Of all of the notifications you could receive from the admissions committee regarding your graduate school application, hearing that you've been placed on the wait list is probably the most difficult to handle. You still do not know anything one way or the other.
As I suggested last week when discussing how to respond when you are denied admission, accept being wait-listed and consider the following points.
1. Don't assume you are going to be denied: As a dean of admissions, when I placed an applicant on the wait list it meant that he or she stood a very good chance of being admitted, but I needed more information or had questions on something in the application before I decided to admit. If you stay calm, confident, and patient, you will most likely get more encouraging news down the road.
[Don't fall for these law school wait list myths.]
2. Make sure you follow instructions: If you do not receive any information about what to do next, ask. If you are given specific instructions, follow every one of them. If you are told there is nothing you can do, accept that and do not do anything. It may tell you something about this particular graduate school if they do not provide you an opportunity to further address your interest in their program.
Here are some of the steps you may be able to take if placed on the wait list.
1. Solicit and accept feedback like a professional: If feedback is offered, take advantage of it! Listen to what you are told, and do not argue or complain. Thank the person providing the information and make sure you know how you should respond. If a letter from you is welcome, write one as soon as you can. Address each issue head on and explain why and how you believe you can "overcome" the concern.
[Learn how to get into medical school off the wait list.]
2. Mount a letter of recommendation campaign: This is the time to have two or three additional individuals write recommendation letters for you, or for some of your original recommenders to write again. Send at most three or four letters of recommendation at this point. More is overkill.
3. Request an interview: If this is one of your top choices, offer to come to campus. If an interview is not made available, but you did interview with an alumnus or current student during the application process, contact your interviewer to see what recommendations he or she would make. This person might even be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you.
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4. Be cautiously creative: Some wait-listed applicants send a two- or three-minute DVD, poem, E-card or a "Top 10 Reasons Why I Should be Admitted" list. Please do not do all of these for the same institution! Choose one, and avoid sending the following, each of which I personally experienced as a dean of admissions:
• dice, with the message, "Here's hoping the dice will be thrown in my favor."
• a mirror, with the message, "Here's hoping I'll be looking at you next fall."
5. Write a thank-you note: You should send a confidential, hand-written note to the person who signed your notification letter a few weeks before you expect a final decision. Indicate your level of interest in this program, and mention that you have responded as requested to your wait list status. End the note by thanking this person for the time and attention he or she has given and will give to your application. If this graduate school is your top choice, it is appropriate to indicate that you will enroll if admitted.
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6. Prepare for both admission and denial: Be patient and professional while waiting, and get ready to hear a final decision. While an acceptance is much easier to prepare for than a denial, be ready for either response.
If there's a time to help admissions committee get a sense of you for better or worse, it is when you have been placed on the wait list. There are several reasons schools create a wait list, but deliberately trying to frustrate you is not one of them.
If you come across as being offended, inconvenienced, angry, resentful, argumentative, or arrogant, you are almost certainly determining the outcome of your application: You will be denied. However, if you go with the flow and hang in there with a positive and confident outlook, you will help yourself a great deal.