How to Survive the Waitlist

You've been waitlisted at your top B-school choice. What do you do now? The answers vary by school, but hard sells rarely work anywhere

Imagine spending months putting together a B-school application and waiting 8 to 12 weeks for a decision—then comes a decision that isn't really a decision at all. You're on the waitlist.

It you find it confusing, you're not alone. As with many aspects of the B-school admissions process, there are no uniform rules for how to proceed. You could sit back and wait for the school of your choice, actively market yourself to the waitlisting school, or move on to Plan B.

Sara Neher, admissions director of the University of Virginia's Darden School, says she understands the confusion many waitlisted applicants feel because even she had a misunderstanding at first about what the waitlist means in the B-school context. "At the undergraduate level, the waitlist is typically very small, and it's very rare to come off the waitlist," she says. "At business school, that's not [necessarily] true."

Shifting Numbers

At B-schools such as Darden that have multiple deadlines, being put on the waitlist is often more like a deferral—waitlisted candidates from Round 1 are considered along with the rest of the applicant pool from the next deadline, becoming, in effect, Round 2 applicants. Schools with rolling admissions may waitlist more people early on in the process until the admissions office has a better handle on what the entire applicant pool for the year will look like.

The number of students put on and accepted from a school's waitlist can also vary significantly from year to year, depending on a variety of factors, including application volume and yield. Last year, for example, MIT-Sloan waitlisted about 150 applicants—about 5% of the total application pool—50 of whom were ultimately admitted, according to data the school provided to

Four years earlier, when B-school application volume was nearing an all-time high, MIT waitlisted a slightly higher percentage of applicants, but accepted only a dozen. At Darden, Neher speculates that higher application volume so far this year—and the school's record-high yield last year—might mean more applicants will find themselves on the waitlist.

Don't Read Between the Lines

Highly selective schools with perennially high yields typically have small, not very active waitlists. At Harvard Business School—where 91% of accepted applicants ultimately enrolled—not a single applicant was accepted from last year's waitlist, according to Admissions Director Deirdre Leopold. (For more details on waitlist acceptances and policies at a number of leading B-schools, see table.)

Schools also have differing attitudes about the amount of contact they expect to have with waitlisted applicants. Some schools, such as Harvard, maintain a strict "wait and see" approach and contend that they don't use the waitlist to reevaluate credentials. However, many B-schools do invite additional information from waitlisted applicants about new GMAT scores, say, or a promotion at work that might tip the balance. Some of these schools will even provide feedback to waitlisted applicants to help point out weaknesses or gaps in applications. Still other schools don't actively solicit new information but don't disregard it either, leaving it up to applicants to decide what might help.

The waitlisted applicant's first rule? Follow instructions. If a school says they don't want to receive supplemental materials, don't send them. Admissions Director Thomas Caleel is very clear about Wharton's "no additional materials" waitlist policy, but says that every year, some applicants still send additional information anyway. "I don't view that positively," he says. "There's a lot of other people who have followed the instructions, and so why would we give preference to someone who doesn't?"

The Fit Test

Similarly, if a school you're set on attending suggests a way to improve your application, such as retaking the GMAT or the TOEFL, do it. "If someone has the opportunity to retake the test and they don't, it only hurts them," says Soojin Kwon Koh, interim director of admissions at Michigan's Ross School.

At many B-schools, your level of enthusiasm about remaining on the waitlist can also be important. "At Columbia, MIT, and Tuck, it's like fraternity rush," says admissions consultant Sanford Kreisberg of Cambridge Essay Service. "Just another test of whether you deeply fit in or not."

At MIT-Sloan, waitlist manager and Assistant Admissions Director Jennifer Burke says waitlisted candidates should certainly be proactive in showing their commitment to the school. "We want to admit applicants from the waitlist who are going to accept our offer," she says. At the same time, she adds, applicants should be wary of overkill—a sentiment shared by most of her peers in other B-schools admit offices. "Contacting us constantly in an effort to convince us of the sincerity of their interest is not a good strategy," says Peter Johnson, co-director of admissions at Berkeley's Haas School.

Backfiring Tactics

As a general rule, checking in every month or so is usually O.K. Every few days? Not so good. Pressuring an admissions committee to make a decision—say by announcing "I need to know by this date"—is another strategy that doesn't go over well, says Michigan's Koh (see, 7/31/06, "When 'Persistent' Becomes 'Pushy'").

Admissions officers also agree that when submitting new information, applicants should stick to info that's genuinely new. Says Neher: "I would only want to hear from them if something has changed: a promotion, or a conference, or a fundraiser that they organized that was successful."

Admissions consultant Graham Richmond of Clear Admit says in some cases visiting a school can be a good way to show them you're interested. "Even if you haven't been promoted, maybe you visited and had coffee with the head of the real estate club, if that's your field of interest, and you've learned some new things that make you even more enthusiastic," he says.

But don't use a school visit as an excuse to plead your case in person, warns Richmond. "Some people do the old 'demand a meeting with an admissions officer,' or just show up on campus asking to sit down with someone, the assumption being, 'Oh, if I can just get five minutes of face time, I'll talk my way in.' Usually it has the opposite effect."

Wait and See

But there are exceptions there, too. At Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School, Admissions Director Laurie Stewart says her office welcomes waitlisted candidates who visit campus. "I try to meet as many waiting-list candidates as possible when they do visit," she says. "Although these meetings are short, I can answer questions about the process and get to know a little more about them."

Soliciting additional letters of support are another gray area when it comes to admissions committees. While some schools appreciate letters that shed new light on an area of an applicant's candidacy, others don't want to be bothered—often because a lot of those letters aren't at all useful in helping admissions committees evaluate someone's candidacy.

Amanda Carlson, a waitlist manager and senior associate director of admissions at Columbia GSB, says candidates should also realize that after a point, there's only so much proactive work that can be done. "What can be so stressful and frustrating for the applicants is that much of the waitlist process is just that—waiting," she says.

Above all, says one former waitlister, Cindy Bo, now a Columbia GSB grad, "Remain optimistic. If it doesn't happen, there's always next year."

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