The advice is out there—if you are waitlisted do not wait. What you probably want to know is what that means in a nutshell...
- Accept the wait list offer quickly (immediately).
- Write a letter to the school (within the month). Communicate your continued interest and convey any relevant new information since the application.
- Provide an additional letter of recommendation.
- Follow up briefly (about another month later) again expressing your interest in the school.
The steps are straightforward and consistent across the college consulting terrain. What might be a bit more nuanced are the thoughts that follow.
Admissions officers accept, deny and wait list applications, not applicants. All too often wait-listed students ask themselves “What did I do wrong?” The answer in most cases is “Nothing”. The wait list is not a comment on you. Selective schools get exceptional students from all over the world to apply; yet they have a limited number of spaces, and they have institutional priorities.
Wait lists are not ranked. Schools use wait lists to manage their yield and shape their freshman class. Wait list students are those not quite meeting the admitted student profile, but they also may include those the college feels will go elsewhere (i.e. they believe that they are your safety school). Yield, the % of admitted students who enroll, matters as a factor in college rankings’ calculations. But yield is also is a measure of how well the admissions department did its job. Bringing in too many students wrecks havoc with housing, academic planning, advising, class size, you name it. Bringing in too few creates a last minute scramble cushioned by the wait list and an opportunity to fulfill institutional priorities: separate undergraduate schools might be over or under-enrolled; public schools may need to tweak a low in state students number; the number of women or men may be lower than they prefer; they may want to increase their geographic diversity; a coach may have come up short of athletes. There are seemingly an unlimited number of considerations that a ranked wait list would inhibit a college from addressing.
Be realistic and keep in mind that the chance of getting in is far lower than the regular admissions rate. The NY Times provided a chart several years ago of thirty-one colleges’ wait lists showing acceptance off the wait list on average was 1.2% ranging from 1–5%.
On accepting the waitlist offer: Have a serious discussion about whether to remain on the list. Among your offers, what school would you go to? It can be worthwhile to start imaging a great life ahead there rather than focusing on what will likely not happen. That said, if your heart tells you to keep the hope alive, accept the offer quickly to keep it open. As soon as it becomes clear to you that another school is your preference, advise the school to remove you from the waitlist.
On writing a letter to the school: Think of it as a “Letter of Enthusiasm”, as coined by a consultancy focused on Ivy League acceptance, and address it to your local rep (who is typically in charge of your application). Demonstrated interest has a level of impact on admissions decisions similar to essays. To demonstrate interest now, you not only need to tell the school you wish to remain on the wait list, if it is true, put in writing (well before May 1st) that the school is your first choice and you will enroll if offered admission.
Colleges and universities often ask students on the wait list to provide them with any “significant updates”. By this they usually mean academic updates. It is not unusual that grades, test scores, and significant awards are the same as a few months earlier. Don’t feel at a disadvantage if no new great things have happened since you submitted the application. But also consider what you told the college in your “Why Us?” supplement essay—what it is you want to do longer term and what you will do at their school to get there. Then tie back to that statement in your letter and identify things you have been involved in since the application that demonstrate it.
On an additional letter of recommendation: Most schools are also not interested in getting a flood of new recommendations. That said, a letter from an alum could be particularly useful or an individual who knows you well who is unique from the other letters submitted – a coach, a religious leader, an employer, a neighbor.
On following up yet again: Keep it brief. Address it to your local rep. Express your enthusiasm. Consider a visit. The school will not encourage it—they certainly don’t want thousands of waitlisted students showing up at their doorstep. But if you can connect face to face to express why you feel you fit at their school (a verbal, in person, Why Us? essay) it can only help, particularly if you haven’t interviewed with them or visited their campus.
Moving on and moving forward: While traveling, visit and spend a night at the other school(s) you have been admitted to and which you are considering. A crucial point…put a deposit down at another school prior to May 1st. If the surprise notification comes that you have been accepted off of the wait list, consider yourself ready to do well the second they step on campus. You should not in any way feel you are not as prepared to contribute in and out of the classroom. You should begin your academic career fully confident you have what it takes to be a star.