If you're like most college applicants, you would almost rather see a rejection letter than a waitlist letter. While the rejection letter may hurt more, you at least have closure. With a waitlist letter, you have...well, not closure. And a whole lot of waiting, to boot. So what should you do if you're waitlisted at one of your top college choices?
First off, let's begin by understanding what being waitlisted means.
Being waitlisted to a program means that you have good credentials, and the school would like to have you should someone that has been formally accepted choose not to come. It means you have an okay, but not great, chance of getting in. Getting off a waitlist is unlikely, simply because all schools know that a certain percentage of their admitted applicants will choose to go elsewhere, and make up for it by admitting a larger number of students. This is particularly true of Ivy League and similarly-ranked institutions, where the enrollment rate of accepted applicants is very high.
Waitlist notifications usually come out around April--which is particularly awful, given that acceptance letters also come out around that time. This means that you'll be forced to make the choice as to accept the offer of a school that you like, as opposed to opting to wait and see if you get off the waitlist at the school you love--and, often, students end up playing both sides of the game, enrolling at one school with the idea that they'll withdraw their enrollment and go to their waitlist school if they are offered a seat.
Here's the deal when it come to being waitlisted: If you're absolutely sure that you would go to your waitlist school above all others, you need to make sure you communicate that desire to the school in no uncertain terms. It's time to deploy your "PICK ME! PICK ME!" Waitlist Self-Marketing Plan:
Step #1: Do what the school tells you to do.
Along with a notification of your waitlist status, you may also receive a letter from the school telling you what they expect you (or would like you) to do while a final decision is made regarding your file. If they say to complete the enclosed questionnaire and send it in, do it. If they ask you to write an essay telling them why you feel they are your first choice, do it. If they request that you send them an email once a month to advise of your continuing interest, do it. But, most importantly, if they tell you to not do anything, then do that. That can be the hardest thing of all, but you must respect their wishes. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment: you told a waitlist applicant to just sit tight, not do anything, and wait for a decision, and here's that applicant sending weekly emails, updated applications, and additional letters of recommendation.
Would you get annoyed? Yes.
Would you sigh and roll your eyes at the mere mention of the applicant's name? Yes.
As an applicant, do you ever want a school to sigh and roll its eyes at the mention of your name? NO.
Therefore, follow their instructions to the letter.
Now, assuming that they don't give you specific instructions, there are a few things you can do to ensure you remain on the school's radar.
Step #2: Send a letter of continued interest.
In this letter, express your enthusiasm and desire to attend the school, and emphasize why you feel you would be a valuable asset to the law school’s program. Actually do some research on the school before you send this letter in, and speak knowledgeably about it. Don't simply regurgitate rankings or classes. Really think about why you want to go to the school, and tell them as clearly as you can, using examples ("My particular interest and desire to major in Ancient Roman and Greek history, culture, and art will be particularly complemented by Professor Abernathy's advanced courses in the subjects, as well as Professor Blumenthal's lecture series").
Step #3: Send notification when anything substantial happens to your file.
Notice of new grades, prizes, scholarships, jobs, or fellowships are always good to communicate, and are a legitimate reason to touch base with the school.
Step #4: Keep in contact.
Every year, a number of admitted applicants that say they will go to a certain school withdraw their intent to enroll at some point during the summer, which creates vacant seats in a class—seats the school thought it had filled already. This is why it is important to keep in touch with the school throughout the summer months—you may be able to take advantage of these vacated spots if you've kept in regular contact with the school, and they know your interest is still strong.
Step #5: Do not turn into “that applicant.”
If a school doesn't give you directions on how to communicate your interest while you're on the waitlist, then occasional brief communiqués with useful information and expressions of enthusiasm are good. However, daily emails and weekly phone calls are not. Control yourself, and always put yourself in the school's shoes. If in doubt, ask someone impartial to the process to weigh in on what they think. If they tell you to cool your jets, then do it, no questions asked.
Photo: "Wait" courtesy of Ged Carroll