Question Bag: How Is Being Wait Listed Like Dating?

Q: I got accepted into a few of my second choice schools, which would be fine if I was rejected outright by my top choice schools…but I wasn't. My top two schools wait listed me. What do I do? The other schools are pressing me for a decision and tuition deposit. But if I get into my No. 1 choice, that's where I'm going. Is there anything I can do to nudge them along so I know my fate?

A: Not only is there something you can do to nudge them along in making a decision, but there's also plenty you can do in the interim to tip the decision scales in your favor. To do both, you need a brief primer on what the wait list is and what it means for you to be placed on it–from the perspective of the adcoms.

While wait lists are typically used at the three major professional grad schools (Business, Medical, Law), they are also common in many other grad programs (especially highly impacted ones such as psychology and public health). So what are they? Well, they're basically the adcoms way of saying, 'hey, I like the cut of your jib, friend.' Now we all know this is waaay different than “Wow! You're exactly what we're looking for–you're in!” Still, it's something. But what kind of something?

Them waters is a little murky, cousin, but if you've applied in the early rounds (Nov/Dec) and the program has yet to receive applications from later round applicants, it means they're intrigued enough by you to not reject you outright, yet not not sold to the point where they're ready to walk down the aisle with you, either. Basically, they need a wider comparison pool to evaluate you. (Consider the wait list an excellent training ground for dating.)

In a nutshell, if you're a borderline case (GRE scores, GPA and work experience all hover around the average for that school) then applying early can actually actually hurt you. Adcoms are loathe to admit borderline applicants early in the process with so many potential yummy applicants to come. It's simple–they're hedging themselves.

Meantime, however, you're left in the lurch trying to figure out what to do. Don't worry, you can use their hedge against them in a way. Remember, if the wait list is the grad school's way of putting you on ice until more information is available to them, then YOU supply them with the 'more information.' The wait list is only the “wait” list for people who either enjoy or are willing to “wait”. In reality, it's a test given by the adcoms to see who will use that time to bolster their candidacy by supplying additional letters of recommendation/employment updates/test score improvements. It's their way of separating the waiters from the winners. See that?

So how do you make it play to your advantage? Try this:

  • Email the adcom who signed your wait list letter directly and ask what additional “evidence of my commitment to So-'n-So University” you can offer.
  • If she replies with specifics, get to work. If that means obtaining an additional workplace recommendation letter, retaking the GRE/GMAT or clarifying resume points, get on it!
  • If you receive a generic “don't call us we'll call you” reply, then it's time to assess your own application shortcomings. Can you retake the GMAT/GRE within a few weeks and show a marked increase? Do you have someone who can write a home run letter of recommendation that you hadn't thought of before? Have you been promoted at work, or entrusted with more responsibility, or changed roles? All of these updates give the adcoms a new light in which to view your application.

Above all, you are beginning to show the adcoms that you're not a waiter–you're a winner. Nobody puts baby in a corner! (Sorry, 80's revival moment. Surges up sometimes, you can't really stop it you can only hope to contain it.)

At any rate, to recap:

  1. Being wait listed provides a second chance to showcase something you missed in your initial application–take advantage of it!
  2. Keep looking for opportunities to bolster your resume in the interim (volunteer roles, fundraising efforts, civic involvement) so if they ask for updates–or even if they don't–you got 'em!
  3. Don't be afraid to contact the admissions officer directly to ferret out what they feel could improve your candidacy (improved test scores, more letters, employment updates, etc.)

Lastly, keep in mind there is always a thin line between persistence and nuisance (again, good training ground for dating here, you future stalkers, you). Straddle that line with caution and, as a general rule, don't contact adcoms more than twice in one month (yes, that includes emails).

Good luck and if you have any questions about this or previous articles, please contact us here.