A WaitLister’s Successful Effort To Get In

JC Chang beat the odds to get himself off the waitlist last year and into Chicago Booth. His highly detailed account of how he did it is both inspirational and instructive.

Each year, the Admissions Committees of each business school will place a number of its applicants into the dreaded “waitlist”. If you are one such candidate, who found yourself on the waitlist, you may find yourself asking such questions as:

  • What could I have done differently?
  • Was it something I said during my interview?
  • Why did the school admit my colleague with similar scores and experiences and put me on the waitlist?
  • What can I do?

…only to find each school explicitly state they cannot and will not provide feedback specific to an individual.

So what can you do?

First, we should acknowledge: it’s possible. I did it. I was waitlisted at Chicago Booth in round one last year. Now I’m a current second-year MBA student at the school. You can do it, too. Each year, a small number of waitlisted candidates make the move to the admitted students list.

According to GMAT Club’s user data for the Class of 2018, roughly 1% to 10% of applicants were waitlisted by school and of those waitlisted, up to 21% (i.e., MIT Sloan) were ultimately admitted from the waitlist.

Take this data with a grain of salt as a large number of users do not report final outcomes, so this may cloud actual waitlist figures.

For instance, in 2012, HBS was reported to take ~20% of its waitlisted candidates. Additionally, I know one person personally who got off the Stanford waitlist this past year. Main takeaway: a small number of waitlisted candidates will be admitted, but it’s possible.

Moreover, many of the top business schools (e.g., Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, Stanford GSB, etc.) will provide waitlisted candidates the opportunity to provide additional materials for any material developments (e.g., recent accomplishments, promotions, etc.) from the time of application to now. For those schools, there are things you can do today to improve your chances of getting off the waitlist.

As an initial step, identify whether the school you are waitlisted for allows supplemental materials to be submitted. If the school specifically asks you not to provide additional materials, you may want to heed their advice.

Otherwise, this tactical guide was written to help waitlisted candidates sift through the noise and provide candidates with tangible tactics to improve their chances of moving from the waitlist to the admitted students list.

This guide is divided into two parts. The first part is intended to stimulate reflection and put the waitlist into perspective, while the second part will take a detailed dive into each component of the supplemental materials.

Part One: Getting into the right mindset

Before diving into the tactics, it’s important to lay down the foundations to having the right mindset to tackle the waitlist process.

You are (still) a superstar candidate

First off, let’s acknowledge that being on the waitlist — this vortex of ambiguity and doubt — is by no means a negative reflection of you and your potential. There should be no doubt that you are a superstar candidate and getting waitlisted is a reflection of that. In fact, Eileen Chang, an associate director in admissions for HBS, was once quoted in Poets&Quants saying “there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the applicant. Rather, it is more a matter of selection vs. qualification.” Moreover, year over year the candidate pool gets more and more competitive (7 of the top 10 business schools had lower acceptance rates and higher GMAT scores from 2014 to 2015; source: Poets&Quants), and the number of spots available per school remains fixed.

This is an opportunity to shine — not a check the box activity

Second, begin to think of this opportunity as a way to improve your candidacy and show even more of your stellar-ness rather than treating this as a check the box activity. Once you begin to frame it along those lines, the rest will come more naturally.

Take some time off and reflect

Third, take some time off to enjoy the holidays and reflect. Externally, be sure to thank your recommenders and supporters and update them on your waitlist status. Internally, take a critical eye on the application you submitted and begin to identify where you may have had gaps relative to the evaluation criteria disclosed by the school. Afterward, take an inventory of what you’ve done since the application and identify what can be used to either shore up some of the perceived weaknesses in your application or alternatively, used to further exemplify your strengths.

Connect your ambition to the school’s DNA

Fourth, get prepared to dive even deeper to know the school’s DNA and connect your ambitions to that DNA. In order to do this effectively, you will have to be introspective and get even more specific on how your target school will get you there.

For example, for Booth, I was interested in its entrepreneurship program. By asking more specific questions to alums and attending entrepreneurship-specific events held by Booth, I was able to change my narrative from something generic (i.e., “Booth has a great entrepreneurship program that I want to be a part of”) to something far more specific (i.e., “based on the Entrepreneurship Symposium, I know Professor Waverly Deutsch’s Building the New Venture class will help me develop an idea and potentially, bring that idea to market through the New Venture Challenge while I am at Booth”).

  • Dardenhopeful

    Thanks a lot. That’s really helpful!

  • Brad Headley

    No problem, glad to help! So my interpretation was that the waitlist manager really becomes your “advocate” before the admissions committee. The waitlist manager is communicating with the admissions committee regarding who to take off the waitlist. So your primary goal is to get her to like you! (Again, I could be wrong, but this was my interpretation). The first Skype meeting with the waitlist manager should last 5 minutes or so. Words that should describe your attitude during this meeting — confident, appreciative, hopeful, positive, energetic, etc. View this as a small blip on your path to getting into Darden. I would not suggest talking/saying as much, but rather listening. The initial Skype meeting is not the time to make a case for your admission. You also may want to tape record the interaction because her advice will be extremely important. She’s basically providing you with the roadmap to getting off the waitlist. Reiterate that you are intent on getting off the waitlist and Darden is still your dream program. At this point, your goal should be to 1) patch up weaknesses in your application and 2) tie yourself to the school – better establish your fit/reasons for choosing Darden, talk to current students, continue to draw out the linear path from Darden to your desired post-MBA industry, etc. Don’t overcommunicate, but make sure she knows you’re making your best effort to improve your candidacy in a short period of time and get into Darden. Hope this helps! Feel free to ask follow-up questions.

  • Dardenhopeful

    Thanks for sharing your experience Brad.

    It’s nice to hear that Darden waitlist manager was really engaging.
    I was waitlisted at Darden this year. Would you mind sharing me what to expect and what I should prepare before meeting with the waitlist manager?

    Thank you.

  • tamix

    John, can you please comment on the latest employment report of Cornell MBA. I find it disappointing that consulting median is much lower than many top 20 schools!

  • Great advice. Thanks Brad!

  • Brad Headley

    Congrats to the author who was able to successfully get off of the waitlist! Being waitlisted is a pretty stressful moment. You’ve already done so much work in applying to business school. Do you continue to invest more time, knowing your odds of being successful are low? But what if everyone has that pessimistic attitude? In that case, it’s beneficial to work harder than them to get off the waitlist.

    I have a few thoughts:
    1.) As the author suggested, book one hour of consulting with an admissions consultant. It will usually run you around $300, but sometimes the consulting companies offer free consultations/ding reports. If you were waitlisted, there was probably a weakness in your application, and I believe it can take an expert to identify those weaknesses. Consultants are also great at boosting your self-confidence by finding what is “special” in your application and/or personal/professional profile.
    2.) Continue to talk with students in order to more effectively tie yourself to the program. In my opinion, at this point in the application process, your knowledge of the program should be deep enough that you’d feel comfortable entering the program in a month and knowing exactly what you need to do there.
    3.) If you are planning to reapply next year, then improving your profile is really killing two birds with one stone. It will help your chances of getting off the waitlist, and it will also boost your chances the next year.
    4.) Remember that everything happens for a reason. Even in those “undesirable” moments in our lives, we usually learn something and things eventually work out. Last year, I was waitlisted at Fuqua, Darden, and Stern. I improved my profile and learned more about various MBA programs, and the next year I was accepted at CBS. I’m actually glad I didn’t get off any waitlists!

    Also, hats off to Darden… they have admissions officers that work directly with waitlisted applicants. They state the strengths and weaknesses of their applications, and they present them with an action plan in order to get off the waitlist. The person I worked with from Darden was extremely engaging. The whole experience felt a lot less “selfish” as other schools, which use the waitlist to benefit themselves, without concern for the applicants’ lives and plans for the future.

  • SranfordOrBooth

    Great story!

  • needbooth

    great article – extremely helpful!