What To Do If You're Wait-Listed

The following piece was written by Paul Bodine. Paul has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is the author of the best-selling admissions guide, Great Applications for Business School. He currently runs his own firm, Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting.


It's that time of year: daydreaming as notification day loomed of joining your dream school – you've instead learned you were wait-listed. Congratulations. You weren’t rejected; you qualified for admission. The admissions committee found your qualifications impressive and believes you can handle their program, but they had some 'issues' with aspects of your application or just found other applicants to be a better fit for next year's class.

The truth is, how long you stay in wait-list purgatory? And what steps, if any, can you take to get out? This will depend on not only the school that wait-listed you, but on the unpredictable characteristics of the applicant pool you’re competing against. A great deal will simply be beyond your control. But that doesn’t you mean you must simply, passively wait and hope (or despair).

That said, unless the school completely discourages further contact, take a proactive approach and launch a sustained and positive wait-list campaign. If the school is open to contact or updates, plan a strategy of regular, but not annoying, contacts designed to demonstrate your enthusiasm and fit for the school’s program and culture.

An effective wait-list campaign typically has three key components (again, depending on what the school permits): updating the school on new developments since you submitted your application, addressing weaknesses in your application, and reaffirming fit with the school.

Recent Developments

Inform the school of new achievements, initiatives, and developments. Show them that you’re an even stronger applicant than you were when you applied. These developments can take the form of promotions or raises, new leadership roles at or outside work, or technical skills acquired on the job. Have you raised your GMAT score? Have you led a project or organization? Started volunteering? Taken your department, business, or club in a new direction? Have you earned a patent? Launched a business? All of these are worth informing the admissions committee about. Be sure to briefly state why you think this new development has strengthened your candidacy. 

Addressing Concerns 

If you review your application objectively (perhaps with the help of a consultant), it’s usually possible to arrive at some idea of what's holding your candidacy back. Applications are often wait-listed because of poor numbers (GMAT and/or GPA), vague career goals or weak work experience, insufficient community or extracurricular involvement, poorly demonstrated interest in the school, or inadequate emphasis on what makes the applicant’s profile or potential contribution unique. 

Some of these factors can be addressed, such as by taking courses in areas of weakness, retaking the GMAT, joining Toastmasters or some other professional organization, passing a CFA exam, or proactively taking on more leadership at work.

Affirming Fit

Reinforce your commitment to and interest in this school's program, but without repeating any of the school-specific material you mentioned in your application. Cite new examples of the ways you have reached out to learn about the wait-listing school. For example, demonstrate how your recent visit deepened your interest in the program. Perhaps you sat in on a class (Which one? What impressed you?) or chatted up students (What were their names? What did they say?). Or perhaps your work or research interests have recently led you to explore a faculty member’s work or touch on the mission of one of the school’s institutes. If so, deliberately and specifically flesh out the bridge between your work or research interest and that faculty member or institute.

Update emails are only one way to demonstrate sustained enthusiasm for the school. Some schools are open to receiving an additional letter of recommendation as long as it adds new insights into your professional, community, or even personal life. An additional letter of recommendation offers you a perfect opportunity to have a third-party do damage control on any weaknesses that may be holding your application back, by emphasizing offsetting facts or skills.

It needs to be said that if you are wait-listed by schools that explicitly instruct you not to send in new information once you’ve been wait-listed, you must comply with their instructions. Don't give them a reason to regret keeping your candidacy alive.

Keep in mind that being wait-listed does not necessarily mean your application has an 'issue' – or one you can do anything about. You may well have been wait-listed only because you don't enhance or round out the entering class's diversity as well as someone else. So do what you can within the limits that the school's wait-list guidelines place on you, but don't take this personally. As a wait-listed applicant, you are likely to be viewed with greater favor if you decide to reapply the following year – and have taken any steps you can in the intervening months to improve your profile.

For wait-listing schools that permit applicant contact, the wait-list can be the ultimate test of your passion for attending the school. In my experience, when spots open up later in the wait-list process, schools will respond to applicants who have continued to show sustained interest and commitment to improvement. The majority of schools do not rank their wait-listees, so who gets pulled off may well come down to subjective factors such as demonstrated enthusiasm. So demonstrate it.

Visit Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting for more information.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.