You just got waitlisted.

“Lucky you!”

That’s exactly what I said to Todd when he called to give me the news about Columbia Business School. He was really confused by my remark. His face looked as if he had just slammed on the brakes at 50 mph, leaving a skid mark. It was that kind of moment.

Todd didn’t understand my congratulatory tone until I reminded him that he could have received another kind of notice: one that said, “Better luck next time; you’ve been rejected.”

So, you’ve just been waitlisted. The first thing you need to do is stop the panic and start realizing that it could have been worse. Schools don’t waitlist people who are not solid candidates. You end up on a waitlist for a number of reasons, not the least of which is very simple—they had five other guys just like you. The quota for you got filled earlier.

In other words, you are just like Todd. You had all the right parts: He got a 720 on his GMAT, he was a leader, he had extracurriculars, a great hedge fund job, and phenomenal grades at his Ivy League school. So why didn’t he get in? It might be as simple as five other people just like him were already accepted, and Columbia reached its hedge fund quota this year. It’s very likely that the only reason you got waitlisted is because Columbia is waiting to see if the other “you”s are going to say yay or nay. And when they do, and the space opens up, don’t you want Columbia to choose you?

Of course you do. And here’s how:

Stop whining and start planning your strategy for making sure that you are their number one choice. You need to find out who the waitlist manager or the admissions officer in charge of your candidacy is. How? Just call the school and ask. Oh, wait, the letter says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Nonsense. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s like a dirty little secret. It’s not that business schools admissions people don’t want you to call them, it’s the way in which you call them.

If the school did not provide the name of the waitlist manager or admissions officer who is handling your candidacy, call the school and ask. I know you’re scared that you’re going to annoy them. The way to ensure you don’t annoy them is to refrain from begging for acceptance. When you contact them, you want to contact with authority. Take control of the situation. Be the answer, not the question.

Once you’ve called and gotten the name of the person in charge of your candidacy, you know who your champion is. That’s the person you want to become good friends with. How? Let me break it down:

  1. Write them a letter in which you remind them who you are, let them know that you know they are overwhelmed, but you want to let that admissions officer know that Columbia remains your number one choice. Don’t come out and say you’ve been accepted to other schools, even if you have—it’s inferred by the way you are saying “Columbia still remains my number one choice.” Less is more. This is also an opportunity to inquire about what you can do to improve your chances—in the letter, ask if there’s a way you can bolster your candidacy.
  2. Update them on something new: Something great that happened after you submitted your application—an organization launch, a CFA exam you passed, a promotion you received, or a project you led. Choose one or two things, max. It’s not a laundry list, and it better be BIG. If you have nothing to say here, you probably just found out why you were waitlisted.

  3. Next, tell them when you are going to revisit campus. Make the request to meet with them. (I’m assuming you’ve already visited campus or maybe you just figured out why you got waitlisted.) You’re making a request here, to stop by to put a face to your name. Nothing says, “pick me” like a visit to the admissions office. Even if it means you have sit there in your best suit all day and all you get is a quick handshake. Remember every time you meet an admissions officer, no matter how brief, it’s an interview. Dress your best, and be ready to give that elevator pitch.

  4. If you don’t get a response, don’t freak out. Follow up two weeks later. The thing about waitlists is that you have to be prepared for this to go on, all the way until the first day of classes begins. I once had a student named Drenna who was literally on her way, in mid-August, bags packed, to UVA when Chicago Booth said, “We want you.” So she turned the car around and went north to Chicago.

  5. Yay! You heard back. You’ve stuck gold. Now you have a friendship. However it’s not an opportunity to hound this person, take it SLOW. Put the brakes on yourself. Follow the admissions officer’s lead. Either way, there’s a next step.

  6. Enlist other people’s help. If you know someone incredibly influential involved with the school, then have that person contact admissions on your behalf. Choose wisely. Pick carefully. Because nothing makes an admissions officer crazier than to be told what to do. So if you’re going to pull that card, then you better be sure it’s really powerful. If you know someone that is donating millions to add a new wing at Columbia, have this person make a call, or write a letter on your behalf. You know a professor? I’m sorry to say that won’t help. So if you don’t know someone giving millions to the school...

  7. Find two people to write character letters about you, preferably people who either went to the school or are already in the program—someone who has reason to say why you are a good match/fit. These letters should be really short—200 words max. They should explain the following: How they know you, WHY they are in support of you (like one of the things they know you’ve accomplished—hopefully a new piece of information), and finally, have them tell the admissions officer that they are available to talk in more detail by phone if necessary. (Don’t worry, that will never happen.) The letters should be spread out over several weeks. The goal here is to keep you on the admissions officer’s mind. You are planting a seed, so when it comes time to make that choice, your name is the one they choose. You’re the guy or gal you want them thinking of. It’s hard to say “No” to someone you feel like you know.

Side note: You heard from the admissions officer, and the problem was your GMAT. Take the GMAT again. In fact, if you know from day one it’s the GMAT, prepare to take it again and you let them know in that letter. If the problem is your grades, enroll in your local community college quant course in accounting. You might need to build your GPA the Forster-Thomas way.

If nothing else, if you still don’t get in, I promise you that you have set yourself up as the best re-applicant of all time. You will be the first of your kind to be accepted next year. If you do all of this, and you still don’t get in, and you’re really passionate about going to this school—then none of this was a waste of your time. There’s always tomorrow. It’s only a day away.