Anyone who’s been on an admission waitlist can tell you that it’s a frustrating place to be! On the other hand, the fact that the committee has waitlisted you shows that you’re very close to the top of their admit list.
Consider the fact that your materials have been read, brought into the committee room, and heavily debated by a group of faculty in comparison with other applicant materials. The fact that you were not rejected outright means that someone on the committee advocated for you based on genuine interest in your research goals and confidence in your capacity to succeed in a PhD program. Thought it’s a painful position to be in, remember that this signal of confidence is something to celebrate!
If you’ve been waitlisted by a PhD program, what should you know, and what can you do?
There are some important things to consider and be aware of when you’ve been waitlisted at a PhD program.
Do you want to stay on the PhD waitlist?
First, consider whether you want to stay on the waitlist. Ask yourself:
- Do you have other offers?
- Is this your top-choice school?
- Is it the only school you were waitlisted at (with rejections everywhere else)?
- Has anyone from the department reached out to you privately to express genuine interest in your research goals?
If you definitely want to stay on the waitlist, look carefully at the correspondence you received from the program and see whether there’s anything you need to do or to let them know. For example, do you need to confirm that you want to remain on the waitlist? If so, you can take that as an opportunity to briefly affirm your interest in their program with a formally written Letter of Continued Interest that covers topics like:
- If the program truly is your first choice and you did not demonstrate that in your application materials, now is your chance to clearly state that you would halt any other admissions processes if offered a spot in the program.
- Furthermore, this would be a good opportunity to provide a few details about what specific aspects of the program (courses, faculty research, university resources) truly will support your concrete research goals.
Most PhD programs aren’t interested in having a lot of contact from you, and you don’t want to turn them off by being overly chatty, so make sure that you compose a formal and efficient explanation of your continued interest in a letter that is a maximum of 1-page in length, single spaced, and in 12-point font. If you have letterhead from a current employer or university, now is the time to use it. Remember to keep your letter short and to-the-point, and certainly don’t send the committee any other unasked-for materials. Conversely, if they ask for academic updates since your application deadline, be sure that you supply them!
If a professor from the program has contacted you personally with a note expressing interest in your work or providing additional explanation about your placement on the waitlist, politely ask that professor if he or she might have time to schedule an appointment with you to discuss research interests (not your chances of admission). In a given year, professors aren’t always able to take on additional students due to personal, professional, or institutional reasons, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in your work. It can’t hurt to initiate a dialogue about your research and, if you keep the conversation to research, you have the chance to give the faculty member even more confidence in your capacity to handle academic stress with poise. Just by listening, you might also learn something about what parameters shaped the composition of the admitted cohort that were out of your control.
The PhD notification timeline
Second, understand the timeline you’re dealing with. For most U.S. PhD programs, April 15 is the final date for accepted students to provide notification of intent to enroll. Schools require a commitment from admitted students by that deadline in order to fill their cohort. If there’s movement off the waitlist, you can expect to hear something as April 15 approaches (and even slightly afterward) as the department solidifies its final list of incoming PhD students.
Another thing to keep in mind: if you’ve received notification that you’re on a waitlist, you’re dealing with a program that is at least being transparent about its waitlisting procedures. In many cases, you could be on a waitlist and not even know it. Most programs start letting admitted and rejected students know their status in late February or early March, but as they wait to learn which admitted students will say yes or no, the process lasts until mid-April or later.
Many schools will rank candidates below their “admit” list, but not send a notification of any kind unless a space opens up – in other words, you might not hear anything at all from the school until they determine, in April, whether they have space for you. (Talk about frustrating!) Schools that do this will send their final rejection notifications in April, too.
If you’re on the waitlist and you haven’t heard anything as April 15 approaches, you can consider contacting the admissions chair to ask what your rank is on the waitlist – that will give you a clearer picture of whether you have a realistic chance.
Financial Implications of the PhD waitlist
Third, consider whether there would be any financial aid or funding implications to being admitted to a program late (if you do decide to remain on the waitlist and are admitted). Some programs may have distributed all of their fellowship funds early to students at the top of their list. If you are in a position to accept a spot in the cohort without funding, it is worth mentioning this in your letter of continued interest. Many universities will only admit the number of PhD students for whom they can guarantee a five-year funding package, which includes teaching appointments. However, if the committee knows that you are willing to pay for the degree on your own or have secured extramural grants to support your research, they may open an additional space in their cohort. As you progress through the degree, you can search for additional teaching opportunities and grant applications to support you.
Unfortunately, being on the waitlist does require some patience, but the fact that you’re waitlisted at a very competitive program means that your application is strong, and that the admissions cycle isn’t over yet. And of course, if you aren’t admitted in the final stages of the cycle but you’re certain that the PhD is your path, keep in mind that the doctoral degree is just the beginning of a lifelong research career. If you were placed on the waitlist, that means the committee believed you were qualified for the degree. Though aspects of the admissions process over which you have no control (like the candidate pool, annual funding, availability of certain advisors, or institutional parameters) may have knocked you out of the running this year, those variables are not likely to be the same next year.
Do you need help making sense of your waitlist status and determining your next admissions move? Accepted’s expert advisors can help you with that (and with any other element of your PhD application). Check out our Waitlist Services for more information on how we can help you get ACCEPTED.By Rebecca Lippman, Accepted consultant. Prior to working at Accepted Rebecca worked as a Student Affairs Advisor at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students how to write large grant applications for grants awarded by organizations such as Fulbright Student Program, Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Knight-Hennessy Scholars, Ford Foundation, Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, and the National Science Foundation. Rebecca has a masters degree from University of Cambridge, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at UCLA. Want Rebecca to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!