Waitlists, and the Hell of Admissions Limbo

Waitlists stink, don't they? I'm receiving a lot of emails right now from applicants agonizing about their waitlists. No matter what kind of program you've applied to -- college, business school, law school, public health, doesn't matter -- the process works more or less the same. Here's the drill:

You're on a waitlist because something about your file made you less than an easy decision to admit.

Maybe it's because one of your numbers is too low.

Maybe it's because you are a total stud and the school assumes you'll go somewhere higher up the food chain. Why risk taking a hit to its yield rate by wasting an offer on you?

Maybe it's because your numbers are great but your essay is subliterate.

Maybe one of your recommenders sandbagged you.

Maybe you flubbed your interview.

Maybe you're a perfectly fine applicant but your competition is really, really tough this year.

There could be a million reasons why you're on a waitlist. Or in a cryptic "hold" category. Or a cryptic... something. Example:

Dear Anna,

First, thank you so much! I applied to law school last Fall and consulted your book religiously. It's hard for me to describe how much your guide helped me through my application process -- not least in helping me avoid a number of things I now recognize to be application pitfalls. As a result, I've been admitted to 9 of the 12 law schools to which I applied, all but one in the top 14. I've recommended your book to everyone I know who's interested in applying to law school.

But now I find myself in a position that your book doesn't seem to address directly. I've been but on hold at two schools (Harvard and the University of Chicago). I've also received a cryptic email from a third (Yale) that said I would either be admitted or waitlisted in the coming weeks.

My roommate is in the same situation with Columbia, and I know a number of other applicants that are currently in the "on hold" limbo at other schools. Being put "on hold" seems fairly common, but no one seems to know the best course of action in this scenario. Should I start sending additional materials? Should I call the HLS admissions office and tell them Harvard is my first choice? I'm worried that by doing nothing I'll be wasting a huge opportunity.

Thanks again for all your guidance so far. Any advice you could offer would a great reassurance.

First, you should know that at this point in the season, being waitlisted, being "on hold," and not having heard anything at all are more or less the same for practical purposes.

Schools are waiting to see how things shake out after their first deposits come in. Then they do a head count, see if they are under- or over subscribed, see what their medians and quartiles look like, make sure they have enough minorities, etc. etc. -- all the stuff they get paid to worry about. Inevitably, there's some tweaking they have to do, and that tweaking continues for the rest of the summer, even into orientation. They spend the rest of the summer feverishly engineering their incoming class.

Why so long? Because in a world of the common app, gazillions of applications per person, and multiple deposits (with some variation, but not much, from program to program), admissions officers really can't get a true headcount just by looking at deposits. Deposits signify nothing about your true intention to attend, which is the main reason schools now maintain waitlists that are absurdly deep.

And as soon as someone gets off a waitlist somewhere else, and withdraws from the schools to which he has already sent deposits, the Big Mad Shuffle begins. It's like musical chairs. And it also means that admissions officers themselves have no earthly idea how the waitlist is going to unfold. There are even people who put down deposits and then just fail to show up at orientation. You might get that waitlist call after you've moved into student housing and bought your books and started playing stupid getting-to-know-you icebreaker and team-building games with your new classmates.

The bottom line is that the waitlist process is completely unpredictable for everyone involved. If admissions officers seem cryptic, it's because they don't know how things are going to develop any more than you do.

Which is why I scratch my head a bit when I get other emails from people saying, "I just sent my waitlist stuff in two weeks ago, and I still haven't heard anything, and OMG it's already so late, why haven't I heard anything yet???" It's not late in the process at all. By waitlist standards, it's early. Really, really early.

So, what to do when you find yourself in that situation? Well, put yourself in the shoes of the admissions officer. You're a mere mortal, and mere mortals are a little bit lazy, right? So if you find yourself having to fill a spot, and you're looking at a waitlist that's hundreds deep, do you want to have to call 300 people to find that one person who is willing to change his plans at the very last second? Nope. You'd rather call your mental shortlist of the 5 or 10 people who you think are the most likely to say "yes" when you call. You'll still have certain gaps to fill -- numbers you need, demographics you need, all that stuff over which applicants have no control anyway -- but fundamentally, you also care very much about how quickly you can fill that spot, and applicants do have some control over that.

What that means for you, the applicant: if you find yourself waitlisted, "on hold," or completely ignored by the powers that be at this point in the admissions season, you want to make crystal clear to your school of choice that you would be the guy who says "yes." You do that by writing them and telling them without any ambiguity that you remain very, very interested, and that you would accept an offer if you received one. You can make that promise to only one school, so be strategic about it, and be honest with yourself. (And if you know in your heart that you wouldn't say "yes" if that call came around, be a good citizen and take yourself off the waitlist. You'll make someone else very happy.) The other schools on your shortlist should get the strong expression of continued interest, without the promise to accept an offer.

Stay in touch with your shortlist of schools about once a month. That's often enough to stay on their radar screens without looking like a pest or a stalker. Those letters will feel very repetitive, and that's OK. If you have updates to share in those communications, so much the better, but don't feel as if you have to manufacture lame updates if all you have to say is... "I'm still really interested."

If your schedule and budget permit, visit the school. Say hello. Introduce yourself to the nice people at the front desk. Hand deliver your LOCI (letter of continued interest). Do not pitch a tent in the quad or call people at home or do anything stupid.

What doesn't work, in my experience?

  • Extra letters of recommendation. Rec letters have such questionable value to begin with; sending more of them doesn't add a whole lot more value, although I would make an exception for MBA applications, where the recs really do matter.
  • Extra essays, unless (1) additional essays are invited (like Chicago Law School's hold essay), or (2) you have not yet sent a very tailored, very credible "here's why I love your school!" essay as part of your original application.

Keeping my fingers crossed for you you... I know the wait is excruciating.