Waitlists are the purgatory of college admissions. You’re not in, but you’re not out. Often, there’s no universal reason a candidates is waitlisted. Sometimes, you don’t size-up to the competition. Other times, you fit in fine with their admits, but there weren’t enough spots. Perhaps they had twenty applicants with the same interests, potential and qualifications, but only had room for fifteen. Keep in mind: you’re still on their list, and they’re still at the top of yours. They believe you’re qualified.
How waitlists work. All colleges want a full incoming class. That’s how they stay afloat. So, when admissions officers send out acceptance letters, they make a conservative estimate of their yield (the percentage of admitted students who will actually enroll). In case the yield falls short of their projections, they need some students on back-up who can fill out the incoming class. These are the students on the waitlist. For more insight into a specific school’s waitlist policies, visit their admissions blog. Do not, however, pay heed to previous year’s statistics. These vary greatly from year-to-year, as you’ll find on many admissions blogs.
First Steps. Find the key person in admissions, establish contact, and keep in touch with meaningful communications. You might be waitlisted at more than one school. It’s possible all three of your top-choice schools will waitlist you. When a waitlist letter arrives, you have to ask yourself a few critical questions: “How badly do I really want to attend this college?” “What about this college makes me really want to attend?” and “Why are those things so important to me?”
The Letter of Continued Interest. You’ll write a letter to the admissions office. E-mail is even better. College admissions offices assign their counselors to regions of the country (and world). This officer is the one that travels to your state, and does college fairs at your high school. They are your admission rep, and this is the person you should write your letter to. Many schools provide specific instructions for writing the office. They’ll ask you to include information like your applicant ID number. Always send the letter to your admission rep, and one directly to the file office (there’s often a fax# or monitored email). This way, if they pick up your file for a second read, it will be right there. Here’s what your letter should do:
1) “I am going to your school!” Explicitly state your ongoing interest in this college. If admitted, you will definitely enroll. No questions asked. Done deal. Show confidence in your choice. Don’t be bitter. Show there are no hard feelings. Stay away from sentences like “I was disappointed.”
2) Build a Relationship. Were you a bit formal in your application? Of course. But, now, you’re writing to a real person. In fact, you’re asking a person to take time out of their day to listen to you. So make this letter a conversation. Write how you would speak. You want your letter to build a relationship with the admissions counselor, through tone and content.
3) Why that school? Explain why you want this college. Your reasons should be as specific as possible (“I have done research on the role of women in Mesopotamia and am eager to work with Professor Snurdley whose writing in this area is renowned”) and not generic (“It is an excellent school, and I fell in love with the beautiful campus. It has outstanding faculty and amazing resources.”)Think of this as your second shot at a “Why our school?” essay. Many schools include prompts like USC’s “Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections,” or Northwestern’s “What are the unique qualities of Northwestern - and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying - that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified?” You can focus this section in one of two directions: (1) resources, or (2) academics.
4) Update. What’s new with you since you submitted that application? Probably a few things: (1) fall semester grades, (2) significant extracurricular achievements (3) maybe an inspirational talk or educational experience (4) perhaps a paper you wrote? (1) and (2) can be listed. Request your high school counselor send an updated transcript. Share what’s coming. Perhaps you’re taking up an internship relevant to your academic interests, or traveling to Nigeria on a volunteer trip, or attending an international conference. You are preparing yourself for an immersive college experience.
5) Show More. Share sides of yourself not shown in your application. This means revisiting your application. Ask, “What about me do they not know yet?” Saying what’s already been said about you only waters down your application. It dilutes the strength of brevity. Remember, they have already decided you are qualified.
Your Guidance Counselor. The first, and most important thing your guidance counselor can do, is forward an updated transcript to the admissions, if available. This depends largely on your school’s academic calendar. Schools begin considering waitlist positions after May 1st, when all admitted students will have accepted or declined their place in the incoming class. If you have new grades (on the quarter or trimester system), forward those immediately. If your guidance counselor has no formal documents to forward, you can ask them to fax a document reporting your current grades and curriculum.
Being Strategic. Remember, every school weighs application content differently. Some schools indicate “rigor of secondary school curriculum” a very important factor in their admissions decision. Others deem “personal qualities and character” a very important factor, while still others categorize “background/ethnicity” as very important. Your letter of continued interest should emphasize whichever factors the school designated very important in admissions decisions.