How To Get Off The MBA Waitlist

An excerpt from the best-selling book, The MBA Reality Check

An excerpt from the best-selling book, The MBA Reality Check

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 CLASSES. 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.

  • Waitlisted

    As a waitlisted candidate for this application season, I have done a lot of these things (provided updates, expressed my interest, etc.), but to no avail. There’s still a couple more weeks before it’s officially over, but to be dragged so long on the waiting list journey for your top choice school, just for it to end in a rejection, is incredibly brutal and far worse than just being dinged early on. I wish schools would be more transparent (some do a better job than others) on the process and be honest with candidates instead of just dragging them for the ride. Are there going to be “waves”? Let us know. Or are we simply waiting for admits to drop out (at which point it becomes almost impossible)? Without this information for my wait-list schools (including my dream school), it’s been very frustrating being hopeful on Monday that something could happen in the week, just to feel dejected on Friday when no call has come in, then rinse and repeat the following week. We all put in a lot of work in our apps and invest so much time, money, and emotions into the process; to put it bluntly, it sucks.

  • Dan Jones

    These ForsterThomas guys are charlatans. They’re charging a ton of money for nothing. Their service/timeliness sucks and they don’t even provide mock interviews after you’ve paid hard cash for “interview preparation”. Take your money elsewhere and beware of unethical business practices.

  • Curious

    Wait-list Machine –

    I saw your post and I was wondering if you would be willing to share the rest of your general profile? I.e., undergrad GPA, school, career, etc. Those are the exact schools I’m looking to apply to this coming fall and I’m looking for some comparables. Any insight would be appreciated. Good luck with the wait-list process, I hope you get in!


  • Syed

    I am waitlisted at Ross, Johnson and Yale – one would think, something must be missing in my profile but everybody keeps telling me that I’ve everything that they look for. I’ve updated all 3 of them with all the steps I’ve taken since submitting my application but have not heard anything back. Would increasing gmat score by 30-40 point ensure entry?

  • Waitlist Machine

    I was waitlisted at Booth (R1), Kellogg (R1), Darden (R2), and Fuqua (R2). Have done everything on this list, except take the GMAT again (current score Q49 V38 – 710). Only difference is I sent two update letters (one additional b/c I got a promotion after sending my first update letter). I was dinged at Booth after the two update letters, 2 student notes of support, another campus visit, and a EC – Volunteer rec letter. No acceptance at Kellogg so far. Looking to do all the same with Fuqua and Darden. The waitlist feels like more of a crapshoot than general admissions with the initial application in my opinion.