How to Work Your Way off a Medical School Waitlist

If you’ve been waitlisted after applying to medical school, you should continue to work toward gaining admission until the admission cycle is over. Being waitlisted for a particular medical school shows you that you are qualified for that medical program, but were not chosen for other reasons.

Distinguish between types of waitlists

To understand why waitlists (alternate lists) are used, keep in mind that the goal of each school is to ensure that its class is full and is composed of high-quality students. If a school accepted only exactly enough applicants to fill the number of spots in the class, it would find itself with empty seats come fall because applicants holding multiple acceptances may choose to attend another school.

Therefore, schools usually offer acceptances to more students than they can actually accommodate, and also place a group of applicants on a waitlist to draw from when an accepted applicant declines to attend the school.

The details of how a waitlist is structured and used differ from school to school; however, you can categorize waitlists into two broad types: ranked and unranked.

  • A ranked waitlist is ordered so that the applicant at the top of the list is offered the first spot that opens up, and the school moves down the list to the next person when another place becomes available.

  • With an unranked waitlist, the school draws from a pool of applicants when a seat opens up in the class. The decision about which applicant within the pool to select may be based on factors such as application strength and the need to create a balanced class in terms of diversity and experiences.

For you as an applicant, the advantage to an unranked list is that actions you take after the interview are more likely to influence your chances of selection because the order in which applicants are selected from ranked lists is largely predetermined. Therefore, by keeping the school apprised of your activities and your ongoing interest in the program, you may be able to influence the committee’s ultimate decision.

What to do if you’re waitlisted

After you find out that you’ve been waitlisted, check the admissions page on the school’s website or contact the admissions office to find out whether you may submit additional information, updates, or letters of interest. After you determine what information a school accepts, sending an additional letter of recommendation, an update about your recent activities, or an expression of your interest in the school may benefit your application.

Avoid gimmicks in your correspondence with the school. Your goal is to convey that you know how to present yourself professionally in your interactions with patients and healthcare professionals in medical school.

Add a letter of recommendation

If you’ve participated in a new activity since submitting your application, such as a summer research project, a shadowing experience, or a community service project, consider getting an additional letter of recommendation from someone affiliated with the activity.

This is especially valuable if your letters of recommendation were a weak point in your application or if the additional letter adds a different perspective to your existing ones.

Send a letter of update

A letter of update is a means of apprising the schools of your activities since you submitted your application. You can send a letter of update pre- or post-interview; a good time to submit one is after finding out that you’ve been waitlisted.

You can send a letter of update by either regular mail or e-mail; whichever the school prefers. Include your applicant ID number to ensure that the information you send is matched to your file. If you send the letter via e-mail, attach it as a PDF file instead of typing the letter into the body of the e-mail.

Keep the letter to no more than one page by focusing on the important points. After stating who you are and the purpose of the letter, summarize each of your recent activities, giving details such as the organization or individual you worked with, the dates the activity took place, and a description of your duties.

In addition to new endeavors, discuss increased responsibilities or new projects you took on within existing activities reflected in your original package. In addition to updating the school about your activity, make sure that you discuss why you’re interested in the school. Showing that you’re a good fit for a program may help you to be selected when a spot opens up.

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Submit a letter of intent or interest

Schools are looking for applicants who are enthusiastic about attending their programs, so letting a school know how interested you are and why, may help your case when the committee needs to make a decision about selecting someone off the waitlist. The two types of letters expressing interest in a school are a letter of intent and a letter of interest:

  • A letter of intent is a letter stating that the school is your first choice and that you intend to matriculate at the school if you’re accepted. You should therefore send a letter of intent to only a single school.

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  • For other schools you’re highly interested in, you send a letter of interest, which indicates that you’re very interested in a school, but doesn’t go so far as to state that the school is your first choice or top choice.

The two types of letters have many similarities: Both should express in specific terms why you want to attend the school, why the school is a good fit for you, and how you can contribute to the program.

If you have significant updates to your activities, send a letter of update and mention that you’re very interested in attending the school or even that it’s your first choice (if applicable). You may then send another letter later in the cycle that focuses only on your interest in/intent toward the school.

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