Admissions 101: When There's No Easy Fix for Getting Rejected

Getting rejected by your dream business school is not easy. It can be downright soul-crushing, in fact. Making is even more painful is the fact that few MBA programs (or other top graduate schools) give rejected applicants specific feedback on why they didn’t get in. Anyone who gets rejected will inevitably ask, “What did I do wrong? What’s the one thing that kept me out?” But, even when admissions officers do provide feedback, it can seem vagaue and not particularly helpful.

Admissions officers are clearly trying to keep you in the dark so that you can’t game the system, right? They must be scheming to keep you out. Surely your face is posted on a wall in the admissions office somewhere, with “Not enough leadership” or “Weak quant skills” scrawled across it. While that certainly sounds interesting, the truth is that, if you get rejected, it’s often because the school just couldn’t find any great reason to admit you over thousands of other terrific applicants.

Rejection letters often mention that the committee went through “a great deal of deliberation” and that they “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, they’re telling the truth. They receive applications from more great applicants than they can fit, and they need to turn some away.

Let’s use Stanford GSB as an example. Next year’s incoming class at Stanford will contain about 400 students. Out of the more than 6,000 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 1,000 than it is to 400. Separating out the 1,000 great applicants from the rest is the easy part; it’s deciding which of those 1,000 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 the reader will never forget… Of course they could admit both applicants, 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. 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. They wanted you — they really did! — and in another year, who knows… Maybe you would have been admitted. But not this year.

The way to avoid falling into this bucket 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, “This applicant is amazing!!” 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. And make it easy for the admissions officer to be your advocate, should he or she need to start negotiating and arguing why you’re the next applicant they should admit.

At the end of the day, after you submit your application and meet with your interviewer, it’s out of your hands. But make yourself memorable, and make admissions officers feel like they really know you, and you may get the good kind of letter when admissions decisions are released.

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