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Michael White is the Co-Head of Darien Academic Advisors, LLC and Head of its MBA Admissions Consulting practice. Previously, he spent over a decade as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and Bank of America advising financial institutions on raising capital and mergers & acquisitions. He also spent nearly 4 years as a Senior Columnist writing opinion and commentary on the U.S. financial sector for Dow Jones’ Banking Intelligence product. He can be reached at For more information, visit

Poets & Quants (December 2013)
By: Michael White

It’s that time of the year again: High anxiety time, when MBA applicants begin to learn their fate in the most angst-ridden part of the application process.

Derrick Bolton was on the phone yesterday personally calling applicants to Stanford Graduate School of Business who gained acceptance in the first round. But would-be Stanford MBAs who heard from Stanford’s admissions director were among the lucky few.
Most applicants won’t hear Bolton’s voice due to little more than the daunting odds of getting into the highly selective school. After all, Stanford accepts less than 7% of its applicants, while Harvard accepts fewer than 12%. Stanford hopefuls will receive their decisions online by 5 p.m. PST today (Dec. 11).

At high noon EST today, meantime, Harvard Business School will be sending out emails to let its applicants know where they stand.
As Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA Admissions & Financial Aid, puts it: When candidates access their online applications, one of three letters will appear:

  1. Sorry, but no
  2. Waitlist
  3.  Yes!

“There’s no reason to jump every time a 617 area code pops up on your phone,” wrote Leopold recently in a blog post. “On Wednesday, you get to choose where you’re going to be – and with whom – when the news comes in. If all goes well operationally (knocking on wood as I write this), emails will be released at noon which will say “your decision is ready.” Subject line in the email will be “HBS Decision Available Online.”

But what happens if you don’t get in?

Sadly, the vast majority of applicants to these two schools will receive their ding notices today and other schools follow later in the month. For some, an acceptance at a top 10 program raises the promise of a brighter future. But for many others, a rejection can put a dent in the holiday season.

The cold reality of the application process is the vast majority of hopeful applicants do not get into the school of their dreams. However, that does not mean they can’t still change lives or shape business around the world. But if you’ve been rejected from your wish list schools, you’ll need to do an immediate post-mortem on your application while it is still fresh in your mind to re-assess your candidacy and understand where it is you went wrong.

Re-evaluate your essays and how you are positioning yourself

If you’re busy working on more applications for Round 2 deadlines, you need to quickly re-think how you are positioning yourself in your essays. Did you present a fluid picture with a logical thought progression in your career or have you seemingly taken a random walk since graduating from college? If it looks as if you’ve taken that random walk, were you able to tie it all together? Were you able to piece together a compelling story as to why you’ve had a few different jobs in a handful of different industries over several years? Is there a tie-in that isn’t obvious? Were you in a period of discovery that lit a passion in you?

Do an honest evaluation of yourself and how you positioned your story. Rethink how that story is told and whether or not there are holes that need to be filled in. There may also be areas you were bashful about highlighting yet can be important to admissions officers, such as you are a first generation college graduate or your GPA was below accepted averages because you were dealing with a personal tragedy your freshman year.

Improve upon your interview

Next think about your interview. Did you have a plan? Were you able to work into the interview the major points you wanted to get out? Did you ask relevant questions? Did you come off as being too cocky or arrogant, or too insecure or unsure of yourself? Were you too rehearsed?

Many times candidates come out of their interview thinking they did extremely well when in fact they didn’t do nearly as well as they think. Questions are usually open-ended and the interview style, with the notable exception of Harvard, is rarely confrontational so it can be easy to come out of them impressed with yourself thinking you nailed it.

There is a relatively simple way to determine if your interview skills need refinement – conduct a mock interview, tape it and watch yourself afterwards with an objective, critical eye. This can be an efficient, extremely effective self-help tool to improve your interview aptitude.

Evaluate alternative programs

Some applicants go into the MBA application process thinking “it’s these four schools or bust.” If they don’t get in there, they’d much rather wait to re-apply to those same schools in the next year or two.

Others may want to consider expanding their school list and add programs where they have better odds at getting in. There are schools outside of the top 10 that are good programs and have strong reputations with certain employers. Check the school’s career site and see which industries and employers recruit at those schools. Sometimes it can pay to be a large fish in a small pond as there might be less competition at the school fighting for the job you want, and if you get it, odds are you will be paid the same as someone at a top 10 program that gets the same job type.

Steps to take before re-applying next year

If you didn’t get into any of your top choices and are either too burnt out to continue or dead set on attending one of the schools that have already dinged you, consider ways to improve your profile. A good first step is to go back to your recommenders and ask them frankly what they think your developmental needs are, and where they think you might have fallen short. Then, develop an action plan to address any of those shortcomings.

Whether or not your immediate manager knew you were applying to business school, you should also go to him or her – even take them out for lunch, and let them know you want to step up and take on more responsibility.  Be armed with some potential ideas, and if they are realistic, you’ll likely get results. The sad fact at many companies is careers aren’t properly managed, and developmental shortcomings never fully addressed. By being proactive and bringing ideas to the table, your manager is more likely to give you greater responsibilities and broaden your exposure.

And finally, honestly ask yourself if you did everything you could to get the best possible GMAT score. Improving your score is something that is still in your control, and the best way to increase your score is to do problems, understand why you got any problems wrong, and then to do more problems – rinse and repeat process.  This can be hard work, but increasing your total from, say 680 to 720 could very well be the difference maker for you.

Oftentimes, rejected applicants do not devote enough time or attention to the process, incorrectly thinking they can accomplish it all in a compressed timeline. Yet in fact applying to each school is an intensive, time consuming, mentally draining process. Next time around, give yourself enough time to do it the right way.