So, You’re on the Wait-List. Now What?

Lauren, one of our former admissions consultants and a former admissions officer at Dartmouth and the University of Michigan, has some advice about what you should and shouldn’t do to give yourself the best chance at admission after you’ve been wait-listed.

First and foremost, no two wait-list cases are alike.

Here are the basic Dos and Don’ts:


  • Keep your grades up
  • Follow the school’s instructions
  • Wait a month, then send a short letter that expresses your interest in the school and shares information on new and compelling accomplishments, experiences, and activities since you’ve applied
  • Use a light touch



  • Over-communicate, send extra materials, or visit


To give you some perspective, you should first understand what the wait-list actually means. Here are just a few reasons why you may have been put into admissions purgatory:

  • A school thinks that they are your safety: If your candidacy is stronger than most of the people that apply to a school, a school may place you on a wait-list to assess whether you’re really interested.  This is the best situation to be in as a wait-listed student, as you have a distinct possibility to get yourself accepted. See below for Do’s and Don’t’s.
  • A school is managing their yield: Some schools will use the wait-list to manage their yield.  If they put you on the wait-list and you show really strong interest after, they’ll promote you to admission.  This is a way for the school to ensure that the people they accept will attend.  If you’re in this boat, you can do something about it. See below for Do’s and Don’t’s.
  • You were really just right on the line: You are a strong applicant and fit the profile that the school is looking for. However, given the class composition or something in your application, you’re right on the line. You’re placed on the wait-list, and, there’s a slim chance (as low as 6 out of 300) that you may be invited to join the class. If you’re in this situation, there’s a slim chance you can do something about it. See below for Do’s and Don’t’s.
  • It’s a “soft” let-down to you: Though this is an “old school” approach, some admissions deans view wait-listing as a “soft” let-down. This is their way of telling you, “we liked you, but we just can’t admit you.”  If this is you, then, unfortunately, you won’t be able to do much about this.
  • It’s a “soft” let-down to your school: Let’s say you were the star of your school but, given the competition, an admissions office couldn’t grant you admission. If your high school has a relationship with the college, the college may put you on the wait-list in order to avoid saying to a school, “Your best person was just not good enough for us.”  If you’re in this boat, there’s really nothing you can do.

As you can see, in some cases, your effort may matter, and in other cases, it may make no difference whatsoever. However, there’s absolutely no way for you to know. First, let’s cover the Don’ts.

Being on the wait-list is hard, and drives people to do whacky things. If you’re put on the wait-list, here some things that you absolutely shouldn’t do.

  • DON’T slack off. You absolutely have to keep your grades up. Don’t drop classes and don’t let your performance slip. If you do, you risk being disqualified from the process, as no admissions officer can advocate for a student who has a bad case of senioritis.
  • DON’T try to be clever. While you may be tempted to try to stand out by sending cookies with your face on them, or serenading the office first thing the morning after you receive your decision, don’t do it. Being clever may get you some smiles, but it won’t get you noticed. It’s completely and entirely irrelevant.
  • DON’T send in superfluous recommendations. While you may be tempted to try to get someone else to vouch for you, you’re your best advocate in this situation. Extra letters just mean extra work for an admissions officer, and likely they won’t add any new and compelling information to your file.
  • DON’T send extra materials. The time has passed for artistic supplements, athletic videos, and writing samples. The admissions officers themselves don’t actually review these, and it just adds more work to your case.
  • DON’T communicate excessively. Don’t send lots of emails, and don’t call non-stop. The extra communications don’t add much value but add more work for the admissions office. Send a brief, sincere letter. See below for more information on how to do this effectively.
  • DON’T visit. A visit won’t do much for you, especially if your admissions officer is busy. Again, more work for the admissions officer, little value added to your case. Furthermore, a visit may get you more excited and invested in a risky choice, rather than helping you move forward and get excited about another school.
  • DON’T convince your counselor to call. Unless you have a great relationship with your guidance counselor, don’t have them call on your behalf. It won’t add much, and will definitely detract if it seems insincere.

If you’re still unsure about something, call us. Our experts can look at your case and use their knowledge to offer specific advice. We’re here to help!

In order to help your chances of admissions and to cover all your bases, you should do the following:

  • DO follow the school’s directions to a T. This is self explanatory and trumps everything else below.
  • DO continue working hard. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to get off the wait-list, senioritis isn’t an option. Keep your grades and academic rigor up. Get even more involved. Without continued rigor, you have very little chance at making a case for yourself.
  • DO overall, use a light touch. Your admissions officer is completely swamped. You need to send the right things at the right time and no more. Every communication you have adds a bit more work to your case, so be very judicious.
  • DO let the school know about your sincere interest. Though this is far from sufficient to get you off the wait-list, it is necessary. In Lauren’s experience as a counselor, no student on the wait-list was granted admission without reiterating their strong interest in the school.
  • To do this, write a letter. Here are some guidelines.

–>Address it to your admissions officer. Most schools designate an admissions officer for each region and set of schools. The admissions officer who represents your region or school—the one who read your application in the first place—is going to be your best wait-list ally. Find that person’s email address and send your letter directly to that person. You can call the admissions office to get that person’s information. If you stick with the generic admissions@…, your letter may not make it to the person who can advocate for you.

–> Let him or her know where they stand. If (and only if) the school is your top choice, make sure you state that clearly near the beginning of your letter.

–> Update him or her on new and compelling information. If you’ve done something that’s really new and/or compelling, mention it. These are things like maintaining your high GPA through challenging coursework (compelling) or recently taking the lead in an activity (new). Don’t bore them with irrelevant details, though. If it wasn’t relevant enough for your application, don’t mention it here.

–> Be humble and sincere. Understand that your admissions decision is not personal. You are not a victim. They did not make a mistake. Explain to them calmly, humbly, and sincerely why you feel their school is the best fit for you.

–> Be specific. This is the time to reiterate why a school is your top choice (if it is). What specifically about the school draws you? Why do you want to be admitted so badly? Why are you the right candidate to be admitted off the wait list before 100 other students?

–> Be succinct. One page, single-spaced, in 12-point font is more than enough. You need just enough to make your case, and no more. If you go overboard, it will affect your candidacy negatively.

–> Time it right. April is when admissions officers are busy and focused on getting their clear admits to attend. After that, in late April and early May (and even well after, sometimes), they move to evaluating their wait-lists. Though you may be tempted to show your interest immediately, replying to your admissions decision email the moment you get it will mean you’re a distant memory when it comes time to really get down to wait list evaluations. Rather, send your email later in April or in early May to catch your admissions officer when he or she is actually thinking about advocating for people on the wait list.

–> Possibly follow up your email with a call. This is not necessary, and, in fact, may even be discouraged by some admissions offices. However, if the school hasn’t explicitly said not to call, follow your email up with a call a few weeks after you send it. Be prepared to humbly make your case on the phone in a calm, composed manner. If there’ s a chance that you’ll get nervous or crazy, don’t do it.

–> Maybe…just maybe…send an extra essay. If you’ve got a really great essay—the type you would have submitted for the college app—you can send that in. It should be short (no more than two pages) and should be relevant. If you’re in doubt, don’t send it.

–> Get excited about your other options. Getting off the wait-list is a stretch. The best thing you can do is start to get excited about your other options. This may sound harsh, but we would rather you be pleasantly surprised than utterly dejected.

Being on the wait-list isn’t easy, and, in some cases, there’s little chance that you’ll gain admission. Realize that each school and admissions officer has an incredibly difficult job of selecting a class, and don’t take their decision personally. Rather, get excited about the options that you do have—attend the acceptance events, buy the sweaters, meet your potential future peers. Lastly, don’t forget—you’re not the first wait-listed student and you certainly won’t be the last. We wish you the best of luck.

Need a little more help? Contact us today.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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