On a Medical School Waitlist? Why Holding Out Might Be a Mistake


It’s frustrating to spend a long time working toward a goal only to get stuck. You’re all too familiar with the feeling if you’ve been placed on a medical school waitlist. You put a lot of hard work into crafting strong applications, so you’re a little unsure of what to do next. How can you keep making progress toward becoming a doctor?

There’s some conflicting information about the best strategy for waitlisted applicants. Some people suggest sticking it out until the very end, making yourself available right up to the moment when classes start. But that might not be the best idea.

We set out to learn more about what it means to be a medical school alternate. Whether this is your first time on the waitlist or not, this information can help you devise a smart plan. Keep reading to find out why simply hoping for the best could be a major misstep.

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Why expecting acceptance from the medical school waitlist could be a mistake

While most students know holding out for acceptance when they’re waitlisted is a bit of a gamble, most don’t realize just how risky it is. Waiting often results in wasting time, potentially at the expense of finding a different path to an MD.

1. Schools vary widely on the number of waitlisted students they accept

You can spend hours researching the percentage of students who get accepted from medical school waitlists each year and still feel just as uncertain. The truth is the number of waitlisted applicants varies both by school and year. A program could admit a significant portion of their class from the waitlist one year, but accept hardly any of those on-the-cusp students the next year.

It’s pretty typical to see most acceptances offered to waitlisted applicants in May and June due to the Traffic Rules outlined by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Students who’ve been offered multiple seats must make their final selection at the end of April, so the schools they withdraw from them will then discover they have open seats to fill with waitlisted applicants. But there’s no telling how many seats will open up — it could be four or 40.

2. You have no idea of where you stand

Another factor complicating the waitlist process is that schools won’t tell you where you stand. Programs can even compile their waitlists differently. Some medical schools rank applicants in the order they’ll be accepted should spots open up. Others may assign students to different groupings based on certain characteristics. The only commonality is that you won’t have any idea of where you are on the list.

Dr. Glenn Englander, Gastroenterologist at Gastro Group of the Palm Beaches, is personally familiar with facing uncertainty during the admissions process. He found himself on a medical school waitlist two years in a row. The second time, he was just about ready to consider a different career path.

"I called the admissions office to confirm it was not a mistake."

“One day, a financial assistance envelope arrived,” he says. “So, I called the admissions office to confirm it was not a mistake.” To his excitement and surprise, this is how he learned of his acceptance.

3. You could end up wasting valuable time

One of the biggest issues with holding out for acceptance from a medical school waitlist is you can easily end up wasting time that would be better spent continuing your education or gaining experience. Dr. Englander was able to work as a lab technician leading up to his second attempt to get into medical school.

That’s getting more and more difficult as the number of applicants increases, though. If you fully anticipated taking the spring and summer off to prepare for medical school, you’re going to find yourself in a less-than-ideal situation. If you don’t gain acceptance off the waitlist, you’ll end up having to take an unanticipated gap year. The odds of finding good work experience at that point are slim.

"One should proceed with continuing work or studies as if one has been rejected."

“One should proceed with continuing work or studies as if one has been rejected,” Dr. Englander says of waitlisted applicants.

4. It’s possible you could still start at an international school

Students who are waitlisted for schools in the US and Canada often don’t realize they could pursue education at an international school sooner rather than later. Programs outside North America often have different application deadlines and may even offer multiple start dates. They also tend to conduct holistic reviews that focus on more than GPA, medical school requirements and test scores.

Just make sure you’re selective about any international program. There are a lot of options in the Caribbean, but you should only focus your efforts on reputable Caribbean medical schools that offer an exceptional education and have a proven history of graduate success.

"I think [international] schools are fine as long as they have good numbers for passage of American boards and acceptances into American training programs."

“I think [international] schools are fine as long as they have good numbers for passage of American boards and acceptances into American training programs,” Dr. Englander advises. He adds that a colleague’s daughter attended St. George’s University and is now happily completing her training in the US.

What are you waiting for?

Getting placed on a medical school waitlist is clearly full of unknowns. You have no way of telling how many students will ultimately get accepted, where you fall on the list, or whether reapplying to the same programs will make any difference. You ultimately have to decide for yourself, but make sure you’ve fully contemplated your options.

If you’re feeling ready to start your education sooner rather than later, it might be time to start thinking more seriously about international medical programs. Many options in the Caribbean have flexible application deadlines that enable students to begin school shortly after acceptance.

Of course, you need to make sure you’re still being selective. There are a lot of schools out there that simply don’t provide the quality education you need. Make sure you know which ones are worth your time by reading our article “How to Find the Best Medical Schools in the Caribbean.”

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