How to Write Waitlist Update Letters

When you receive a College Rejection Letter

Don’t allow the colleges’ admission decisions to define you.

By now, many of you have received answers from early application efforts – either you got in…or you didn’t. If you got in, congrats – you probably feel amazing! However, if you face a fistful of rejections or waitlist notifications, then it’s normal and ok to feel disappointed and to express that disappointment. But I urge you to try and move on quickly. Rejection is not a tragedy; it’s not a judgment of your worth as a person or a sign that your future plans are not meant to be. It simply means that this particular school can’t take you for this particular class.

So what’s a proper response?

If you were rejected but ALSO have acceptances, then a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: if you applied to these schools, then you should be happy to attend. So you should probably accept one of these acceptances and stop worrying about the rejections.

If you are dealing exclusively with rejections, then you need to get to work analyzing what went wrong.

There are 3 categories in which you can usually place your cause for rejection:

1. You weren’t competitive/qualified at the schools you applied to. You simply shot too high.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? Here you’ve got two choices. You can either spend the next year improving your qualifications and reapplying to these same schools next application season, or you can lower the bar and apply to less competitive programs.

2. You WERE competitive/qualified but didn’t present yourself well. In this case, you applied to the right programs based on your qualifications – that is, you had what it takes to get in – but for some reason, you didn’t tell your story well in your application or made some other application error. You didn’t apply effectively.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? If the problem is that you failed to tell your story well, then you need to make sure that when you reapply (either to these schools or to others), that you tell a more compelling story. You still have a chance to get into competitive programs this year, but you’ll need to make sure your application is 100% awesome.

3. You were a victim of sheer numbers. This can happen if you’re in an overrepresented group – bio major applying to med school, Indian IT guy applying to b-school, Political science majors applying to law school, etc. Being in such a category makes it harder to distinguish yourself, and harder to get in, even if you’re super qualified, and even if you’ve done a good job on your application.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? The thing here is that if you’re a victim of sheer numbers, then you can’t just do a “good” job on your application; you need to do a slam-dunk, smash-hit, out-of-this-world job on your application. This is probably the most frustrating result. Because of intense competition with people of your background, and the fact that schools value diversity, you’re stuck. You can’t change who you are, but you can change the way you tell your distinct story. Apply to more schools this year or to the same ones next year, and make sure that your application shows the admissions why you’re different – and special – and a necessary asset to their next class.

And yes it is possible that you fit into more than one of these categories and have to address more than one of these issues.

One aspect of your response has to be the same regardless of the cause or category: You need to get over the disappointment and respond constructively to the situation. This may be scant comfort now, but you’ll end up stronger because of this healthy response…and hopefully with that much-deserved acceptance letter in the near future.
A college admissions expert, responds to Suzy Lee Weiss’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me.”

When I work with high achieving students, as I presume Suzy Lee Weiss to be, we talk about failure. To the straight-A, student leader, it’s often a foreign concept in 11th grade. Such students have worked hard and been justly rewarded for their intelligence and their efforts. Schools have many such motivated and talented students.

For these students, March can indeed be the cruelest month. The low acceptance rates to many of the most selective colleges are staggering. As a counselor, I’m finding it harder and harder to identify great colleges for my students who have everything going for them, but as Ms. Weiss essentially admits, don’t walk on water. They’ve excelled in the classroom and made a difference in their community. But in the age of increasing applications, there are simply too many of them, capable of succeeding on these highly sought-after campuses for most to receive an offer of admission.

As awful as it seems, when faced with fewer options than one might hope, especially in comparison to peers, it’s important to put the disappointment behind you. For a day or two, cry, groan, and complain to your parents about what might have been. Then look to the future.

The college you choose to attend this month will become your home for the next four years and an affiliation for a lifetime. Six months ago, this college received your application because you, the student, felt like it was a good fit. It still is. Embrace your college choices, order the sweatshirt, and be proud of all you have accomplished in high school.

Don’t allow the colleges’ admission decisions to define you. Define yourself.

The application process is not over for waitlisted applicants. You’ve still got a chance of getting into your dream school, so now’s not the time to slack off, and it’s certainly not the time to give up. Continue fighting for that acceptance!

Your waitlist updates (you write those) and letters of support (other people write these) should focus on three areas: your growing list of qualifications, steps you’ve taken to ameliorate shortcomings, and how you are the perfect fit with the school.

Your Step-By-Step Guide to Writing a Waitlist Update

1. Begin your letter by briefly thanking the school for considering your application. 

Don’t talk about your disappointment; instead, focus on how the school’s philosophy and approach fit your educational goals.

2. Discuss your recent accomplishments. 

Choose achievements that you did not address in your application and try and tie them back to key themes in your essays. These could include a recent promotion, freshly minted A’s, a new leadership role in a project or organization, a recent volunteer experience, initiatives you’ve taken in your department, business, or club, additional work responsibilities, etc.

You want to prove to the admissions committee that while you were a responsible, accomplished, impressive candidate before, now you are even more so.

3. Talk about the measures you’ve taken to ameliorate your weaknesses or shortcomings. 

Focus on the specific actions you’ve taken rather than on the actual shortcoming. For example, if you have/had weak communication skills, discuss how you enrolled in Toastmasters and how the experience has influenced and inspired you. Examine, identify, and address weaknesses in your education, career, and community life.

4. If you are sure that upon acceptance you would attend, inform the school of your commitment.

The message you want to get across is this: You were born to attend this school and this school was created just for you. Your fit is as perfect as a cozy glove on a cold hand.

Stay positive as your letter will reflect your attitude. Admission committees do not want to read a bitter and angry letter, nor will they want that writer in their classrooms.

Waitlisters: Beware!

A few things to look out for:

1. Before you start writing, be sure that your target school is open to receiving waitlist letters. If the school states explicitly that it doesn’t want to hear from you, then do not contact them – doing so will only hurt your case.

2. When you’re at the brainstorming stage of the letter, and then again once you’re done writing, check and then double-check that you haven’t repeated material already in your application – you don’t want to waste anyone’s time!


If you need assistance in crafting a waitlist letter for your colleges' contact SOAR for help!