Waitlisted, Denied, Accepted: Dealing With Grad School Admission Decisions

What should you do if your grad school application is waitlisted, denied, or accepted? Well, it varies. But following this expert advice is a great place to start...

What should you do if your grad school application is waitlisted, denied, or accepted? Well, it varies. But following this expert advice is a great place to start...

It’s February, and at this point in the grad school admission process, most applicants have submitted their materials, paid the fee, and are waiting to hear from the admission committee. No easy feat.

The three grad school admission decisions typically rendered are acceptance, denial, or placement on a waiting list. On rare occasions an applicant will be admitted conditionally; this usually entails being asked to do some additional work (added essays, retaking a standardized test, taking a course or two), the successful completion of which automatically means admission.

Below are some detailed suggestions for responding to each of the three major grad school admission decisions, starting with the admission decision I believe can be the most difficult: the waiting list.

What to do if you’re waitlisted

In some ways, this is the hardest grad school admission decision—in that it’s not an actual decision. You just don’t know how things are going to unfold. But don’t despair. If you’ve been waitlisted for grad school, consider doing the following:

  • Don’t take it personally. Of course, this is easier said than done. No one likes being on a waiting list. Unfortunately, your application was not as competitive as those being offered admission; however, you still have some very strong credentials. The good news is you were not denied. There is still a chance you will be admitted. In fact, from my experience, it’s a very good one.
  • Make sure you follow instructions. After receiving a waitlist decision, be professional and do what is suggested or asked of you. If you are given specific instructions on what you can do next, follow them to the letter. If you do not receive any information about next steps, ask. Don’t demand, complain, or argue; just see if there is anything you can do. If you are told no, accept that and do not do anything. (It may also tell you something about the graduate institution if they do not provide you an opportunity to further address your interest in their program.)
  • If feedback is offered, take it. And simply listen. Do not become defensive or angry. Thank the provider of the information, and confirm if and how you are to respond. For example, if the graduate program will accept a written response, write a formal letter or e-mail as soon as you can. Address each issue head on and explain why and how you believe you can “overcome” the concern.
  • Mount a letter of recommendation campaign. If you can get two or three additional individuals to write recommendation letters for you, this is the time. You may even want some of your original recommenders to write another letter, if they have anything to add. However, do not send more than three or four letters of recommendation at this point. More than this is overkill.
  • Request a campus interview. And if your interview request is granted, do not pass it up. If a campus interview is not made available to you but you conducted an interview with an alumnus during the application process, contact him or her and ask for a recommendation letter. This person might even be willing to call the graduate admission committee on your behalf.
  • Send a hand-written thank-you note to the person who signed your notification letter a few weeks before a final admission decision is supposed to be made. Indicate your sincere interest in this graduate program. Mention that you have responded as requested to your waitlist status. End the note by thanking this person for the time and attention they have given and will give to your application.
  • Be cautiously creative. If you are certain you can add some appropriate personality to your graduate admission file, you might send a photo album, card, “Top 10 Reasons Why I Should Be Admitted” list, etc. But do not do all of these for the same institution! Choose one.
  • Exude patience and professionalism. There are several reasons for placing students on an admission waiting list—but deliberately trying to frustrate you is not one of them. If you appear offended, inconvenienced, angry, resentful, argumentative, or arrogant, you will almost certainly determine the outcome of your waitlisted graduate application: you will be denied. Stay calm, confident, and patient. Try to go with the flow. The right attitude can work wonders toward reaching your goals, not to mention impressing graduate admission folks.
  • Prepare for either admission or denial. While one decision might be preferable to the other, be ready for either response. (Keep reading for tips on how to do just that.)

What to do if you’re denied

A grad school denial is never easy. After all the time and work you put in to your application, it can feel like a real slap in the face. If you are upset by the admission decision, do not react by phone or in writing right away. Give yourself a few days to cool down. As you reflect, consider the following:

  • Don’t take it personally. Remember, most graduate admission committees are faced with a very difficult task: admitting a limited number of students from a very large—and often very qualified—applicant pool. Admission folks are doing the best they can. Believe me, they are not personally against you in any way.
  • Write a thank you note. Send it to the person who signed your notification letter. This displays impressive tact and maturity and can place you in good stead should you decide to reapply.
  • If you believe something was overlooked, ask about it. Ideally, you would have confirmed that all of your materials (test scores, transcripts, recommendation letters, etc.) were up-to-date and accounted for before the application deadline. But if not, or if important information was transmitted after the deadline for whatever reason, check to make sure your grad school application was complete when it was read. If something was overlooked, most graduate admission committees will provide another complete evaluation of your application. If they are unwilling to do so or, worse, not even willing to check, it might be a sign that this isn’t the grad school for you.
  • Double-check the decision. Though highly unlikely, it is possible that the admission committee made a mistake, where the decision to admit was accidentally entered as a denial. But please know that this rarely happens. All admission offices have several “checks” in place to ensure that the proper decision is communicated to the applicant. That being said, it likely would not hurt to check. Just do so kindly, not in an accusatory way.
  • Request feedback and honor what you are told. Some admission personnel will offer feedback for denied applicants in person, over the phone, or in writing. If they do, take advantage—just be gracious. Do not become defensive when you receive the feedback. Make sure you understand what was communicated, and be sure to thank the person for their time.
  • Consider re-applying and ask about that process. You may find your chances of being admitted are higher the second time around (a lot can change in a year). Or ask if additional information from you could result in a second look.
  • Practice patience and professionalism. If you decide to respond to the graduate admission committee after being denied, please remember this: a mature, thoughtful attitude makes a huge and positive impression, believe me!
  • Accept the decision. At this point you cannot change it. Remember: this is a temporary disappointment, not a final blow. Whether you reapply to the graduate program that denied you, apply elsewhere, or reconfigure your plans, you will succeed if you work hard and are thoughtful and determined.

What to do if you’re admitted

You did it! Your hard work has paid off, and you should take some time to celebrate. But once your euphoria subsides, keep in mind you still have lots of decisions ahead. Here are some next steps to consider after being accepted to the graduate program(s) of your choice:

  • Thank those who helped you (family, friends, recommenders, interviewer, etc.). While you did the lion’s share of the work, others likely helped with your application and/or gave you lots of encouragement and support along the way. This may be especially true if you were initially waitlisted. Be sure to thank these individuals in the graduate admission office too. Speaking of which…
  • Send a thank you note specifically to the person who signed your notification letter. This gesture goes a long way. You certainly worked hard to complete your application; the graduate admission committee works hard too!
  • Take admitted student information seriously. Not long after receiving your grad school acceptance, you’ll start getting important updates about your enrollment deposit, financial aid, graduate housing (if applicable), admitted student visit programs, course scheduling, new student orientation, student life, and much more. Hold on to this information and read it carefully.
  • Start (or continue) talking with other students. By now you may have established contact with current or former graduate students from your program. You may even know others who were just admitted too. Reach out to these individuals (social media can be great for this). You can learn a lot from them all. Knowing some of your student colleagues before you enroll is helpful too.
  • Try to schedule a campus visit. Whether or not you have done so already, now is a great time to visit your future campus. Many graduate institutions offer admitted student programs. This provides a great opportunity for you to meet the “family” you may decide to join for the next few years. You may also choose to visit on your own at another time. And if you want an unadulterated look at the graduate institution, make an unannounced visit! When no one knows you’re coming, you can experience things as they really are. Just keep in mind that you will not be able to schedule appointments you might want ahead of time, like visits with professors.
  • Evaluate how you are treated post admission/deposit. As a prospective student, you were in the driver’s seat when deciding where you would apply. Once you submitted your grad school application, you turned the wheel over to the admission committee. Now that you have been accepted, you are once again in control. You get to decide whether to accept the offer of admission. It can be helpful to evaluate how you are treated. Does the admitted student follow-up process make you feel wanted, included, and informed? If so, great. If not, perhaps you need to think more seriously about enrollment in this particular program.
  • Do some “comparison shopping.” Remember the spreadsheet you started at the beginning of your grad school search? Now is a good time to review all the research you did to find the right graduate program(s) for you, while factoring in any financial aid you’ve received as well as anything you’ve learned since applying. Revisit things like academics (program reputation, research opportunities, length of program, average class size, etc.), costs (total projected costs minus financial aid, savings, etc.), and general factors (distance from home, extracurricular opportunities, etc.). You might even want to develop a scoring system for these metrics and give each school a grade! At the end of the day, use the information you’ve so painstakingly gathered to make the most informed grad school decision possible.   
  • Start working on your financial plan. For most grad students, this takes time. Even if you are not relocating geographically, there is a lot to consider. Make sure to read the fine print about every scholarship, fellowship, assistantship, and/or stipend you are offered. If you need student loan assistance, be very careful to educate yourself before signing on the dotted line. One common oversight among admitted grad students is keeping track of just how long awarded funds will last. Be sure you know whether a scholarship/fellowship/assistantship is good for one year, two years, etc. This may seem elementary, but it is amazing how many incoming graduate students make assumptions about the length of their non-loan financial aid. Be sure you know these things before you enroll. You don’t want any financial surprises!
  • If you are relocating, start preparing. Most graduate institutions can help, but you will need to do a lot on your own. If campus housing is available to grad students, do not wait until the last minute to inquire and apply. Hopefully, you already looked into this during the application process. Nonetheless, carefully read and follow housing instructions as you receive them.
  • Keep a list of compliments and/or suggestions to share with the admission office after you have enrolled. Speaking from experience: admission staff members are always looking for ways to improve their service, and your constructive feedback is appreciated! If you are being “courted” by several graduate institutions, make a list of best practices for admitted student follow up while the experience is still fresh in your mind. Share these shortly after you begin your studies. You might even consider inquiring about being a student admission volunteer or worker as part of your graduate experience.

Stay tuned for my next article: financing your graduate education. In addition, feel free to check out my website and/or to join me on Twitter.

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About Donald C. Martin

Dr. Donald C. Martin is an expert in the fields of enrollment management, student affairs, and higher education administration. From 1980–2008, he managed divisions including admission, financial aid, student development, registration/advising, and career, disabled, and international services. He has been employed by some of the best colleges and universities in the United States, including Columbia University (Teachers College), University of Chicago (Booth School of Business), Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism), and Wheaton College (in Illinois). Along with a team of dedicated professionals, Dr. Martin grew both the applicant pool and the enrollment yield at each institution he served. In addition, students’ ratings of their experience at those institutions improved dramatically during his tenure.

Having visited over 60 countries on every continent, Dr. Martin has worked with thousands of prospective and current students of varying nationalities, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and goals. He continues his work with students and educational organizations worldwide, speaking on college and university campuses and also at graduate school fairs, forums, and education conferences. Dr. Martin's focus is on the value of education and negotiating the graduate school experience from start to finish, dispelling the myths that hold many back from earning a graduate degree and financing their graduate education. In addition, he provides one-on-one coaching services for graduate/business school applicants. Learn more at GradSchoolRoadMap.com


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