABC University has 400 seats in its first year class. Traditionally, 55% of their admitted candidates take the offer, while the other 45% choose to attend another school. Thus, ABC University will admit 580 applicants in anticipation that 45% of those applicants will turn down their offers. If more than 45% of the admitted applicants choose to go somewhere else, that is the time that ABC University will go to their wait list.

Finally, what can you do?

There are a number of things you can do if you are wait listed:

  1. The most important thing you can do is follow the school’s instructions. I cannot stress this enough. Many schools welcome communication and updates from wait listed applicants. However, there are also some schools like Harvard Business School that firmly ask applicants to do nothing. It is imperative to follow the school’s instructions because 1) you want to show them that you can follow directions and 2) you do not want to annoy them at any cost. Admissions offices are watching the behaviors of their wait listed candidates closely and you don’t want to give them any reason to reject you.
  2. If you are wait listed at a school that does welcome you to update your application, then you may submit a short note or essay that describes anything new and noteworthy that you would like to add to your application. This includes information about a promotion, new responsibilities, new awards, new coursework/grades, and stronger test scores. If you’ve since visited the campus, that is definitely worth mentioning as well.
  3. Send another recommendation. Assuming your school allows this, you may consider adding another letter if you believe the new perspective will add value to your application. Related to this, you may also consider having an alum or current student send in a “push” letter for you, confirming your strengths as a candidate, your fit with the school, and your commitment to attending the school.
  4. Stay in touch (within reason) with the school. This point is critical. A major factor that influences a school’s decision to admit someone off the waitlist is his/her level of interest in the school. By the time the admissions committee gets to the wait list, they want to only take people who they know will come if made an offer. They are running out of time so they do not want to make offers to people who need time to decide. Therefore, if you are wait listed by a school that says it is okay to communicate with them, then stay in touch periodically (i.e., sending a quick note telling them you are still interested in remaining on the wait list). By this I mean perhaps once every 4 or so weeks (you’ll need to use your judgment) or at key decision times, like the 2-3 weeks preceding their next decision round (if this is an MBA program). As already discussed, it is equally important to not annoy the admissions staff; do not call or email every week or demand a meeting with the admissions staff or they will start worrying if you will be this anxious and high-maintenance once you are a student there.
  5. Analyze your weaknesses. What in your application needed improvement? Could you retake the TOEFL, GMAT or GRE? Do your English skills need improvement? Were your achievements on the weak side? As much as possible, try to tackle these weaknesses and show the admissions committee that you have made improvements since you submitted the application. I sometimes work with clients who insist on writing short essays every month showing their passion for the school, but they do nothing to improve their test scores, which is the very reason they were put on the waitlist – not lack of interest in the school. You do not need to overly reassure the admissions committee of your strengths; you need to reassure them that you can overcome the weaknesses (if any) that made them hesitate to admit you in the first place.
  6. Continue on with your plans, and your life. Do not put your life on hold for the school that wait lists you. Statistically speaking, your chances of getting admitted off any wait list is small (and the more competitive the school, the smaller the chances). The safest thing to do is to continue with your plans to attend one of the schools to which you have been admitted. If you do get an offer from the school where you are wait listed, then at that point you can change your plans. It is a torturous position to place an applicant, but the best protection for yourself is to move forward with your plans.
  7. Release your spot if you are no longer interested in waiting. Many candidates prefer not to wait, and begin to lose interest over time. In this case, as a courtesy, let the school know you are no longer interested. This frees up the wait list so that someone else who really wants to attend can have a better chance of getting in.

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