How to Handle the Dilemma of Being Waitlisted for PA School

Waiting for news after a PA school interview can be an emotionally trying time. And while being accepted to a program is the ultimate goal, being waitlisted, though it can mean a prolonged wait, is good news — it indicates that you're still in the running.

But unlike an acceptance or rejection, which give you a definite answer, being waitlisted may mean you're in limbo for several weeks or months awaiting a decision.

There are, indeed, things to know about being waitlisted for a PA program. However, other scenarios that are sometimes referred to as “being waitlisted” aren’t the same thing as being scored and place on a ranked list.

In this post, we’ll define what it means to be on a waitlist or a member of a waitlist-like group and the steps you can take for each phase.

Distinguishing between the waitlist & waistlist-like rosters

Being held over

After a PA school interview, many programs offer a few candidates seats in their class, reject some others, and then hold over everyone else for further consideration. Students who are held over may be compared to the next interview group, with offers possible for both the most recent and former interviewees after that session is completed.

Other programs will only send out immediate rejections and hold over every other candidate until all of the interviews for that cycle have finished.

Whether a program has rolling or non-rolling admissions may play a role in how students are waitlisted or held over.

Programs with rolling admissions may start interviewing prospective PA students and begin offering seats before their application deadlines are up. Schools without rolling admissions will more frequently conduct all interviews before extending any offers to applicants.

Being held over for consideration (neither accepted nor rejected) after an interview is often misinterpreted as being waitlisted. But it’s not the equivalent of being on a waitlist in the traditional sense.

Being neither accepted nor rejected means you’re still in the running for a spot in a class but have not yet been ranked against enough other applicants. Though it feels and is somewhat undefined, it’s a good place to be.

Programs typically interview about 3-5 times the seat capacity for a class.

So, considering that some candidates will be rejected shortly after an interview, the odds of receiving an offer or a place on the waitlist are decent if you’re still in the mix after your interview.

Being waitlisted

After a PA program ranks all applicants under consideration for a class, those at the top will be offered seats (or any remaining seats if some have been filled throughout the interview process).

What to Do When Waitlisted for PA SchoollBe a Physician Assistant

Once a candidate has been identified for each available seat, the remaining roster of individuals not offered positions in the first round becomes the waitlist. This situation is what is traditionally (and most accurately) called the “waitlist.”

A true waitlist means that all candidates have been ranked and offers have been extended.

To ensure that a class is completely filled, the official waitlist is typically 2-3x the capacity of a class depending on the class size and the history of how deeply into the waitlist ranks a program has gone in the past, though the list could include everyone who wasn’t outright rejected.

Candidates who place beyond an individual program’s cushion will receive rejections once offers and waitlist notifications have been sent. Or, if there’s no cutoff for a program’s list, everyone hangs out in a giant queue for a while.

When seat offers are made, prospective students are given a timeframe, usually around 1-2 weeks, to either commit to a program and place a seat deposit or decline the offer.

So if you’re waitlisted for a program, especially if you’re near the top of the waitlist, you’re most likely to receive a seat offer within or shortly after this decision window as other candidates decline their offers.

Becoming an alternate

After the initial flurry of candidates coming off of the waitlist and being offered seats, things can get pretty quiet for those who remain in limbo.

This period is what gives the waitlist a bad name. While handfuls of those on the waitlist are offered seats early on when top-ranked candidates are declining offers, once all of the offers have been made and accepted, the chances of getting plucked from the waitlist drop steeply as it moves from a fluid roster to a stagnating one.

Though the waitlist remains, it could more accurately be called an “alternate list.” Some programs use this terminology (and some say “alternate” when referring to the original waitlist, which adds to the confusion), but many will continue to call it a waitlist.

But, in this second-phase waitlist where all of the seats are spoken for, you only come off of the waitlist when someone opts out of their acceptance and forfeits their deposit. Though this can happen when someone is accepted to another program they prefer or changes their mind for another reason; it’s far less common compared to when the initial offers are made.

So if you're on a list of alternates, your odds of getting into a program are slimmer than when you're on a first-phase waitlist.

What to do while you wait

Once you’ve completed your interview and sent your thank-you notes, there’s not much you can do to increase your chances of acceptance in the few weeks or months between your interview and a program’s decision.

Mostly, you’ll have to sit tight and wait for news.

However, there are a few things you can do to understand better which of these categories you might be in and know your odds of receiving an offer. And there are a few moves that can help to prepare you to attend a program or improve your application for the next cycle.

But first, let’s start with what not to do because the waiting can make you a little crazy and lead you to believe some desperate, out-of-character moves are good ideas.

If a program tells you not to contact them to ask about your status or to find out how to improve your application or not to reach out until after a specific date, honor their request.

If a school is proactive in laying out the ground rules around communication, it's because they know they don’t have the time or resources to field these requests. Even if you’re itching for information, respect their boundaries.

Secondly, a letter of intent/commitment/interest is not necessary. Traditionally, a letter of interest conveys your strong enthusiasm for a program, and a letter of intent informs a program that it's your absolute top choice and that you’d definitely attend if it extended an offer. The idea is that if you are in a tie with another candidate, a letter could break the deadlock.

This is a common med school tactic, but on the whole, PA schools tend to have a culture that is more collaborative than competitive, so this approach doesn’t necessarily translate so well for PA school.

You’ve already proven your interest in a PA program by applying and interviewing. PA programs who’ve already interviewed 3-5x their class size are not sitting around hoping that someone loves their program. And if a program wanted your assistance in understanding why they should choose you over another candidate with the same credentials, they’d ask you in an interview.

Programs are not withholding offers, waiting to see who will be the most aggressive in pursuing a seat. Your scoring as a candidate will be based on your application, experience, and interview performance.

So, you can rest easy over this one — you’ve already done the work you need for a program to make a decision.

Instead, there are things you can (and should) do for each potential waiting phase.

Bonus tip: when possible, call a program rather than sending an email. You’re much more likely to gain more overall information and greater specifics in a 3-minute phone conversation than you are in an email response that can be copied and pasted from the last person who asked.

Be sure to have your questions listed and ready when you call so that you don’t forget any crucial aspects.

When you’re held over

If you’ve been held over for consideration after an interview, you may be in for a long wait.

To find out when you might expect further news, try asking a program rep a few questions, like: Does the program make offers to candidates from earlier interview groups after each interview session? Or do they wait until all interviews are completed? When will the final interviews for this cycle be finished?

Additionally, assuming it’s not forbidden (see above), ask a few questions about how to best prepare yourself for that program to understand where to direct your efforts while you wait.

Inquiring about how to prepare for a program leads to higher quality questions compared to those you might ask when merely focusing on how to increase your odds of getting in. Asking about how to prepare focuses on the quality, rather than the quantity, of your efforts.

Lastly, ask how the program would like to receive updates from you when you have them available. Being held over is the one waiting phase during which you have the potential to add a bit to your application. If you expect to complete an outstanding prerequisite course or gain a decent amount of patient care experience while you wait, find out if and when a program would like to be updated.

If you’re not able to ask this but the program doesn’t explicitly ban application updates, contact programs with an update when you have something of substance (e.g., not 10 hours of volunteer work) to share, like completing a prereq course or gaining an additional 500 patient care hours.

When you’re officially waitlisted

If seat offers have been sent and you’ve made the official waitlist, knowing your place on the list and the decision window for the initial offers will help you to gauge your odds of acceptance.

Once you’ve been notified of your waitlist status, reach out to a program to see if they’ll share your waitlist number with you. They may or may not, but as long as they haven’t banned you from asking follow-up questions, it’s okay to ask.

If you can ask questions but they won’t divulge your specific place on the list, ask about how long those who received the initial offers have to commit to the program. Then, you’ll have a sense of when the waitlist will turn into the alternate list. You may, of course, be called up from the waitlist at any time, but knowing when the greatest number of spots is likely to open up is useful information.

Just as when you are held over, update programs with application-worthy accomplishments once completed. Providing an update can also give you a legitimate excuse to, while you’re at it, ask a program about your waitlist status.

When you’ve become an alternate

After all of the offers go out, the seats in a program will likely be spoken for within a couple of weeks. Though a few students may drop out after this period and hope is not entirely lost, setting your sights on how to improve for the next application cycle should be a priority.

How much guidance a program is willing to give you on this will vary program to program, but it’s worth asking for their input (again, as long as they don’t specify not to).

Some programs will go through your application with you and point out areas for improvement while others may give you general tips on what they’re looking for in an applicant.

You can’t know how much they’ll disclose unless you ask, so if you want as much detail as you can get, you’ve got to ask.

Though there are different ways to be under consideration for a PA school class, all of which may be referred to as "being waitlisted," being in any of these phases is an indication that you’re on the right track.

Use that knowledge as a starting point. Do more of what is working, find out what you can from PA programs to understand your chances and help build your plan going forward, and keep working on strengthening your PA school application, for this cycle or a future one.