The Stay on the Wait List Letter

To most students one of the most seemingly useless tasks is writing a letter to a school asking to be placed on its wait list.   

Most students consider an assignment to the wait list virtually a rejection, but like many things in the college admissions world, it depends on the circumstances surrounding the wait list.

Sometimes being waitlisted means a glowing weakness in the application. Several years ago I had a student with stellar academic and extracurricular activities yet his applications were filled with hubris. After refusing to temper his tone, he submitted his applications and was waitlisted at every Ivy League school to which he had applied. The chorus was unanimous and he did not make it off any of them.

Inappropriate essay topics, such as family divorce or suicide, have ended with many a candidate on the wait list. Even those with impeccable academic credentials, too impeccable, such as having taken 11 AP courses with 5s on all the exams were waitlisted: academic perfection is often received with a raft of apprehension by many of the most selective admissions offices.

For the above cases, advice offered on how to play the wait list game often proves vain because no matter what follows, the initial impression remains and is nearly impossible to overcome.

There are, however, cases in which applicants are on the borderline and have shown a sincere interest in the school, yet didn’t have all the qualities to obtain admission. Their transcripts might have come up short, or their standardized test scores might have been shy of the target school’s 50 percentile. For them the wait list might serve as a staging area to actually gain entry.

The first step for such candidates is to send an enthusiastic letter telling the school that they desire to be placed on its wait list.   This might seem almost counter intuitive. Most of the students I work with, once waitlisted, tell me they have nothing to tell the college as to why they’re making this decision.

But they do. When the college asks why they want to remain on the list, it’s actually asking them to explain how badly they want to attend. Respond boldly, honestly, knowledgeably and directly and it could mean admission. Demure and shift into neutral and it is lost opportunity languidly dripping down the drain.     

Start by telling the school you understand that the wait list means the chance of gaining admission is a long shot. Google up the school’s Common Data Set (if available) and look at section C2, which gives the number of students offered the wait list, how many accept, and how many get admitted from it. Take Northwestern as an example, and you’ll discover that last year 1,587 students accepted a place on its wait list and 55 were admitted. That’s around a 3.5% chance.

Then tell the school the specific features you value highly: independent undergraduate research opportunities, an outstanding biochemistry department, or that it has the most impressive new art studios. Be specific and let the school know how you plan to exploit these features to the fullest.  

Be humble, driven and understand well how the college you hold dear will perfect you and your talents. Spell this out clearly and make every word count because the letter should never exceed 200-240 words.

Conclude by saying you’re trying to create the perfect match and they are it. It is love and you’re adamant. After all they will not pull you off the wait list if there is any doubt in their minds that you’re not coming. So be like Romeo and declare yourself fully and completely.

Remember you’ll likely be addressing the admissions officer from your region. Give him or her the ammunition necessary to plead your case so that when admissions office begins to cherry pick the wait list pool, you’re a known entity. An awful lot depends on the tone and content of your wait list letter. Give it everything you have because, honestly, at this stage you have absolutely nothing to lose.