I think waitlist decisions can be harder on applicants than outright rejections. Such decisions provide the disappointment of a rejection but not the closure. Applicants are left with some hope of eventually receiving an admissions offer, but it is usually a slim hope at best. Unfortunately, this also leaves applicants unsure about what they may need to do to increase their chances of being invited off the waitlist.

One of my favorite “waitlist experiences” involves helping a client get off the waitlist at her top-choice school. I will call the client Mary.

Mary was a great student, and several outstanding schools had already accepted her. Yet, there was one Ivy League school she had her heart set on attending. Unfortunately, she only made it onto their waitlist. This was a discouraging predicament for Mary, because hardly anyone receives an invitation to move from the waitlist to the admitted list at this school.

When I spoke with Mary and her parents, I learned that a family crisis occurred right when Mary began her college application process. A family member that Mary had been very close to suffered a tragic and violent death. Mary’s parents had to travel across the country to make funeral arrangements and settle the estate. This left Mary on her own not only to deal with the great loss of her loved one, but also to keep it all together as she completed her college applications.

This background information explained a lot. I had been wondering why the essays Mary had submitted with her applications were so off the mark, just “blah.” They did not reflect what an interesting and amazing young woman Mary is. It was as if she had just been going through the motions and had not seriously thought about the outcomes of her actions.

There was little Mary could do at this point. However, we discussed everything she had gone through that year and how it affected her. It was evident that she needed to share this information with the admissions committee – not to gain their sympathy, but to help provide some context for her situation. Therefore, I helped Mary compose an update letter to the school. It included information about her most recent accomplishments and, more importantly, it concisely explained the circumstances surrounding her application. This letter helped to communicate Mary’s keen and genuine interest in the school in a way that her application had not.

Mary’s parents also wrote a letter. Typically, I discourage parents from writing letters to an admissions committee. However, theirs was not a pleading letter. Rather, it was matter-of-fact, providing additional information about the strenuous circumstances their family had suffered. No excuses were offered, only the reality of their situation. It is unusual for the parents of an applicant to write a letter that can make a difference in an admissions decision, but I think this one did.

Happily, Mary was invited off the waitlist, and quite quickly. I am sure this invitation was due largely to the additional information provided by Mary’s update letter as well as her parents’ letter. These letters provided the context that the admissions officers needed to understand why Mary’s original application did not clearly communicate what an outstanding student and individual she truly is. I am thrilled that I was able to help Mary navigate this through this process successfully.

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