Back to the Drawing Board: Formulating a Round Two MBA Admissions Strategy

MBA AdmissionsIf you applied to one or more MBA programs in Round 1, by now you may already have a feel for how it’s going. Perhaps you got an interview invitation with at least one school (great!), or you haven’t heard anything yet (don’t worry!), or perhaps you’ve already gotten the dreaded “No thanks” message from one of your target schools (oh no!). In any scenario, you may already look at Round 2 differently than you did just a month ago.

If things are going well, then you probably don’t need much help (although you maybe do need some interview preparation). If you’re starting to get bad news, though, you may have started thinking different about Round 2. That’s not a bad thing to do — any smart manager always incorporates new information as it comes in, after all — but don’t let one or two rejection letters completely throw you off of your game.

Knowing What Went Wrong
If you’re already getting bad news, then you probably were rejected without an invitation to interview. That means that you weren’t able to do at least one of the two things that every successful applicant must to when applying to the world’s most competitive MBA programs:

  • Demonstrate fit with your target school
  • Differentiate yourself from other applicants

The first one is normally easier to diagnose, since there is often (although not always) a “smoking gun” that stands out in your application. Perhaps your GMAT score or undergraduate GPA was simply too low for the admissions office to take a closer look at your application. Or, maybe your career goals didn’t seem to mesh well with the types of employers the school normally attracts. Or, perhaps your essays or letters of recommendation painted the picture of an aggressive overachiever, when a school really values teamwork and a softer touch. (Remember, each of these attributes is just one piece of the puzzle, but the more you ask admissions officers to look past a weakness, the more likely they are to turn to the the next application in the pile.)

The second challenge — differentiating yourself — is sometimes a tougher one to spot, particularly if you try to diagnose your own candidacy. The reason is that you’re not able to see the thousands of other applications that admissions officers see alongside yours, so it’s difficult to put yourself and their shoes and determine why they should dig deeper into your application than into an application from someone else who, at least at first glance, looks very similar to you. Your parents think you’re amazing, your boss loves you, and your co-workers call you a rock star… Why don’t admissions officers see the same things in you? This is where an experienced MBA admissions consultant can help, since he or she has worked with dozens — even hundreds — of applicants and has seen enough applicant profiles to be able to tell you what stands out vs. what looks and feels like “just another applicant.”

All Is Not Lost
If one or more of these things seem to conspire to keep you out, then you can start to work on them before Round 2, but of course there will only be so much you can do. Your undergraduate GPA and your work history until now aren’t things that you can change. You do, however, still have a lot of time to do the following to improve your candidacy before you submit your applications: You can retake the GMAT, go back to the drawing board on your admissions essays and make sure they achieve the two strategic necessities described above, find recommendation writers who may be able to do a better job then the ones you chose before (and/or you can coach your recommendation writers better), and focus your energy on getting one more great experience in the workplace. These are all positive, constructive things that you can do to at least marginally improve your chances. (We’re always big on encouraging applicants to take additional college coursework, too, but time has probably run out for that option if you’re targeting Round 2.)

A negative, reactionary response to a rough Round 1 is firing off three times as many applications in Round 2 as you had originally planned, or applying to some “safety” schools which you you have no true desire of attending, in the blind hope of getting in somewhere. More times than we can count, we have seen applicants fail with a certain playbook, and then simply apply that playbook to many, many more schools, hoping that it works in just one case. Odds are that it won’t.

If Round 1 is turning out to be a rocky one, take a step back, think about what you can do differently (or whether you need to do anything differently at all), and then move forward with a deliberate plan. Remember that admissions rates are VERY low at the top graduate schools for a reason — because thousands of people are gunning for the same seats! The odds are very slim that you’ll be successful with every application. The solution is to create better applications, not more mediocre ones.

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Photo courtesy of jblyberg, under a Creative Commons license.