Waitlists and Expressing Interest in Programs

Congratulations!! If you’re reading this post, you may have applied to some MD/PhD programs and been placed on the waitlist. This is a position in which a school simply requests more time to make a decision about your application – you are not accepted or rejected, but the school is interested enough to continue deliberating about your application. While exciting, being on a waitlist can also be a confusing and nerve-wracking time. In my experience, the most common area of concern for students during this time involves if – and how – they should keep in contact with schools after being waitlisted.

If I could summarize my entire post in a few sentences of advice, it would be this: An occasional expression of interest, phrased kindly and with no expectation of gaining information about your own status, is often very helpful. It is by no means “necessary,” and many students are accepted to programs without these types of statements. But especially for those candidates who have been waitlisted after interviewing for an MD/PhD program, expressing interest can make a huge difference in some cases.

 

The caveats and generalizations: Who should consider contacting programs, and when?

It is important to keep in mind that when you first apply to any program, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of applicants. Early in the application season, it is presumed that you are interested in every program to which you have applied, and nothing has really happened to change your interest (such as interviewing at the school and realizing it was either a good or bad fit). So at this point, as programs review application materials for the first time, receiving more information from you that does not really add to their understanding is likely not helpful.

As you progress through the application process, however, the pool of people against whom you are competing narrows. Of the hundreds or thousands of people who have applied, only a small fraction will receive an interview. From there, if you are waitlisted, you are part of an even smaller group, and the school now has a clear interest in potentially accepting you.

In MD-only situations, the usefulness of an expression of interest at this stage really seems to vary. When I applied, some programs conveyed that they welcomed updates or letters post-interview (and again, oftentimes, these programs explicitly emphasized the post-interview part; some even directly said that pre-interview correspondence would not really be helpful). However, as a general rule for MD-only programs (from my own experience and from that of dozens of my friends who have applied to MD-only programs): expressing interest is almost always not necessary for MD-only admissions at pretty much any stage.

For MD/PhD, however, some of the post-interview waitlists are only comprised of about 10 students. Many times, about half of the student who ultimately enter the program are pulled from the waitlist… so there is a chance that an average of perhaps 3-6 students at a typical MSTP may be selected from the waitlist after all initial offers have been made (but again, this varies widely by year). With such a small number of applicants remaining, it is likely that the program knows you extremely well at this point. They often do want to hear about any updates to your application, and they do want to know if you are highly likely to attend the institution if accepted. In some ways, although being waitlisted is nerve-wracking, this was one of my favorite parts of the MSTP application experience – there was a very personalized aspect to it, and I had the chance to stay in direct contact with program administration.

Thus, the caveats to my generally positive feeling about the utility of staying in touch with schools: it primarily applies to after the interview, and it applies much more to MD/PhD programs than to MD-only (unlike some of the other advice posted in our Application Corner, which tends to work equally well for both programs).

 

With all of that being said… here are some tips/tricks for those still considering corresponding with schools where you are on the waitlist!

 

Overall tips for writing to programs

  1. Be honest in your interest.
    1. If you can ever tell a program that they are your top choice, and that you would be honored to attend if given the opportunity – do it. Schools generally want to know who will actually accept an offer from the waitlist.
    2. However, do NOT tell more than one program that they are your #1 choice… this is simply not possible. Be honest with yourself and with programs. Remember that you do not ever want to make administration mad at you – burning bridges can only hurt you down the road. It also hurts future applicants by taking away the power and meaning of the words.
  2. Keep all emails, letters, etc as brief as possible.
    1. Length of contact: As emphasized throughout this blog post, oftentimes the most important point is that you have taken the time to check in and express interest. The school typically does not need a long, drawn out paragraph about why they are great (they are likely very aware!). It doesn’t hurt to briefly state exactly what you love about the program and why it would be a good fit for both parties, but avoid unnecessary fluff whenever possible.
      1. A general tool for being concise yet still conveying genuine interest is to write your email as a draft one day, and then re-visit it the next. You’ll often find places where you can cut down on your words and still express the same general sentiment.
      2. See “Types of Correspondence” below for more specific formats and length discussions. To summarize… a brief email might involve just 2-3 sentences; an “update of interest” might be 1-2 small paragraphs; and a more formal letter of interest/intent might be a page.
    2. Frequency of contact: Remember that program directors and administrators are extremely busy. In addition to keeping your correspondence brief, take extra care to avoid “bugging” the program too often. The exact frequency will vary depending on your specific situation with each school.
      1. If someone is directly answering your emails and if you have specific updates you can give, an email every few weeks or once per month may be appropriate; whereas if your comments are just being added to your file and being generally shared with the admissions committee, you may go a few months in between your contacts with the school.
      2. Finally, all of this may depend on the timing within the application season – if you’re still on the waitlist in May or June, schools will realize that you will need to make a decision soon and it may be appropriate to have more frequent contact.
    3. The best advice here is to use your best judgment depending on the situation, but be very mindful of the fact that too much interest (i.e. emails that are too long or too frequent) can seem impatient and be more harmful than helpful.
  3. Expect nothing, and exercise great patience.
    1. I truly cannot emphasize this point enough. In every correspondence, it is crucial for you to keep the anxiety of the application process at bay. Admissions season is long and oftentimes rapidly changing – not just for students, but on the administrative side as well. Sometimes, no matter how much a program may want to give you information, there may not be anything they can offer. They may be waiting to hear back from any number of students before they can really reassess their own waitlist and determine your standing. With that in mind, you can try to imagine things from the school’s perspective: after all of those careful deliberations and wading through the waiting process themselves, it could be frustrating to receive a pushy email from a student who wants an immediate answer about their chances of admission!
    2. I found that once I had established a bit of an understanding of how the admissions process worked at my institutions of interest, most schools were OK with me politely inquiring about my application. However, I took extra care to make sure this was never really the centerpiece of my correspondence with the school; I wanted the main reason that I was contacting them to be a positive update or expression of my interest, with just a casual question or mention that I would love any updates on my application status but that I understand this may not be possible.
      1. If the school does not answer this request, do not ask again. If the school does not give a clear answer but says that information is the best they can provide at this time, do not push them further. Always be courteous and thank them for any information that they give, reminding yourself that you are not “entitled” to immediate information and that the chips will fall where they may.
    3. My overall advice: It is so tough to wait when a major part of your future is on the line. Thankfully, administration often realizes this, too. But try to treat this as your first opportunity to really show schools the type of professional you will become. Show them that you can handle a situation in which the outcome is unknown and in which you are stressed. Demonstrate your grace, your respect, and your kindness, even if the outcome doesn’t go your way.

 

Types of correspondence

Often, the most important thing you can do is simply keep in touch; so long as you are kind and non-pushy, the exact format in which you express interest is generally not as important as the fact that you say something. However, I will describe the more standard formats I have encountered below by attempting to answer some of the common questions about them!

 

Format 1: Letter of Interest/Intent

Q: What’s the difference between the two?
A: A letter of interest tells a program that you really liked them, and that you are still highly considering attending that institution if they were to accept you. A letter of intent is a lot stronger – it is an unofficial promise that if you were accepted to that institution, you fully plan to accept that offer. This would involve withdrawing from all other programs where you are accepted because you know that this school is your top choice / the one for you – so you really must take care to avoid writing this unless you are certain of your intention to join the program. Of course, there are rare circumstances where even your “intent” can change based on personal matters, and this is not a legally binding contract. However, with a letter of intent, you are giving your word that at the present moment, you fully intend to go to that program over all others if accepted. Letters of interest and letters of intent are often formatted very similarly, but this is a case where the semantics truly do matter. Be sure to name your letter appropriately so that the program doesn’t get a mistaken idea of what you are trying to convey.

Q: Who sees them and what do they look like?
A: These are letters normally written to an entire admissions committee rather than to one specific person. So they may begin with “Dear School XYZ Admissions Committee,” or something similar. They are typically very formal. They may be comprised of a few paragraphs – perhaps one where you thank the school for the opportunity to interview and describe what you loved about your experience, maybe another where you talk about why the school would be a good fit for you, maybe a quick conclusion… etc. I’d say that these should be kept to a maximum of one page wherever possible. Using standard business format is a great idea here; it would be appropriate to send these as a PDF with your signature at the bottom.

Q: When should I consider this option?
A: The letter of interest/intent could be useful in a few different situations:

  1. The earliest of these, in my opinion, could potentially be as a last attempt to land an interview slot at a school in which you know you are especially interested. This may not be successful since you haven’t yet landed the interview, but for MD/PhD programs, it may allow the committee to take another look at your application later on in the season (maybe January? Again, you want to make sure you are giving the committee some time to really familiarize themselves with your application first, so this would probably not be the best thing to send earlier in the admissions season).
    1. Note: Of the four timing options listed here, I will confess that this is the only one I did not try at one of my schools – but I have a friend who did it, and she did later get an interview at that school. We will never really know if the two were connected, so take this with a grain of salt!
  2. After an interview but before you hear a decision
  3. Once you’ve been waitlisted after an interview
  4. As you continue to stay on the waitlist in April or May – by then, you know the program is seriously interested in only a handful of people, and having a formal expression of your interest can probably make the most meaningful difference at this point.

I would generally say that the value increases as you get later in the admissions season, since schools are more interested in you (if they are still considering you) and you also likely have “less” options to choose from so your interest may be seen as more genuine. These should only really be sent to each school once – this differs from other formats below that could potentially be sent multiple times, since they are a slightly less formal email-type format.

 

Format 2: “Update of interest”

Q: What is it?
A: This was probably my favorite way to stay in contact with my schools, and it was suggested to me by an MD/PhD director who was kind enough to give me some general advice about the process when I applied. Essentially, it’s sort of a hybrid between the “letter/statement of interest” and the “brief email.” It’s fairly short (maximum 1-2 paragraphs, see below) but allows you to both share information about yourself with the school that may help them best envision you as a student there while also simply reaffirming your interest in their program.

Q: What exactly does the format look like? Who is the intended audience?
A: Overall, these are less formal than a letter of interest. They are still written very professionally and courteously, but they are sent in the body of an email rather than as a PDF attachment with a signature like a letter of interest/intent. This could be sent straight to an MD/PhD director (if they have expressed that they are willing to receive these types of things) rather than to a program manager who will forward it to the entire admissions committee. Of course, your email may still be archived and added to your file – always remember that any correspondence you have with a school may be saved! Even if it is not formally added to your file, most schools seem to at least make a note that you reached out to someone so that they know who has taken the time to express interest.

Q: How is it structured?
A: An example structure for an update of interest is two brief paragraphs. The first paragraph is your update. See below for details on what types of things might qualify as an “update,” but this is basically a way for you to share some good news about yourself with the school so that it can be added to your file. Your second brief paragraph could then be where you reiterate your strong interest in the program (i.e. “Mainly, however, I wanted to take this opportunity to express my continued interest…” followed by perhaps a quick sentence about how you still see the program as a good fit and another thanks for the consideration of your application). Remember that this is often sent as the body of an email, so you really want to keep these ‘paragraphs’ short and should aim to keep them below 1-2 brief paragraphs maximum.

Q: What types of things are ‘worthy’ of an update?
A: This truly varies throughout the admissions season, and often even by applicant. If you choose to be correspond with schools very early in the process, the bar for what is worthy of an update is typically very high – a publication, for instance, or a major local/national award. It should provide something completely new to your application. For example: if you have already shadowed a physician or two, a new shadowing experience won’t really give schools “new” information. You’ll have “more” shadowing hours, but this is just an expansion on what you’ve already presented. On the other hand, if you had unique circumstances that make it so you have absolutely no shadowing experience when you apply, then it may be important to show schools that you are in fact lining up clinical experiences and learning about the field.

Once you are on a post-interview waitlist, however, the standards tend to change a little bit since you are on a much shorter list of candidates in which the school is invested. This is especially true for programs that explicitly tell applicants that they allow (or sometimes even encourage!) you to keep in touch to express interest. In this case, you do not necessarily need a “life-changing” or “application-changing” announcement. Instead, you are now just trying to demonstrate when appropriate that you are continuing down your same path towards success, while also giving yourself a reason to stay in touch with programs. Thus, a few examples of updates that might be appropriate at this stage include: submitted papers (perhaps not yet published), honors society inductions, and/or school-wide awards for academics (assuming you already have shown academic ability – this doesn’t tell schools something “new,” but it further qualifies and emphasizes your strengths!).

 

Format 3: The brief email

Q: When/how can we use it?
A: Remember that one of the goals of post-waitlist correspondence is to keep things as brief and simple as possible. So if you don’t really have any updates to your application, and especially if you’ve already told the school what you love about them – you probably don’t need to do more than send a very short email to convey your point! A quick email just to tell the school that you still remain highly interested and to thank them for their continued consideration of your application should do the trick. Again, if you can honestly qualify your interest by saying that the school is your top choice, that would be a great thing to mention in this email. This email really doesn’t need to be more than a couple of sentences – kind, brief, to the point… it’ll show that you are taking the time to think of the program and to reach out.

 

 

Hang in there… take this time (maybe not one you requested… but there can be a bright side!) as a chance to work on honing in your skill of patience. 🙂

Emily Hayward, MS-2

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