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"Don't Leave Me Hanging!" or How to Handle Being Waitlisted Gracefully

handle being waitlisted gracefully

So, you have been waitlisted in your grad school. Take a deep breath and count to ten. It's not as bad as you think it is. It means you still have a chance, but you will have to wait a bit longer to learn your fate.

Schools put candidates on a waitlist when they consider them a good fit (yay!) but have already formed their incoming class for the year (tsk!). Why bother with putting you through this limbo? Why not reject you and put you out of this misery quickly? Ha! If only it were this simple.

The admission officers know that students apply to several schools at once but can show up at only one eventually. They make their best guess (very big-data-informed and calculated, mind you) of which students will actually attend if admitted. Say they have 80 places in the class. They accept 100 students, knowing that despite their best calculations, some students still won't matriculate. Usually, their estimates are pretty accurate. However, if they err on the optimistic side, and only 70 of the initially admitted students choose to show up, they have 10 places to fill. Where do they look for candidates? Why, in their carefully crafted waiting list, of course!

However, the global pandemic has influenced these calculations as well. With students unable to travel for campus tours due to quarantine restrictions, schools have less information to ground their guesses. As Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, puts it, "I predict that we will see more waiting list activity this year due to the uncertainty institutions are facing around yield."

That means higher chances of your application getting waitlisted – yet also higher chances of you being accepted from the waitlist!

Waitlists aren't ranked, but they can be grouped based on the characteristics the school deems important. Most schools have a vision of what their class should look like: gender balance, diversity numbers, intended majors, financial aid budget, geographical distribution, and other background details. This isn't something you can influence. However, by being practical and strategic, you can get the most out of this situation. Here is what you should do.

Assess where you're standing

The first thing you should do is decide whether you can afford to wait for their final decision. Grad schools have different schedules. See how the final decision's date aligns with the deadline for confirmation and deposit deadlines for schools you have been accepted to. Some universities will give you their decision relatively quickly (usually in May), while others won't notify you until several weeks before the program starts.

Of course, waiting is stressful. Sometime I will write my paper on how waiting affects the mental health of students hanging in midair. With grad schools, this waiting game can be even more pernicious. It's not about vanity or even career goals. The financial support that school offers their students can be their vital income source since research often leaves almost no time for a full-time good-paying job. At the same time, financial aid in graduate schools is usually offered on the "first-come, first-served" basis, leaving waitlisted candidates disadvantaged.

If simply being in grad school is vital for you and outweighs the benefits of this particular program, maybe you should consider accepting the offer from another university. If that's the case, notify your dream school that you forfeit your place on the waiting list.

However, if you can afford it, it would be a wise move to secure a place in another school, deposit payment, and keep waiting for the answer from your dream school. This way, you will have a backup plan, but you must be prepared to lose the deposit money.

Reread the letter and follow instructions

Let's suppose you decided that the program is worth the waiting. Maybe it's your top choice, or it's the only school that didn't reject you. Then, you should read the letter putting you on the waiting list and follow the steps that your school asks you to take. They may request your acceptance of the place on the waiting list (yes, that is a privilege you want to accept.) This can be as easy as ticking the "yes" box in an online form or as complicated as a whole procedure of application reassessments, questions, personal essays, and additional interviews.

For graduate school, they usually send you feedback on your research proposal, which you must handle as professionally as you can. Thank the committee for their time and consideration, tackle the concerns they have voiced, and take it as an opportunity to demonstrate your deep understanding of the academic issues involved.

Your responsiveness to the school's requests for additional information demonstrates your enthusiasm. It proves you are a reliable candidate that will accept the place in the program if offered. However, the trick is not to be overzealous. This may come off as obnoxious, and the committee will think twice about whether our personal qualities fit their school's character.

To avoid this, closely follow the instructions: send the materials they request, don't send anything they explicitly tell you not to submit, keep regular contact, but don't bombard the committee with calls and unsolicited gifts, such as flowers and candy.

Retake tests and gather all meaningful updates

Apart from the requested information, you may want to update the committee on your life's latest developments to strengthen your position as a worthy candidate. If the committee lets you know what exactly on your application made you less competitive (or you suspect what might) – try to rectify the situation. Retake tests to improve your scores and update the school on other achievements that came along in the interim.

However, instead of inundating them with a slew of emails detailing every minor victory, gather all our meaningful updates and send them together listed briefly. For example, you have received an award, been given a leadership position, got grades on a course you have finished, etc. – better wait a week or two and send this all in one package.

By the way, speaking of packages. If your monograph is fresh out of the press, it might be a good idea to mention it and post a hard copy in the snail mail while also attaching a PDF version in the email.

Write a great letter of enthusiasm

What if the tick in the box doesn't quite show how ardently you wish you were accepted? In that case, you can follow up with a letter of continued interest (also called a letter of enthusiasm.) This one is exactly what it sounds. You write the letter to let the committee know:

  • that you are still interested after being waitlisted
  • that you are enthusiastic about the chance you still have
  • why exactly you are committed to this school and program

Should you send it if the school doesn't ask for it? The answers vary. As Ed Devine, West Coast Regional Director of Admissions in Lafayette College, explains, "Many schools will ask students via survey or email whether they want to be an active member of the waitlist. While it's imperative to respond in the school's requested format, you can often send an additional letter."

Some admission advisors are even more radical. They say you should send the letter, even if you were expressly told not to, since every little chance of winning the waitlist game is worth a shot.

However, to be on the safe side, I would advise you to ask. If you aren't sure, you can follow up your confirmation with a short email asking whether you may send a letter of continued interest as well.

According to experts, a good LOCI follows this structure:

  1. Thank the school for considering you for the waiting list and reaffirm your enthusiasm.
  2. Include new information that can improve your standing (the meaningful updates from the previous section).
  3. Detail why you believe this program is perfect for you and why you'll thrive in this school. If you've visited the campus, mention what you loved about it (research facilities, library, people, atmosphere, etc.)
  4. Thank the committee for their time and sign off gracefully.

Here are some additional tips on the style and contents:

- be concise and straightforward (your readers haven't got all day)

- include only new information instead of rehashing your original application (you want to sound enthusiastic, not desperate)

- include specifics (your personal connection to the school, why you are so emotionally invested)

- be humble and accept the place on the waitlist for what it is – a recognition of your achievements.

Will all this help? Maybe. Being on the waitlist always means prolonged uncertainty that can eventually end with rejection. Don't beat yourself up, and don't be salty. By staying enthusiastic and positive, you increase your chances of getting the place this year or even the next should you choose to transfer from another university. In fact, graduate schools usually accept candidates from their waitlists later in the process. So cheer up and hang in there!

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