What to Expect When You’re on a Waitlist for Medical School

Updated on May 2, 2021

Applying to the medical school of your dreams and awaiting that coveted acceptance letter can be one of the most exciting and defining moments of your professional career. For that reason, it can be perplexing to receive a response notifying you of your waitlist status. You are now probably thinking about reconsidering talking with college admissions consultants for this matter. It may get you on the edge on whether or not you will make it.

What exactly does being waitlisted entail, anyway? If you’re deferred, it may indicate that the higher-learning institution has not finished assessing your application and file. Despite popular misconceptions, being waitlisted is not synonymous with receiving a deferral letter. If a school waitlists you, its admissions committee hasn’t finished assessing your application. They’ve simply chosen to place you on a waiting list for later review, admission pending. 

If you want more information regarding the fundamentals of waitlists and similar topics, visit the CollegeData website. With this online resource, you can streamline your decision-making process by comparing your top-choice colleges on various criteria such as acceptance rate, cost, student body size, graduation rates, etc. With CollegeData, you can also utilize the on-site financial aid tracker and the scholarship finder to minimize yearly tuition costs and avoid incurring thousands of dollars in student debt. 

Whether you resort to online resources or choose to consult family members, friends, or mentors about their experiences with waitlisting, your place on the waitlist doesn’t define you. In a few months, you could receive an acceptance letter and take your first steps on campus shortly after. While it’s easy to feel isolated from your peers flaunting their acceptance letters to prestigious medical schools, you’ll need to maintain a sense of balanced optimism to be successful in your attempts to get off the waitlist. 

How many people find themselves on a waitlist each year? 

To cope with the unexpected news, remind yourself that you stand amongst the thousands of students waitlisted annually. While it might be tempting to accept defeat and stew in the implications of your top-choice university’s decision, factor in your college’s average acceptance rate before grieving over a less-than-stellar GPA or college application essay. 

As of 2020, all eight Ivy League institutions’ acceptance rates ranged between 4.9% (Harvard University) and 8.8% (Dartmouth College) for the class of 2024, making admission a relatively unlikely outcome. If your top three universities consist of Ivy League institutions, don’t feel disheartened by your waitlist status. In fact, qualifying for a waitlist can be a notable achievement in and of itself, especially when applying for a globally-ranked university. 

In some cases, universities waitlist overqualified applicants as a test of their commitment to the institution. In other situations, an admissions board may waitlist a student with a competitive GPA and extracurriculars to encourage them to apply for more prestigious universities and stop underestimating their abilities. Don’t misconstrue with the admissions committee’s intentions. While it’s possible you may have made a glaring mistake on your application or couldn’t compete with other more qualified applicants, it’s also possible you were overqualified and better suited for a higher-ranked institution. 

Why do waitlists exist?

Why exactly do admission boards waitlist students rather than ruling them out immediately? Generally speaking, medical schools utilize a waitlist as a buffer to avoid leaving gaping holes in the school’s student body. Because these institutions depend on student fees and tuition fees to fund staff salaries, on-campus construction, facilities maintenance, etc., failing to fill open slots can be detrimental to the university in question. 

In response to the unpredictability of how many students will accept these admission offers, admission boards often establish a waitlist, which acts as a pool of candidates used to supplement the number of students who choose to enroll. Put simply, a waitlist shields a university from incurring devastating financial losses if a notable percentage of accepted applicants decline these offers. 

What’s the likelihood of securing admission? 

The size of most colleges’ applicant pools has followed an upward trend, making the admission process all the more competitive. After processing your waitlist status, you’ll need to confront the brutal reality of the situation. 

Unfortunately for those waitlisted students, some higher education institutions admit to accepting a jarring 0% of their waitlisted applicants, while others only admit a mere 1%. Though there are always exceptions to the rule, selective colleges averaged at a 7% waitlist acceptance rate, setting off alarm bells for those students banking on admission to their top-choice college.

While an admission board’s need for a safety net is undeniable, a university’s projections of the number of students who will decline admissions offers are relatively accurate. Because university staff can predict this rate with a minimal margin of error, they’ll enroll additional students to compensate, eliminating the need to source students from the waitlist entirely. 

When assessing your options, don’t overlook these nearly one-in-a-million odds. A realistic and logical mindset will serve you in both your coursework and your admissions-related decision-making processes.

Should I stay on the waitlist or move on? 

Many soon-to-be-undergraduates perceive waitlisting to be an irredeemable failure when it’s merely a call-to-action. Once you’ve come to terms with the disorienting gray area that is college waitlists, you’ll need to make an important decision. Should I stay on the waitlist or move on? 

This decision will depend on your other offers. According to U.S. News, experts often recommend applying for between four to eight higher-education institutions. If you’ve followed this expert advice and pride yourself on your glowing transcripts, you’ll likely have other offers from universities that earned their spot on your top-choices list. 

Should you find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place, choosing between your safety school and waiting for acceptance on your top choice’s waitlist, you might consider playing the waiting game, given the potential to attend your dream university. 

If you commit to remaining on your university of choice’s waitlist, note that you risk jeopardizing opportunities for merit-based scholarships and need-based financial assistance, as a university distributes financial aid on a first-come-first-serve basis. Housing options may similarly dwindle as time passes, forcing you to settle for cramped shared living spaces, which can negatively impact your college experience. 

Before finalizing your decision, you’ll need to note critical deadlines such as your safety school’s acceptance deadline and compare them to your top-choice college’s anticipated response date. If your first-choice institution experiences unforeseen delays, you also risk forfeiting the initial deposit if you choose to revoke the acceptance letter addressed to your safety school. 

So…you’ve chosen to stay on the waitlist

Those students willing to gamble on the low odds of acceptance and the high risk of fewer housing options and scholarship opportunities may opt to secure a spot on the waitlist. If you’re choosing to pursue an industry where an Ivy League education is necessary to gain traction and score high-paying positions in your chosen field, settling for your safety school may, ultimately, do you a disservice. After all, high risk often translates to high reward. 

Now, you may be wondering: what’s the next step now that I’ve chosen to stay on the waitlist? Unfortunately, the journey’s just begun. To ensure you’re one of the select few students who escape the confines of your college of choice’s waitlist, you’ll need to take the following steps to demonstrate your interest to the admissions committee. 

Maintain communication 

If you’re struggling to navigate your college waitlist situation, there are several steps you can take to better your chances of admission. To better your chances of acceptance, you should maintain unwavering communication with the institution you applied to. 

You can call periodically to check-in about the status of your application. You can also write the school a handwritten letter, expressing your interest in the university and reiterating that their institution is your top choice for your undergraduate experience. In this letter or email (if you prefer), you can discuss all motivating forces in your life in-depth. Here, you should restate your willingness to prioritize your schoolwork above all of your other responsibilities. 

Set up an interview

It’s also a fantastic idea to request an interview. It doesn’t matter if you previously completed an admissions interview. It can’t hurt to suggest another one. Meeting with an individual in-person face-to-face can help you establish a connection with the admissions board and stand out from your competitors. If you secure an interview, use this time to highlight your achievements and academic successes. For another tip on how to use your time wisely, be sure to clarify why you feel enthusiastic about enrolling.

It’s critical to take a proactive approach when it comes to your career goals. Don’t surrender easily. While the easy route may seem appealing, you should never succumb to the temptation to opt for another school that’s not as attractive. If you’re on a waitlist for an extended period, you can start your undergraduate elsewhere and transfer once you’ve improved your GPA. In some cases, transfers have a greater likelihood of securing admission than do recent high school graduates. 

Regardless of your situation, you should go above and beyond to excel if you want to improve your acceptance chances. If you believe you’re worthy of admission, you’ll need to convince the admissions committee.

Retake the standardized test

Some people contemplate retaking tests like the ACT and the SAT. Talk to the school’s admissions center and ask if the school is willing to update your SAT or ACT scores if you perform better. It may help to ask specifically about brand-new test results.

Unsurprisingly, top-ranked colleges will have more stringent ACT and SAT requirements. For example, if your heart is set on an Ivy League institution (such as Princeton, Harvard, or Columbia), note that the average SAT score will border on 1510, while the average ACT score often approaches 35. If your chosen career field doesn’t require a prestigious alma mater behind your name, your ACT score will only need to clear the 75th percentile requirement.

After reviewing the average ACT/SAT scores of previously-admitted applicants, you’ll need to compare these averages with your current scores. If you’re only a few points away from meeting or exceeding the average ACT score or less than 180 points away from fulfilling the SAT requirements, it’ll be worth your while to request a retake. 

According to major tutoring sites, ACT-score increases of four to six points lie within the realm of possibility, as do SAT-score increases of 120-180 points. However, a soon-to-be-undergraduate shouldn’t expect to leap seven (or more) ACT points or 200+ SAT points, even with rigorous tutoring. Dramatic ACT and SAT score improvements are incredibly rare and shouldn’t be considered the norm. 

With these average increases in mind, you’ll need to acknowledge the hard truth sooner than later. Once you realize that you don’t meet the current SAT or ACT averages of recent admits, accept that your chances of acceptance are unfortunately slim. Time is precious in the admissions process. Avoid wasting your limited free time enrolling in ACT/SAT prep courses and planning a study schedule if your chances of dramatic improvement are minuscule. 

Avoid bribery

Some individuals who are on waitlists for schools make rookie mistakes that negatively impact the likelihood of admission. They attempt to curry favor with the professionals on the admissions board. While it may seem like a thoughtful gesture to send the admissions staff brownies or cupcakes, that won’t take you far. If you send them video clips that express your devotion to the school and its mission, you may come off as pushy or overly-assertive. 

Unfortunately, bribery will never convince an admissions board to accept a candidate they deem unfit for the university. It’s a better investment of your time to focus on your studies and improve your current high school GPA. If you’re going to dazzle these representatives, you will do so through academic achievements, no exceptions.

Again, you can’t go wrong with in-depth communication. You should take the time to keep the college or university in the loop about your extracurricular activities, awards, certifications, etc. If you’re taking on more recreational activities, inform them immediately. If you’re involved in all sorts of philanthropic programs, be sure to document that involvement, as well. You should go above and beyond to market yourself to the admissions committee.

Final thoughts

Don’t assume that waiting lists for colleges are necessarily short. While the average waitlist totals to about 1,500 students, no two higher-educational institution’s waiting lists are exactly the same. Without a doubt, there are institutions with significantly smaller waitlists. After you’ve received the news, you’ll want to research the average size of your top-choice school’s waitlist. Once you gain a basic understanding of these averages, you can calculate your chances of acceptance based on previous graduating classes. If the waitlist is on the larger side, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Unfortunately, some prominent schools have waitlists that exceed 3,000 individuals in total. 

The more you learn about waitlists and how they function, the simpler it will be for you to navigate your top-choice school’s waitlist. If you’re striving for acceptance, the best thing you can do is zero in on your studies and flaunt your achievements.

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