After waiting a seemingly interminable time you get word about your graduate school application: You're wait-listed. Huh? What does that mean?
What Being Wait-Listed Doesn't Mean
First, let's look at what being wait listed is not. It does not mean that you are rejected. But it does not mean that you are accepted either. You're in limbo, just as you were after submitting your application. Recently someone told me that he had not received a formal response from the admissions committee but was told that the committee is waiting to review applicants in light of delays caused by a faculty member. "Does that mean that I am wait-listed?" he asked. No. In this case the applicant is waiting for the admissions committee's decision. Being wait-listed is the result the admissions committee's decision.
So What is Being Wait-Listed?
In short, is exactly as it sounds. Just as you might wait behind velvet ropes before entering a popular restaurant or theater, wait-listed applicants stand behind a metaphorical velvet rope hoping to be admitted. While you have not been rejected, you also have not be accepted. Essentially as a wait-list member you are a department's second choice of applicants. In programs that receive dozens and even hundreds of applications for several slots, that's not so bad.
Why Does Wait-Listing Happen?
Graduate admissions committees realize that not all candidates who are accepted will take them up on their offer of admission. Sometimes admissions committees don't notify the candidates they've selected as alternates. They insead wait and notify them of acceptance if a slot opens rather than telling candidates that they've been wait-listed (and perhaps getting candidates' hopes up prematurely). More frequently, applicants who are alternates are sent letters indicating their alternate or wait-list status. If you're wait-listed, then you're waiting to see if a slot opens - if a candidate who has been offered admission declines.
What Do You Do if You're Wait-Listed?
What do you do if you're an alternate? Sounds cliche and terrible, but: Wait. Take the time to consider whether the program is still of interest to you. If you've been accepted elsewhere and plan to attend, notify the admissions committee to withdraw yourself from the wait list. If you receive an offer from another program but you're more interested in the program to which you're an alternate, it's permissible to follow up and inquire if any more information is available. Understand that the program staff may not have more information, but, like you, they want to end the process as quickly as possible. If you're down to the wire and have an offer of admission, sometimes you'll have to make a decision to withdraw your alternate status or run the risk of declining a solid offer of admission for something that may never materialize (forcing you to start the graduate admissions process all over again).
Sometimes a wait-list status ends with rejection. In this case don't beat yourself up. Your application caught the admissions committee's eye. You have the qualities they seek but there were too many other qualified applicants. If you think graduate school is for you and plan to apply again, learn from this experience and improve your credentials for next time.