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March 10, 2009


For months leading up to the start of the academic year, my brother Ross was making two drastically different sets of plans.

Ross was on the waiting list at his dream school, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which happened to be only miles from his Cherry Hill, N.J. home.

But just in case, he was set to start classes at another medical school in dreary Erie, Pennsylvania. He had plunked down money for an apartment, arranged to buy a friend's furniture, and even bought a laptop computer required by the school.

Then on the Friday afternoon before the start of classes, someone dropped out at UMDNJ. Ross eagerly accepted the invitation to join the class of 2004.

My brother can't say for certain how much of his ability to get off the list was luck and how much his sporadic emails to the dean and impromptu visits to the admissions office increased his chances.

"People told me to be a pain in the ass, to keep calling and bothering [the dean] because that's what some other doctors said they did to get in," he says. "But that just wasn't me. I do agree that it pays to know people and to use whomever you know [for recommendations.]"~

Tactics, basic and extreme

According to admissions officers and education experts, Ross's approach to wooing the people in power is one of the ways of increasing your chances of getting off the waiting list and into your dream school. But they warn against pursuing your dream school too enthusiastically.

Sometimes unusual tactics can work. Trent Anderson, who writes regularly on college issues for Kaplan Inc., recalls one enterprising student who rented an apartment, sat for first-day classes and informed admissions counselors that it was obvious he could do the work. He was admitted.

Still, Anderson doesn't recommend the more extreme approaches.

"Most people who try something like that end up annoying the admissions officers and not getting in," says Anderson, author and editor of Kaplan's How To Get Into College.

You'll annoy the "Lords of the List" if you call them every day or even every week, Anderson and other experts say.

Express genuine interest and keep admissions officers apprised of real developments - such as updated transcripts, awards or your acceptances to other schools - he says. But don't be too aggressive.

"It's a balancing act," he says.

~I'm good enough, I'm smart enough?

If you are placed on a college waiting list it means that the people in charge think you have the right credentials, academic and otherwise, to succeed at that school, experts say. You're just not (immediately) preferred.

"Colleges are trying to shape a class with well-rounded intellectuals, artists, athletes who balance out the campus community," says Rod Bugurin, assistant dean of admissions at prestigious Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., explaining the waiting-list concept. "And after admitting a class, college deans and administrators cross their fingers hoping to yield what they've admitted. The waitlist ensures that the diversity that colleges are striving for is ensured."

Unfortunately, it's impossible to generalize about your chances of making it into a school from the waiting list. The more prestigious a school is, the smaller its waiting list is and the worse your chances are of admittance. Waiting list lengths vary by year as well.

For example, Anderson predicts that people on waiting lists for MBA programs in 2001 will find little success since so many strong applicants want to escape the softening economy.

"You can't read too much into something that happened last year," he says. "In grad school programs, it's not atypical in one year to admit 30 off the list, and the next year not to admit anyone."

Adding to the confusion, schools with multiple application deadlines, such as Harvard University, don't even have official waiting lists, Anderson says. Your application might get pushed from an earlier batch of applications to later piles, as admissions staff sift the heaps of applications, looking for those applicants who will diversity the class.

Be proactive - ask questions

And some schools rank contenders on their waiting list. My brother learned about the rankings at his medical school when a college representative called to request his transcripts one day last spring.

When Ross called back, he was informed that he made the top 10 list and had "very good" chances of getting in.

"Right when I accepted the fact that I was going to be moving to Erie, I found out I might be staying," Ross says. "Then I started worrying about it even more."

Experts says you should find out the school's waiting list procedure. How many people are on the list, and where do you stand in relation to others? Some schools ranks applicants, others do not.

Ask for an explanation as to why you're on the waiting list as soon as possible. Shane Linkous didn't ask for answers when he was wait-listed at the prestigious Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas. Only after he was ultimately rejected from his dream school did he ask why.

"It turned out that the reviewing committee had not received all of my letters or recommendation at the time they voted," says Linkous of Irving, Tex. "Had all of my letters been received, the admissions committee would have considered academic references from three Ph.D.s who were all Texas alumni." If Linkous had inquired about the reason for his waitlisting, he might have had time to ensure his recommendations were read, possibly helping his chances for admittance.

Sometimes a bluff works wonders, especially if you have nothing to lose. One current law student was disheartened when she received responses from the only three law schools where she applied. Of the schools, all three considered among the top 10, she was rejected from one and waiting listed at two.

When she hadn't heard anything from either school by the middle of the summer, she decided it was time for action.

" I called up my first-choice school on a Monday morning and told them that I needed to make some decisions (implying that I had other offers I had to give answers to) and stressed that they were my top choice, but I would reluctantly have to take them off my list if I didn't hear something by the end of the week," she said. "They called me back on Tuesday morning and told me that I had made it in.

"It's the old psychological principle that we always want what we're told we can't have."


Filed Under: Education|Grad School