Finding out you’re been waitlisted from grad school means that the graduate selection committee considers you qualified for their program, but there are other qualified candidates and only so many spaces available. The upside of getting waitlisted is that you haven’t been denied admission, and you can take steps to try to upgrade your status to “admitted.” The downside is that, if the school that waitlisted you is your first choice, you may feel left in limbo, unable to make plans until you have further information.
Why is there a waitlist?
From the school’s perspective, a waitlist is important to make sure that the incoming class is both full (every spot filled) and balanced (diverse in age, background, experience, etc.). Most schools admit more students than they can actually accommodate as they expect a certain percentage of admitted applicants will not enroll. If enough admitted applicants opt not to enroll, then spots will eventually open up for waitlisted applicants also. For example, if a school can accommodate 75 new students, they may admit 100 applicants (25 more than there are room for). If 26 of these admitted applicants opt not to enroll, that opens up one more spot for people on the waitlist.
Usually waitlisted students aren’t ranked—but they may be categorized according to background and experience (categories will vary according to a school’s priorities). So if an admitted applicant chooses to enroll elsewhere, the admissions office will aim to fill their spot with someone from the waitlist with a similar biographical profile.
Deciding your next steps
As a waitlisted applicant, your choices are to:
- Walk away—maybe you’ve been admitted elsewhere and you choose to enroll there, or you’ve decided to pursue other academic or career options.
- Wait—because the school is your top choice, it’s the only one you’ve applied to, or you’ve been denied everywhere else.
How to decide whether to walk away or to wait involves gathering facts and reflecting on your own priorities.
Facts you’ll want to gather include:
- When will the school tell you if you’ve finally been admitted? In other words, how long will you have to wait? Because schools operate on different timelines, you should politely ask your admissions officer when further decisions will be made concerning your status. It could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. If you are considering offers from other schools, you’ll need to know what their deadlines are for confirming your spot and paying a deposit.
- What impact does waitlisted status have on financial aid? Often departmental financial aid is first-come first-served, so waitlisted candidates have a disadvantage.
- What can you do to strengthen your application at this point?
Reflecting on your priorities and needs will help you discover whether you can, logistically speaking, wait around. Some questions to ask yourself include:
- Is this school still high on your priority list, or would you be happier making plans with another school that admitted you already?
- How long do you feel comfortable remaining on the waitlist before you have to make a decision about other programs you may have been admitted to?
- What do my mentors and other trusted people around me think I should do?
- Given what you learn about any financial implications of being on the waitlist, how confident are you feeling about funding your education?
If you determine that you would like to remain on the waitlist, there are a few nest steps to consider:
- Confirm your spot on the waitlist: If you are willing to wait for admission, you’ll increase your chances by letting your admissions counselor know that you are still enthusiastic. The letter you received indicating your waitlist status should include a deadline for informing the admissions office about your continued interest in the school. Follow all the guidelines you’ve been given.
- Retake tests: If you suspect or are told that you’re on the waitlist because your test scores weren’t competitive, or because you haven’t had the prerequisite professional experience, do what you can while you are waiting to improve your test scores by retaking the test(s).
- Update the admissions team on any professional, personal, or educational achievements: In some cases, the school you’re waitlisted from may ask for supplemental information. Do not pester the admissions office; however, you can politely check in with your admissions counselor if anything changes that would strengthen your application. For example, maybe you get your grades from a supplemental course, or are promoted into a leadership position at your job. Send a brief letter or email with your news, or with a clarification that will strengthen your case for admission. Be very professional in all correspondence as it still counts as part of your application.
- Stay in touch: Because not everyone on the waitlist is going to wait around for admission, your chances for a favorable outcome increase the longer you are willing to wait. If a spot does open up, admissions professionals are eager to admit candidates who are most likely to enroll. If you stayed in contact with the admissions office (in a thoughtful and polite manner), they will be aware of your continued interest.
If grad school is not in the cards this coming year, you may choose to go with Plan B—an alternative to grad school. For help processing your options and feelings if you’re never taken off the waitlist, check out our articles, What To Do If You Don’t Get Into Grad School and Have a Plan B if Your Grad School Plan Doesn’t Work Out.
If you find yourself on a waitlist, remember that the way you handle yourself really can make a difference. Applicants who follow directions to be in touch by a certain date and who maintain short, courteous, regular (but not overzealous) contact are seen as more interested candidates than those who never check in. A system is in place to handle the waitlist process, and programs cannot always be as accommodating as applicants would like. We hope these steps help as you as you exercise your patience and determine what option may be best for you.