What HBS & GSB Say When They Reject You

Let’s face it. It’s hard to handle rejection with grace. Whether it’s getting that ding letter from the school you always thought you would attend or getting the heave-ho from a lover, it hurts.

As author Jennifer Salaiz puts it, “Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger.”

Every year, Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business turn down more MBA applicants than any other business schools in the world. HBS dings more than 8,600 candidates annually, while the GSB turns away over 7,400. Put another way, Harvard dings 89.3% of its applicants, while the GSB jilts 93.9% of its hopefuls.


HBS’ Chad Losee

How do these schools actually reject candidates who invested countless hours on their applications? Poets&Quants obtained recently dispatched ding letters from admission officials at HBS and Stanford GSB and they reveal a world of difference between how each school turns down applicants.

Harvard’s rejection letter is a model of brevity. Though any rebuff could hardly ever be short and sweet, it is short–just 118 words that say what is necessary and little more. Sample: After conveying the prototypical ‘sorry’ line, Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions & financial aid at HBS, quickly puts the rejection in perspective. “In all likelihood, you are a viable candidate with many strong attributes and accomplishments,” he writes. “Our challenge becomes not one of ‘evaluation,’ but of ‘selection.’ In order to deliver a class who (sic) brings as many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible, we must turn away many qualified candidates.”

It may not make you feel any better. But it’s not likely to make you feel worse.


Stanford, on the other hand, is delivering a six-paragraph ding letter this year that is more than twice as long as the HBS rejection. A total of roughly 250 words, the Stanford letter starts off with a definitive ‘no” and then moves into an explanation of how it evaluates each applicant on a trio of attributes.

“Thank you for applying to the Stanford MBA Program,” writes Margaret Hayes, Stanford’s interim assistant dean for MBA admissions. “We have completed the review of applications, and I am sorry that we cannot offer you admission.

“We evaluated your application along three dimensions: (1) intellectual vitality; (2) demonstrated leadership potential; and (3) personal qualities and contributions. We assessed the overall quality of your written application, including the essays and letters of reference.”


Stanford’s Margaret Long Hayes

To some dinged candidates and admission consultants, Stanford’s approach can come off as less than gentle. “That first paragraph made me feel like they were rubbing the students’ noses in the fact that they didn’t get in,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “It felt like, rest assured, we evaluated you on all these metrics and you didn’t make the cut. LOSER!”

A candidate who has earned interviews at Wharton, Chicago Booth and Yale but got rejections from HBS and Stanford agrees. “I like HBS better than the Stanford one,” he says. “The Stanford letter is way too long for a dinged letter and I don’t like that they include the three dimensions thing – like i am not qualified based on your three dimensions evaluation?! I think HBS is in good length – nice and short.”

More often than not, of course, admission officials do try to let people down easy, even if their rejection letters don’t always come off that way. “Because there are many more qualified and deserving candidates than places available in the class, there is necessarily a subjective element in the selection process,” writes Hayes. “This is why there rarely are precise reasons for an applicant’s denial. The final results simply reflect our best efforts.”


Massar concedes that it’s difficult for any rejected candidate to feel anything but disappointment if not anger over being snubbed. “It’s not like these students need to be handled with kid gloves; a rejection is a rejection,” Massar says. “It’s just that the information the admissions committee added doesn’t help anyone. It just feels a little more like self-justification on their part.”

Still, she agrees that HBS has a better approach. “I think that all anyone sees is the word, ‘sorry.’ After that, who cares? I think the HBS one is more graceful,” says Massar, who herself is a graduate of Harvard Business School. “To be honest, I’m not loving the ‘In all likelihood you are a viable candidate…’ That’s a little condescending. I think they could make it more general, and say, “we see so many candidates with so many great attributes, but…” and then go on to the point about ‘selection’ vs. ‘evaluation.’ That feels sufficiently neutral and not like a personal slap.”

Ultimately, there just may be no nice way to say ‘sorry.’

(see actual ding letters from Stanford and HBS on following pages)

  • Tglpickett@gmail.com

    How do you go about getting information from an undergrad school about how well their students perform on the GMAT.

  • hbsguru


    December 26th, 2016

    Dear John Candidate

    Je giggle.
    And so does the whole committee.
    Thanks for the laffs.
    We had our draw bridge in UP mode after we looked over your 3.0 GPA — and the footnote that is was rounded “up” to nearest integer (OK our dean of engineering told us what that really means)–and also normalized your GMAT score after discovering your other tiny footnote explaining that the one you sent us is how high the GMAT jumped on the moon.
    We also enjoyed the rec from your ex-girlfriend who was very convincing about your recovery from Abusers School (we did not follow up with your probation officer but thank her for the reference).
    We also agree that anyone can be unemployed and enjoyed your resume allusion to Thoreau’s “wise passiveness” in explaining what have done since last working as a bike messenger who often interacted with the front desks at Goldman, McKinsey and the World Bank.
    Jill O’Connor, a bike hobbyist on our Adcom, also was impressed with your resume accomplishment of getting from the Bain Office in San Francisco to the Mail Room of BoA in under 20 mintues.
    Other Adcom members noted that they were open to your “out of the box application” until they got to that part which listed your favorite desserts and where to buy them as part of the appendix to your What Matters Most essay, although again, Stan “Stanford” Hobermann wants to give you a personal shout-out for your Halo low-cal but tasty ice-cream tip, and adds that one of his favortite things is eating an entire pint (only 240 calories!!!!) over the sink, just like you.
    Speaking for the entire committee, we believe your serviceable cognitive skills and mostly standardized spelling can take you far in this age of diversity and spell check and wish you best of luck in all your future “endevers” as you so poetically put it to us (“GSB will be like getting outfitted from Patagonia for all my future endevers, while HBS would only be, like L.L. Been”).


    Derric Boltin
    Designated Adcom for Outliers
    Stanford Graduate School of Business

  • Special.Needs.Cat

    This isn’t my experience, but from a friend:

    In all seriousness though, I think the process of having to go through the steps is actually more helpful than the letter itself. For example, I think that when Harvard sent out interviews on two distinct days with the majority on the first day, I was more prepared going into the second release date. I had little hope but not no hope. I didn’t feel like as much of a failure. Furthermore, opening up the decision letter is useful as I can mentally prepare myself (1) Email notifying you of an admissions decision *thinks, yikes! I didn’t get it* (2) Login to your account *ugh. I just know I didn’t get it now if I’m doing this* (3) Reading the letter itself *yep. Knew it*.

    I didn’t read Stanford’s letter (#TLDR) but I did read Harvard’s. I think HBS chose the right words.

  • Craig

    I agree. I expected getting dinged by Stanford to hurt but I sensed in their rejection letter arrogant condescension. After answering the “What matters to you most and why” prompt and pouring my heart out like I haven’t done to anyone in a while, it really did hurt bad.

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