How to Write a Harvard Waitlist or Deferral Letter
Do not write a love letter. Every Harvard applicant who made the waitlist is smart and dreams of enrolling. Fix your original application's deficiencies and strengthen your candidacy with new information.
The Harvard Waitlist Process:
While Harvard doesn’t allow any appeals to admissions rejections, if you’ve been waitlisted (or deferred), there’s still something you can do. Write a polished update letter that patches up any gaps and vulnerabilities within your initial application, as well as demonstrates how you’ve developed into an even stronger candidate for admission since submitting your application. Note: for the rest of this article, we'll refer to the waitlist letter; however, it's the same the deferral letter.
The Harvard Waitlist Letter:
Harvard allows waitlisted applicants to upload a letter to their online portal, without any length limit. However, that doesn’t mean you should simply jam-pack as much information in as possible; by crafting a concise and well-structured letter, you’ll strengthen your candidacy without conveying desperation or losing your admissions officer’s interest.
The Biggest Mistake:
While your waitlist letter should be formatted as such—a letter—it should not be a love letter to Harvard, nor the department that houses your major. While writing a love letter feels extremely natural given the emotions you're filled with right now, consider the following scenario. Would you date someone whom you were originally indifferent about simply because he or she wrote a love letter double-downing on their undying love for you? No, because it doesn't change your perception of who that person fundamentally is. Harvard feels the same way.
Your statement of continued interest in enrolling should take no more than one or two sentences. Don’t mention other schools you’ve been accepted to, even if they are Ivy League institutions, and don’t wax poetic about how disappointed you were not to be admitted outright. Just tell the Admissions staff how thrilled you would still be to attend, and then immediately transition to new and compelling information, without rambling. (Note: don’t waste space with Harvard facts or statistics; they already know about themselves and their academic opportunities. It’s you, your new experiences, and your new actions they’re interested in learning more about!)
A common pitfall among Harvard applicants who were waitlisted was letting their grades and accomplishments speak too plainly for themselves. This modesty stems from an initial fear of appearing too braggadocios. However, because being a club president and the smartest person at your school is the norm in the waitlist pool, it's crucial to show how you stood out. Modesty leads many candidates to represent themselves as the cliché trope of a high-achieving student, under-explaining crucial details that would've revealed how they're intellectually different from others with the same passions, activities, positions, and socio-economic class as themselves. Remember that Harvard receives applications from more students who look like you than they can admit. Therefore, they define diversity more by what's on your inside (than your outside).
What Should My Letter Say?
Your letter should include only new and compelling information. New means (1) information from before you applied that wasn’t explicitly stated in your application, and/or (2) developments since you applied. Either way, Harvard personnel are checking to see if you now embody stronger intellect, passion, accomplishments, and ambition than you initially evidenced in your original application.
Find Missing Context
Look back over your application and personal statements in search of significant contextual information that might have slipped through the cracks. A common pitfall among Harvard applicants who were waitlisted was letting their grades and accomplishments plainly speak too for themselves. Therefore, they failed to:
(1) develop the intangible context surrounding their achievements (i.e. so you can spin old information in a new way), and/or
(2) develop their intellectualism obsession compellingly.
Revealing one’s intellectual obsession compellingly is tricky because many applicants confuse “intellect” to mean either a rambling, visceral stream of consciousness and/or a quirky self-portrait in highly stylized verbiage that tries to show weirdness. Some admissions officers further confuse students by vaguely explaining that they want to see candidates who love learning for the sake of learning. However, conveying that you love learning for the sake of learning isn't what they actually mean. That implies that your learning is pursued without a deeper rooted, epic purpose. A better way to demonstrate intellectual obsession is as a pattern of off-script experimentation and application that occurs when one is deeply intent on pursuing and creating new knowledge (or striving to achieve an unprecedented outcome). With this understanding, re-read points (1) and (2) above and what Harvard is seeking will be more clear.
Provide Recent Updates
In addition to revealing new dimensions of your past accomplishments and intellect, share what you’ve been doing since you applied. Awards you’ve received, activities you’ve started, or passions you’ve recently discovered or taken to the next level should be included. Many applicants are worried about bragging. However, there is a difference between bragging (i.e. excessively proud and boastful talk, like the tone used by North Korean television news Anchors) and aptly highlighting the value you bring to the people and passions you care about. One can brag without ever highlighting their true value. Similarly, one can provide evidence of their value without bragging.
We're Here to Help!
A College Zoom counselor can walk you step-by-step through articulating your strongest appeal or waitlist letter. In the first meeting, we’ll analyze your original application with you, live and 1-on-1, to answer your questions and identify deficiencies and missed opportunities. Meanwhile, we'll cross-examine you with deep lines of questioning to uncover new and compelling information together. We'll find specific substantiating details and show you how to articulate them. Often, the better information found is larger in volume than what can fit in your letter. Therefore, once everything is laid out, we'll help you prioritize and package your argument in the most compelling way. This first session is sold as a 1.5-hour meeting (costing $525). However, for majors requiring a portfolio, a 1 hour and 45 minute meeting is necessary to include the portfolio review (for a total cost of $612.50). By the end of Meeting #1, you’ll have a finished and detailed outline, so detailed that it'll resemble more of a first draft. By this point, most students who are at least decently strong writers will feel very confident polishing their letter on their own. STEM students who aren't confident in their writing, or surprisingly, students who are excellent writers yet are prone to overanalyze and get stuck in analysis paralysis, often benefit from a second meeting.
If another meeting to polish is desired, a 1.5 hours is usually appropriate, but the second meeting can vary in length relative to the student's actual need. In this second meeting, our focus is on word-smithing to achieve the maximum impact in the smallest amount of space. For example, we'll aim to help you engineer a statement that contains more detail, and has better flow and potency, than a version 2 to 3 times its length. The focus is on condensing potent arguments with minimal loss of detail, allowing you to squeeze as many wow factors as is effectively possible into your allotted space. Then, we'll polish. When we’re done, you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll know that you’re submitting the absolute strongest case you can make.
Contact us to find out more about how we can help you. We are committed to keeping your dream alive. Additionally, your appeal letter can be re-used for most other colleges that accept appeals and waitlist letters. It just needs to be adjusted to fit each college's word limit.