How To Get Off The MBA Waitlist

by on April 11th, 2013

Getting waitlisted is a far cry from being accepted, but it’s even farther from being rejected. Here’s how to seal the deal for good.

You spent the last six months, not to mention the last six years, preparing to go to business school. Now it’s December, you log on to check your application status, and staring you back in the face is the most perplexing of three possibilities: You were neither accepted nor rejected, but WAITLISTED! You just entered admissions limbo—the place where all great candidacies go to sit and wait for further judgment. Psychologically, it’s almost worse than rejection: You don’t know whether to pack your bags and plan your pre-MBA summer in Ibiza or play the waiting game. (Never play the waiting game, no matter what the waitlist letter says. Even when the waitlist notification letter says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”) At least when you’re rejected, it’s like dealing with death: It is what it is, and you eventually come to some sense of acceptance about it. You get to heal, you get to dust yourself off, and you move on, in this case to the next school.

So what does being waitlisted signify? I see waitlisted candidates create all kinds of meanings for their waitlisted status. The most common—and most incorrect—is that they weren’t good enough. And even if they were to get accepted from the waitlist, they think they’re a second choice, an also-ran.

Here’s the deal about waitlists: Being waitlisted means you were qualified and worthy. But there was one element that was lacking or in question. What that element is directly relates to how you get yourself off the waitlist. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe.

Actions You Can Take to Get Off the Waitlist

Waitlisted candidates can choose from a variety of actions designed to add some fire to their candidacy. Not all of these actions are appropriate for everybody. See the three profiles in the following sections to determine which of the following actions are right for you.

1. Understand your waitlist status. There are two kinds of waitlists. The opt-out waitlist means that a school automatically puts you on its waitlist unless you tell them to remove you. The opt-in waitlist requires that you accept a position on the list, usually within a certain time frame. Always accept a waitlist offer, even if you’re not sure what you want to do. You can always withdraw later.

2. Immediately ask for an application review. Some MBA programs, like Cornell’s Johnson School, will give you feedback as to why you were waitlisted. They may even make specific suggestions for how you can improve your chances of getting off the waitlist and into the incoming class. (I have known Columbia to ask people to raise their GMAT thirty points, for example, for automatic entry.) If your school offers reviews, the waitlist letter will say so. If it specifically tells you not to contact them, don’t ask. If the school is unclear, or if you get an obviously personalized waitlist notification from a specific individual, feel free to ask for feedback.

3. Write an update letter. You only write a single update letter—they don’t need to be notified every time your boss says “good job.” Submit your letter via email three to four weeks after getting waitlisted. If you were waitlisted as a first-round applicant, send your update letter in about four weeks before the second-round decision-announcement date, as many waitlisted first-round candidates are actively considered as second round candidates as well.

4. Get a new recommendation. Unless the school specifically asks that you do not send in a new recommendation, you’ll want to take this step. If you applied to a school that requires three recs, like Harvard and Stanford, you’ve already got a third rec “in the can” you could use for any school that originally required only two recs.

5. Get letters of support. Now is when letters of support are most effective—an additional voice to weigh in now that the school has already judged you worthy.

6. Take a class. If your GPA is low, that probably factored heavily into why you weren’t a clear admit. Immediately sign up for a couple of community college classes at night—and get As—to prove you’ve got the intellectual ability as well as the discipline to do well in a rigorous quantitative curriculum. The four best classes to choose from are any kind of accounting, microeconomics, calculus, or statistics.

7. Retake the GMAT. Let them know your plans in your update letter— including the date you intend to take the test—and send them the result in a “ping” email. If you’ve already got a 700-plus GMAT, or at least an 80 percentile quant score, raising your score further won’t likely help. If you were waitlisted with less than a 680 GMAT, raising it to at least 680 may dramatically increase your chances of getting off the waitlist. If you were waitlisted at a very competitive school with less than a 680 GMAT, chances are the school really liked you—they simply have concerns about your score. Raising that score removes the most likely reason you were waitlisted rather than accepted outright.

8. Visit the campus and visit again. No matter why you’ve been waitlisted, you should get yourself to campus ASAP. Ask to see an admissions officer; include this request in your update letter. Many schools will be happy to accommodate you; for the ones that won’t, camp out in the admissions office and ambush someone. Seriously—that has worked for many of our candidates in the past! Tell them you were in town on business and you simply wanted to put a face to the name. Don’t spend more than five minutes with an admission officer unless they invite you to stay longer.

9. Ping the committee. Your first contact will be your update letter, and you’ll continue to ping the committee after that with a brief note. Send a brief note to your waitlist manager (if you were assigned one) or to the director of admissions expressing your continued interest in the school, willingness to provide further information, or anything else you feel is appropriate. “Ping” emails should go out about once every three weeks. When decision time comes, it is your name they will remember.

Evan Forster and David Thomas are the founders of admissions consulting firm Forster-Thomas Inc. and the authors of The MBA Reality Check.


1 comment

  • Really good article!

    I was put on the waitlist by Georgetown University and clearly my low gmat was the  problem (610, Q39 V36).  I only had a couple of weeks to retake it but i decided not to because I could not prepare it properly within this timeframe. I decided to have support letter from former professor in finance to support my quantitative abilities and also a letter of continued interest plus an additional recommendation letter...

    Not sure it will be enough...


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