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For the first time in the eight years I’ve been helping students with their college application essays, I’ve had a flurry of requests from students asking for help with waitlist essays and letters.

What torture for them!

Most have been waiting for months and months and now they get a “maybe?”

Which really means “probably not,” but keep trying anyway. (Sorry if you didn’t know that.)

That’s what I call admissions purgatory.

It’s important to keep it all in perspective and understand that few students typically are accepted off waitlists.

At least if you are on a waitlist for your top choice school, you weren’t outright rejected.

You do still have a chance.

Colleges and universities all have their own ways to give waitlisted students opportunities to tip the decision their way.

Many schools ask students to send in a “wait list letter,” where you need to confirm your intent and update them on accomplishments or experiences you have had since they got your original application.

If they ask for this or state they accept them, do it!

You never know how many students end up going to other schools and what spots could open up. Or how many students don’t opt-in on their wait list spot at all.

Might as well get your name in the running.

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Some schools are requesting full-on waitlist essays.

This year, University of California at Berkeley has been sending out the following to students on its wait list:

“You may utilize this personal essay as an opportunity to share more about yourself with the selection committee.  Your essay will be considered along with your original application.  There is no essay prompt; however, you may review the Wait List Frequently Asked Questions for topic ideas. Share, in 500 words or less – anything we may not have already learned about you through your application. Topics to use for the statement may include: Awards and recognition obtained since the point of application, explanation of any course changes, challenges faced since the point of application. Please remember there is no right or wrong answer, simply the opportunity to share additional information.”

Another personal essay? Talk about going through the ringer.

But if you love Cal, go for it!

Some schools don’t ask for anything further from students.

It’s your choice whether to send something if they don’t ask. I would confer with your parents, school counselor, teacher, or private college admissions counselor on figuring out the best strategy.

Again, I believe these waitlist essays and letters are cruel and unusual punishment. Many students have already waited for more than half a year!

I admire students who are willing to hang onto a thin thread of hope and put in the extra work.

I just don’t think it’s humane or fair given their slim-to-none odds.

That said…if you want to give yourself the best chance possible to get off that agonizing waitlist, here are some tips to help you craft your wait list essays or letters.

A Dozen Tips to Handle Waitlist Essays

One: Read very carefully what they ask of you in the essay or letter. Give them exactly what they ask for. Anything less or more is a risk in itself.

Two: Reply as soon as you can craft a solid response. These schools are under the gun to finalize their acceptance lists. Also, a prompt reply is a great way to express your passion.

Three: Make sure to assure them that you will attend their school if you are accepted. Be clear, firm and enthusiastic about this. It seems to work best to include this commitment at the end of your letter or essay.

Four: Only include information that is new and do not repeat what you shared in your original application.

Five: Emphasize why you are a fit for their school, and why, as opposed to spewing generalities about why they are a great school.

Six: Support the reasons that you are a fit for their school with specific details about courses, special programs, professors, facilities, location, etc.

Seven: If you were asked to explain any weaknesses in your original application, such as a lower GPA or other issues, make sure to focus on how you have worked on the problem, elaborate on your progress and share what you have learned in the process. Stay positive!

Eight: Include details on what you have to offer the school as opposed to everything the school can do for you.

Nine: As in all good writing, try to make your letter engaging and unique, especially at the start. Consider opening with one of your most interesting or unexpected updates.

Ten: Keep the tone direct and serious, but don’t shy away from making it personal. A little humor can go a long way in making your letter readable and memorable.

Eleven: Proofread your letter closely. Don’t give them any reason to think you don’t deserve the coveted spot.

Twelve: Don’t just list your updates. Even if your letter or essay is only a couple hundred words (ie short!), try to find ways to make it personal, readable and even surprising. This is literally your LAST CHANCE to stand out from the crowd. If you are considering take a bit of a risk with what you say or how you say it, I would go for it.

Here’s a simple sample outline for waitlist essays:

  1. Start with your most interesting, unique or impressive accomplishment, achievement, improvement or experience since you sent in your original application.
  2. Mention a couple others (2-3 at the most).
  3. Explain each update and what it means
  4. Share what you learned through these new accomplishments, achievements or experiences, and any way they have changed you or how you think about yourself or future.
  5. Conclude by expressing your commitment to attending that school if you are accepted.

This is just to give you some ideas.

My understanding is most waitlist letters ask for about 200 words.

I hope this helps.

Just remember that you will end up in a great school. Even if it’s not the one that waitlisted you, you should feel good about yourself for giving it your best.

It will all work out in the end!

Good luck!

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