December 1, 2020

Every Question You Have About Medical School Waitlists

By: Savvy Pre-Med Staff

For each medical school, only about 10-15% of applicants are offered an interview each year, let alone placed on a waitlist. So, if you’re on a waitlist, you’re in rare company! It’s actually quite an accomplishment.

Okay - sorry - we know that’s not much consolation.

The waitlist is the medical school equivalent of “being in limbo,” so we’re sure you have lots of anxious questions. Let’s get them answered!

Every Question You Have About Medical School Waitlists

Why do medical schools use waitlists?

Seems like a fair question, especially for disgruntled candidates who are placed on them and asked to wait patiently as their futures hang on a thread.

Reason 1: Medical schools cannot risk “overbooking” their classes

A medical school cannot simply add patients to a hospital or affordably increase the number of highly trained physicians that are on-staff to provide one-on-one instruction to students.

This means that instead of sending out a slew of acceptances to everyone that is qualified, medical schools must take extra care not to overfill their classes. They need methods of filling their classes that do not entail accepting students and waiting to see if they will attend.

Reason 2: Training medical students is very expensive

Contrary to popular belief, medical schools actually lose money for every student they enroll.

To start, the necessary medical equipment is expensive. Plus, medical schools must employ PhDs and MDs to do the bulk of the teaching and match the salaries they’d make while working in a hospital/lab. During the 3rd and 4th year clinical rotations in which medical students work directly with patients and physicians, the malpractice insurance for pre-MDs is costly.

Reason 3: The medical school rankings

Most well-known medical school rankings base 10% of their ranking off medical school acceptance rates. This means that the more students a school accepts, the worse their ranking will be.

Reason 4: “Yield”

Waitlists allow admissions committees to gauge applicant interest (usually through updates and letters of intent). If a medical school blindly accepted qualified applicants, then a large portion of the accepted applicants may not attend. As a result, the medical school’s “yield” (number of matriculating students divided by the number of accepted students) would decrease, thereby worsening the school’s ranking. Waitlists allow schools to accept the most qualified applicants that are the most likely to attend, thereby improving yield.

Reason 5: Letting applicants down easy

This is probably the hardest reason to accept or recognize, but medical schools might use waitlists as a softer way to let down rejected applicants. It is actually quite rare for an applicant to be outright rejected post-interview.

How do medical school waitlists work?

By mid-March, MD schools have to send out a number of acceptances at least equal to the number of students in their entering classes. Most schools, however, will send out more acceptances than available positions to account for the number of students that will reject their offers.

Schools have no way to determine how many students will accept or reject their offers. To fill this void of uncertainty, medical schools create waitlists so they have another group of quality students ready to take the place of those ahead of them.

There are two different types of medical school waitlists; the pre-interview waitlist and the post-interview waitlist. The latter is the type of waitlist discussed above, while the former occurs before students make it to the interview.

Some schools have a certain number of available interview spots, but again, they don't know which students will accept their invitations so they send out more invitations than spots. As students turn down their requests, they begin taking students off the pre-interview waitlist.

How many applicants are put on medical school waitlists?

It is nearly impossible to know how many students have been placed on a waitlist because this number will vary between schools and can change year after year. 

Some schools have been known to put a few hundred students on their waitlist, such as the University of Virginia, but most schools don’t share this number publicly.

It’d be nice if every school was this transparent, but the data is scarce in this regard.

How many applicants get off medical school waitlists?

Again, this is very difficult to determine. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how many students are accepted from medical school waitlists because no one, not even the schools themselves, can predict how many withdrawals they'll receive throughout the admission cycle.

Ivy League schools may accept fewer students from their waitlists, since many who have applied to these schools have them ranked as their number-one choice.

Other medical schools’ entering classes consist of many students from the waitlist (33% of Jefferson Medical College’s class was once comprised of waitlisted students), while others only contain a handful – it totally depends year after year. 

Perhaps unfortunately, the greatest factor affecting your chances is something that neither you nor the school can control: the number of accepted candidates who withdraw before matriculation. 

It’s pretty typical to see most acceptances offered to waitlisted applicants in May and June due to the Traffic Rules outlined by the AAMC. Students who’ve been offered multiple seats must make their final selection at the end of April, so the schools they withdraw from will have open seats to fill with waitlisted applicants. But there’s no telling how many seats will open up. It could be 1-2 or up to 25-30. 

Why have I been waitlisted?

In general, there are likely two main reasons why you’ve been waitlisted.

The first is because you applied to medical schools too late. The admissions committee may have already filled their interview spots when they receive your application. This is why it's so important to apply well ahead of medical school application timelines, ideally at the beginning to middle of June.

The second is because you didn't blow the admissions committee away. While you are seen as a strong candidate, others may be seen as stronger. This could come down to the strength of your personal statement, secondary essays, GPA, MCAT, or even your interview performance.

Where am I on the waitlist?

This question totally depends on the medical school since each has its own procedure for how they assess waitlisted applicants.

Some medical schools prioritize certain applicants and place them higher on the list. Some let students know what position they hold and notify them when their position changes. Others assign students to different groups based on certain qualities. Others simply review each applicant on their waitlist when the time comes to determine which candidates should be offered admission.

What’s the difference between a ranked and unranked waitlist?

Ranked waitlists

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 medical school moves down the list to the next person when another place becomes available.

Unranked waitlists

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

For you as an applicant, the advantage of an unranked list is that the actions you take after the interview (and your subsequent updates) are more likely to influence your chances, as opposed to a ranked list with a predetermined selection order. 

How long will I have to wait?

For applicants that have been waitlisted after their interview, the amount of time they'll have to wait can vary from weeks to months.

Some schools, like New York Medical College (NYMC), clear their waitlist by mid-July, while other schools maintain their waitlist right up to orientation day.

Due to this variance, it's difficult to know exactly how long you'll be waiting before you receive that acceptance or rejection.

What factors are considered when deciding who should be accepted from the waitlist?

Medical schools often don't reveal these criteria, but some claim to review candidates holistically, almost as if it’s part of a separate admissions process.

The current compositions of their entering classes are likely taken into account as well, so that schools can access which students best fill any voids.

Medical schools may consider the in-state vs out-of-state ratio, grades, test scores, work and activities, letters of recommendation, and interview scores. 

When are acceptances sent to waitlisted students?

Due to the AMCAS Traffic Rules, most waitlisted individuals will begin gaining admission towards the end of April, as previously accepted students decline offers.

At the start of May, medical schools have a pretty good idea of how their incoming classes are shaping up and can identify any unfilled positions, so many will start sending acceptances after this time to fill empty seats.

Plans change and some students still withdraw their acceptances up until orientation day, so many schools keep their waitlists open until this time.

I'm waitlisted and have no acceptances. What should I do?

If it's still early in the admission cycle, there are steps discussed below that can help improve your chances of getting off the waitlist.

If it's late into the admissions cycle, some students accept that this year wasn't for them and begin preparing their applications early so they can re-apply in June. 

Other students consider employment opportunities or other academic programs to pursue for the year, before re-applying the following cycle.

There are no right or wrong answers, but it's important to think about future plans early, so you don't find yourself unprepared or unintentionally taking a gap year before medical school.

What can I do to get off a medical school waitlist?

1. Send a letter of intent

A letter of intent tells the admissions committee that their school is your number-one choice, and upon receiving an acceptance letter, you will attend their school wholeheartedly. This is crucial as schools are looking to fill their available spots with dedicated individuals and eliminate the risk of sending an acceptance only to have it rejected.

2. Send relevant updates

Update letters are another great way to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are still passionate and motivated to gain acceptance. If you've accomplished anything noteworthy since sending in your original application and completing your interview, let the admissions committee know right away. Additional publications, experiences, improved grades, and test scores are all excellent updates that warrant contacting the admissions committee.

Some schools may limit the number of documents you can send, while others like Georgetown accept unlimited letters of interest right up until orientation day.

3. Take advantage of open houses and visit days

In addition to sending new information to the admissions committee, you should also use your time on the waitlist to visit the school and attend any open houses (if possible). Any time you're on campus gives you the opportunity to meet members of the student body or admissions committee. Be friendly to everyone you meet, ask questions, and introduce yourself where appropriate.

4. Keep your contact information up to date

Make sure your phone number and email address are correct and up to date.

Before the end of April, schools must give applicants at least two weeks to accept offers of admission, but after this period, medical schools can give less notice (perhaps only a few days). If your contact information isn't up to date, or you aren't checking your emails often, you could easily miss this opportunity.

5. Add a letter of recommendation

If you’ve participated in a new activity since submitting, 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.

6. Be creative and think outside the box

Most likely, everyone is viewed somewhat equally on the waitlist, so if you do something that stands out, you will probably be the first off the waitlist.

Here are some examples from the US News to inspire you:

Example 1:

There was one student on the waitlist of a competitive medical school that sent in a photo collage with comments from friends and family members. The applicant used the collage to tell the medical school why he desired to pursue medicine at that particular school. The committee members found the collage “light yet amusing.” It was most likely the most memorable waitlisted student that year. He was eventually offered admission to the school.

Example 2:

Another student on a waitlist sent in a poem to the admissions committee. In the poem she talked about why this school was her first choice and why she believed it was a good fit. Her risk paid off, and she was offered admissions that year.

To be clear - just because you do something different doesn’t mean you’ll be taken off the waitlist. But if you do it well, it’s definitely worth the risk!

7. It’s not over until classes start, but opening another application is advised

If you haven’t received an outright rejection into the summer months, you are technically still eligible for acceptance until classes begin. However, given the small percentage of open seats as classes approach, you should prepare another application by June if you intend to reapply for the following cycle.

Have any questions about medical school waitlists that we missed? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally!

Learn to be Savvy! Get creative pre-med strategies delivered right to your inbox.
FREE Medical School Application Timeline when you subscribe.

We follow the email Golden Rule: we will never send you anything without your permission.