Nobody likes to get the ding email. But it is not only painful for the candidate; as Admissions Directors, having to send the “thank you but no thank you” letters or emails was always with a heavy heart. We were all too aware how much candidates had invested – time, heart and soul – as well as the dreams that were pinned on admission – and how crushing the rejection could be. We may have even loved the candidate’s profile, but been obliged to drop the file into the reject pile simply because it had come down to an extremely tight numbers game.
To add insult to injury for the candidate, schools generally don’t give feedback. They just don’t have the capacity to deal with the volume of rejected candidates that would solicit such discussions, and on the very rare occasion when they do offer such calls, it can be virtually impossible to give transparent feedback. As Admissions Director, when giving feedback to a rejected candidate, you can’t point the finger at a particular interviewer whose withering criticism sunk an application.
Nor can you tell a candidate that one of their recommenders submitted a half-hearted letter of support. Recommendations are confidential. We remember having very awkward and difficult conversations with candidates when we would be trying to tell them obliquely what had gone wrong, without actually being able to name the elephant in the room.
‘WE DON’T HAVE TO PULL THE SCHOOL’S PARTY LINE ANYMORE’
In Wharton MBA Admissions, early on, there was a very full schedule of discussions each summer with rejected applicants. However, we found that rarely was there a single thing that we could state was an issue – and frequently the discussion did not yield much helpful information for the candidate. So we stopped offering these calls and instead decided to invest our resources in educating applicants on the front end, to ensure candidates coming into the process were well informed.
One of the things we now enjoy about being admissions coaches is that we don’t have to pull the school’s party line; we review a candidate’s application and can often tell them straight up where they went wrong. We hear a huge sigh of relief on the other end of the phone – removing the guess-work for the candidate also removes much of the stress.
In the absence of such direct feedback, rejected applicants are left wondering what on earth went wrong? It can be difficult to figure out what to do next if you don’t know why you have failed in the first place. You need to move on and make plans for next steps, but first, you need to figure out what you can learn from this failure.
DO-IT-YOURSELF DING ANALYSIS
Here are our tips for conducting your own ding analysis:
1) Review again the school’s admissions criteria. Do an honest assessment of how you shape up – you could draw up a table and rate yourself (eg GMAT, GPA, professional credentials, extra curriculars, etc). Try to look at your own profile as objectively as you can. Sometimes candidates assume for example that a stellar undergrad track record will excuse them from having a great GMAT. It is not always the case. Give yourself a no-holds-barred critical review.
2) Get someone who knows the school well and who hasn’t read your application previously to review it. Ask them to be very honest with you, even if it’s hard for them to do.
3) Talk to your recommenders – face to face is best. If they haven’t been 100% supportive, you might learn more from their body language than from their words.
4) If you went through the interview stage – ask your interviewers for feedback and their thoughts on why you might have been rejected. It might not have been their feedback that sunk you, but they might have a useful opinion about what did. Such input can be very revealing. Alumni interviewers are likely to be more forthcoming than admissions staff interviewers.
5) Also evaluate your fit with and motivation for the school. Did you choose the school on a whim, or based simply on rankings, or did you really do a lot of in depth research and have a strong sense of affinity with the school? How much interaction did you have with the school and how well did you connect with the student body? You’d be surprised at how well file readers can read between the lines and get a sense for how badly you want admission, even in essays that don’t explicitly ask about this topic.
ONE IN TEN HBS CANDIDATES APPLY MORE THAN ONCE
Remember that a lot of candidates go through more than one admissions cycle before they get into their dream school (10% of HBS’ class applied more than once) so don’t assume that just because you have been rejected, the school is not interested in your profile. We have seen lots of candidates benefit hugely from having been rejected. It can truly make you a better candidate. Rejection makes good candidates reflect, and often that reflection is very fruitful. Furthermore, there is a big learning curve when you apply to business school. Once you’ve been through the process once, you have a much better idea of what schools are looking for and the hoops you need to jump through. You’ll be better prepared for a polished performance next time around.
As Admissions Directors, we saw rejected candidates go away and vastly improve their profiles (for example through getting more leadership experience or a secondment abroad); when they reapplied and finally joined the school, they actually got much more out of the MBA experience than they would have if they had been admitted first time round. Some of them were even ultimately glad they had been dinged because they realized that thanks to the increased experience and maturity they brought to their MBA program, they had reaped much greater rewards.
Rejection is a bitter pill to swallow, and for many high achieving MBA candidates, it is the first time they have ever failed at something they have really set their heart on. It can be a genuine shock. So allow yourself some time to digest what has happened. Then take a big step back, and give yourself the benefit of an honest and through reflection process; draw on your network to help you with this. If you do embrace the failure and identify the lessons, you’ll be much better equipped to bounce back in round two, or in the next admissions season, or to succeed in whatever endeavor you set your sights on next.
Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas. This is the sixth in a series of myth buster articles on admissions.