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I'm on the waitlist of a top 2 program in my field which has a good track record of accepting waitlisted applicants. They told me to wait until April 15 and then I would hear from them. Interestingly, I got rejected by every other program I applied to, so I have no other place to go to. This is my second admissions season - I applied to PhD programs last year as well, got waitlisted from a couple top programs but it didn't work out.

I'm going to give up after this season if this waitlist doesn't work out. Is there anything I can do to maximize my chances of being admitted off the waitlist?

I don't want to seem obnoxious when I email the director of graduate studies at the university, so I don't want to talk about how I don't have any other plans or something like that, but what else can I do?

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15  
"what should I do if I'm on the waitlist" - wait? – Superbest Mar 30 at 23:46
5  
If you're on the waitlist, I suggest that you get as much sleep as possible, because you'll lose at least 2400 hours of sleep studying. – Daniel Mar 31 at 0:06
    
It's worth noting that the most empowered PhDs are those who understand the need for their thesis. Consider taking a job in your chosen field, identify a major problem, then return for that PhD when your armed with something you can explain the need for to one of the professors. – Jonathan Mee Mar 31 at 13:41

@Davidmh's advice is spot on, but I will definitely add that now is time to review your backup plan. (Of COURSE you have a backup plan, right?) There's always the possibility that you won't get into any of the schools you applied to; it sucks, but it happens. You should have a solid plan in place to make sure that your resume doesn't go stale in the interim. This could involve working as a lab tech/research assistant for a lab in your field, applying for internships in industry, taking on academic teaching positions, or even just finding any job to ensure you have income.

Whatever your plan is, now is a good time to start making sure it's feasible, and if it involves applying to jobs or the like, you should probably start doing that as well. You can always state that you cannot start working until after whatever the last date you can expect to hear from the university happens to be. The worst thing that can happen is that you have too many options. That is far better than the alternative.

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Being in the waiting list means you haven't been selected, but you came close. If some of the selected applicants declines the offer (because they got somewhere else), they start going down the waiting list.

At this point, there is nothing you can do to change the outcome. The ranking has already been set by Admissions, and the offers have been sent out to the lucky candidates. Just sit tight.

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There is a special case where it may be worth contacting the graduate department - more on that in a moment.

First, by being informed that you have been put on the waitlist for admission, they are saying that you have not been admitted at this time - but they aren't saying you are officially rejected yet. So you should indeed keep your options open to the extent that you can, but most of the time you cannot rely on admittance.

The reason they stated the date of April 15th is because in the US this is a special national date, where the vast majority of institutions have agreed (or been required by federal funding agencies) to allow anyone admitted with a funding offer to respond by April 15th without fear of losing their spot/funding by not responding right away. It's probably the nicest part of the application process for applicants, as if you receive multiple offers you can wait until you receive responses from all your preferred institutions before making a decision by the shared deadline.

The downside, of course, is what you experience with the waitlist - institutions are often in the position of not having heard back from all the offers they've made until very near the deadline, so they can't let waitlisted people know of their final status until past such a date.

Generally there is not said to be an advantage to contacting the programs to re-affirm your interest, especially at very popular/highly ranked/prestigious programs, because just saying "I'm still interested" doesn't change anything.

When You Should Consider Contacting Waitlisted Programs

The big exceptions to the general case is when something new has happened that isn't properly reflected in your application. The most common such case is when you have received an offer of a fellowship offering significant funding, such as the NSF graduate fellowship (or any non-trivial funding source of the kind). In such a case if you receive such a recognition, I'd encourage you to notify any programs where you are still in the waitlist. While there is no general rule about how programs handle such a situation, some seem to care and many people claim they were moved from the waitlist to acceptance after receiving such a major award.

However, given the extreme competitiveness of such major awards and the fact that they are often more competitive than PhD programs are themselves, this can't be relied on and there is absolutely no guarantee the program will decide to accept you with outside funding.

You could potentially also want to contact them if other major improvements have happened to your profile, such as receiving other national recognition, major important/prestigious publications, etc. This may be of limited usefulness as I don't know any departments that will reconvene an admission committee to discuss your new achievement, and I don't know that any department will just adhoc re-arrange the waitlist order based on such a thing. If you aren't super annoying about it I suppose it couldn't hurt. The potential here is further limited because anything that could result in such a situation should have already been talked about in your application materials (including in submission/preparation papers, the experience that led to such papers, etc).

Regardless, if you choose to contact the department I'd personally advise you not mention the "if it doesn't work out this time I'm giving up on the whole thing". I don't think mentioning that will help your situation any, even if it's how you feel. YMMV.

Above all, any contact you make should be respectful and professional. Repeated calling (hour after hour, day after day), email after email, or anything similarly negative could actually zero out your chances entirely. Reasonable timely correspondence will not carry any such danger.

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You would need to wait till the selection/funding process is finalized. Don't forget that there is a chance that you might not get in, so you need to keep applying elsewhere.

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