Admissions 101: It's Not You, It's Me

MBA AdmissionsGetting rejected is hard stuff. What makes it even more painful is that few MBA programs (or law schools or medical schools) give rejected applicants specific feedback on why they didn’t get in. Applicants just want to know what they “did wrong” to not get in, but, even when schools do provide feedback, the applicants normally end up confused and still guessing about what to do next.

What’s the deal? Are admissions officers trying to obfuscate the process, keeping you in the dark so that you can’t “game” the system? Are they just cold hearted, not caring about you, especially once they’ve decided they don’t want you? No and no. The truth is that, when someone gets rejected, it’s often because the school just couldn’t find any great reason to admit them over thousands of other applicants.

Rejection letters often contain lots of references to “an unusually strong year” and the fact that “the admissions office reviewed more great applications than it has spots to offer.” While this may sound like a lot of hot air that they blow to make you feel better, therein lies the real reason why many applicants get rejected.

Think about it: Next year’s incoming class at Stanford GSB will be a bit smaller than 400 students. Out of the 7,000+ applications the school receives, do you really think that only a few hundred are strong enough to be admitted? Of course not. The number is probably closer to 2,000 than it is to 500. (We’re speaking in pretty broad terms here, but the exact numbers aren’t what’s most important here.) Separating out the 2,000 great applicants from the rest is the easy part; it’s deciding which of those 2,000 to admit is where things get hard for the admissions office.

Invariably, they’ll see hundreds of applicants whom they really love, but who just aren’t presenting that one knockout thing that makes admissions officers choose them over the next (very similar) applicant. Two applicants with amazing international banking experience, identical GMAT scores, perfect letters of recommendation, and essays that could make the reader cry… There’s no law that says the school can only take one, but they have to start making hard choices at some point, and soon enough the admissions director will start leaning on his or her team to start reducing the number of bankers in the class, or to only take another consultant if he walks on water, etc.

So, admissions officers start to make tough choices, and really are forced to not choose some applicants simply because they only have so many spots left, and they can’t justify devoting a spot to those applicants because they just not quite great enough to justify it. (The old Seinfeld “sponge-worthy?” reference comes to mind here.) Thousands of applicants get the “It’s not you, it’s us” letter, and for at least a few hundred of them for a given school, the admissions committee really, really means it.

The way to avoid falling into this bucket (or, more accurately, to minimize your risk of falling into it) is to present something truly outstanding about yourself, something that really stands out and will stick in admissions officers’ minds when they start negotiating and whittling down the class. Make sure your essays help them feel like they know you personally. Submit recommendations in which the writers scream from the rooftops, “This kid is a rock star!!” Nail your interviews so that they have no questions about your maturity and your ability to worth with others. Display a knowledge of (and a passion for) the program that leaves no question in the admissions committee’s mind that you will matriculate if accepted. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t force them to overlook any weaknesses in your profile. Make their decision an easy one.

The above steps are obviously more easily said than done, but they really are the best way to avoid falling into the “We really like you, but just can’t quite find room for you” bucket. Do it right, and when the admissions office talks about the “unprecedented number of highly qualified applicants,” they’ll be talking about you.

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