The Sting of the Ding

by John A. Byrne on

Champion cyclist Lance Armstrong put it succinctly: “A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.” And when it comes to the swarm of applicants hoping to get an invite to a top business school, those boos vastly outnumber the cheers.

Each year, Harvard Business School turns down more than 8,000 of its applicants for admission. Wharton and Columbia Business School each ding well over 5,000 MBA candidates. And Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the school whose acceptance rate is a super low 7%, sends out rejection notices to more than 6,000 people.

Put another way, Harvard rejects more applicants in a single year than the entire applicant pool of any other U.S. or European business school. Last year, for instance, Harvard turned down 1,420 more candidates than Stanford’s pool of 6,618 applicants. It’s especially difficult for applicants who are at a loss to understand why they were rejected.

But a yes or a no can hinge on incredibly small nuances in an application. Wharton has said that 80% of its pool of some 6,450 applicants is fully qualified to attend its full-time MBA program. But the school only accepts 19% of its candidates to fill just 845 seats in an entering class.

A new PoetsandQuants analysis finds that 20 of the top 25 full-time MBA programs in the U.S. turn away more than 1,000 applicants each year (see table on next page). But rejection goes two ways. Admission officials aren’t the only ones who ding people in the MBA application game. Highly qualified candidates who receive multiple offers from MBA programs also turn down schools that have invited them to attend.

Last year, for example, more than 400 candidates accepted into Kellogg, Duke, Michigan and UCLA’s MBA programs spurned their offers to go elsewhere. At Harvard Business School, an estimated 121 applicants accepted into the MBA program were no shows.

In any case, rejection stings–and there are a lot of them at the best schools. As one Kellogg applicant recently explained in a GMAT Club forum, “It’s just like being in a line watching dying friends and living friends one by one.” The candidate was describing the torturous process of watching the forum boards as one poster after another remarked on the outcome of their applications in round one.

It’s not all that different from some of the admission directors who dislike saying no to the vast majority of their applicants. Says Ankur Kumar, Wharton’s admissions director, “There are so many amazingly talented applicants that you unfortunately can’t take. You get to know these people from their applications. You spend weeks and months reading about them. Often times, You get to meet them. It becomes incredibly personal. You wish you had a spot for them in the class.”

A small percentage of the people who apply every year are also reapplying. Typically, between 4% to 10% of applicants are those who try again after failing to get into their favorite program a year earlier. Last year, 4% of the applicants at Yale School of Management had reapplied and 14% of them got a yes–compared to the overall acceptance rate of 19%. At Columbia Business School, one out of every ten candidates was an applicant who had applied earlier and was rejected. Columbia accepted 20% of its re-applicants, compared to an acceptance rate of 16% overall.

(See next page for a list of 25 business schools that ding more than 1,000 applicants a year)

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  • Alois de Novo

    Yeah, but most of those chumps had no business applying to HBS.

  • BT

    I disagree Alois. I know many people who reapplied and got in (after a rejection no interview) simply by re-positioning their stories. It is possible.

  • Andrea

    interesting article.
    it would’ve been cool to have another column with the number of applicants who dinged the school.

    alois- i agree. hbs is the “why not?” school for a lot of long shots.

  • Toby G.

    Also agree w/ Andrea and Alois… if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone who’s applying to HBS say, “But last year HBS accepted someone with a low 500 GMAT score…”

    Willing to bet that if all top 10-20 schools posted their full range, they would see high applicant numbers–and a significant amount of people who had no business applying in the first place.

  • Vladmir

    Chicago Booth has made great strides in the rankings in recent years. However it still seems a relatively less selective program of the elite 8. The acceptance rate hovers at 22% and rejection at 78%. Indeed a little research on my part on candidate profiles hint Wharton and CBS rejects. I may be wrong but any thoughts?

  • Mario

    @Vladimir,
    common saying about top US B schools: tough to get in easy to get out… it means that the candidates are already good before the B school, hence, the schools tend to be just exclusive club for the rich and influence.. look at the Swiss Federal Institute of technology at Zurch and Lausanne.. any one can get in.. but only the best can get out.. selectivity is not a measure of how good is the program? Duke has acceptance rate much higher than Yale, yet, it is better program by all measures..

  • Vladmir

    Mario –
    Don’t quite understand the first part but Yes I do agree on Duke and Yale.Yale is trying extremely hard to gain credibility as a business school. In the process they are playing a stats game to quickly gain respectability. However, I don’t think they fully realize the process takes time. Duke does not need to. In fact I think they do quite alright with their stats – stats are somewhat similar to Insead in the 700 gmat score.
    Your thoughts on Duke vs InseaD?
    On Chicago, as stated I just wonder whether these applicants are CBS or Wharton rejects. Personally I would choose Chicago over CBS. As an end consumer, the option to literally choose your curriculum is very appealling!

  • Mario

    @vladimir

    Yes, I totally agree with you on Chicago vs CBS..in regard to Yale vs Duke, please note that they almost started together as business school (fuqua 1969, Y SOM 1976) both are young in US standards, however, Duke did amazing in placing itself next to M7, Yale with all the resources, brand, ivy, didn’t even come close..the issue is not only stat, it is about gaining the trust of the employers and building good program …
    INSEAD vs Duke..NO..INSEAD is better..plz note that INSEAD is increasingly becoming peer to harvard from global outlook ..

  • Matt P

    22% acceptance rate at Booth is related to self selection. Booth deliberately makes its application hard to complete, an attempt to attract only applicants that are really willing to attend Booth. Indeed, they don’t want the kind of people that apply for the sake of applying. The 4-slides presentation is an example of this. Many people don’t apply to Booth because they cannot copy & paste other schools essays and they are done. In other schools, there are a big percentage of applicants that would never been admitted in a top-10 b-schools. In my view those applicants are less likely to apply to Booth.

    Finally, you can check the stats of Booth class vs others (for example, Wharton’s) and you’ll see that the stats are similar (GMAT, GPA, etc.).

    You will be wrong if you think that getting in at Booth is easier than peer schools.

  • Millie S

    Here are my results from the 2014 admissions cycle
    Michigan Ross – Ding
    Vanderbilt – Ding (despite being able to report enhanced score)
    Rochester – Ding
    Rotman (Canada) – Ding with interview
    I am feeling very low and angry right now but anyway, I have to keep my head if I have to try again.

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