If you're like many students applying to law school, you would almost rather see a rejection letter than a waitlist letter. While the rejection letter may hurt more, at least you have closure. With a waitlist letter, you have...well, not closure. And a whole lot of waiting, to boot.
What can you do after you get a waitlist letter from a law school?
First off, let's begin by understanding what being waitlisted means.
If you're like the vast majority of waitlisted applicants, your credentials are certainly good enough to get you in. But, since your spot has been reserved for someone else (whose credentials are probably marginally better than yours), you are their Plan B: if a space opens up, you're welcome to join. Don't take any of this personally: everyone has a backup plan or two, yourself included. You call them safeties.
So, let's get the story straight: getting off a waitlist has always been a crapshoot. Most schools are quite good at predicting exactly what percentage of their admitted applicants will choose to go elsewhere, and make up for it by admitting a larger number of students than they expect to have. If the number of students who choose to matriculate (i.e. the school's "yield") happens to be lower than expected, the school will typically reach into its pool of waitlisted applicants to ensure that their 1L class is "well-rounded and diverse." How deep a school might reach into that pool depends on too many variables, and is impossible to predict in advance.
Some law schools create a special, "preferred" category for waitlisted applicants that they really want to admit, but regrettably cannot (for now). If a school uses such a system, the "preferred" waitlist tends to be much shorter than the regular one, and your chances of getting off it are pretty good. You may also find yourself on a preferred waitlist if your numbers are way above the school's median. This may seem counterintuitive at first, until you realize that it's a clever way for the school to protect its yield: if they suspect that you won't attend if admitted, why bother letting you in? Nobody wants to be someone else's backup plan, especially when yield is an important metric that helps determine the school's ranking relative to its peers.
If you do get off the waitlist, don't expect it to be in March, April, or even May. While that does happen, waitlist applicants typically do not get off the wait list until very late in the admissions cycle (sometimes even just a few days before the start of classes!). 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 in no uncertain terms.
So, what should you do if you're waitlisted?
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. 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.
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 in clear, forward prose.
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.
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 keep in regular contact with the school, and they know your interest is still strong.
Most importantly, though, 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.
Image courtesy of Mao Tsé-Tung.