The Wait List Wasteland for MBAs

One of the most frustrating things that can happen to you when you apply to a business school is receiving the letter that puts you on a wait list. You are neither accepted nor rejected. You’re just put in limbo. That just happened yesterday (Dec. 14) to about 100 applicants in Harvard Business School’s first-round decisions.

The good news is you still have a chance. The bad news is that it’s a pretty slim chance. The percentage of applicants admitted from a wait list is often extremely low. Sadly, it is a bit of a wasteland. It is not unusual to see situations in which fewer than ten people are admitted from a wait list with more than 200 applicants on it.

Still, each business school deals with its wait lists differently, so it is critical to find out the specifics of each program’s policy. Contact the admissions people at the MBA program and maintain communication with the MBA Admissions Board member designated to manage the wait list.

I dealt with the wait list during my time at the Harvard Business School, and I saw up close the angst and stress candidates experience while awaiting their admission outcome. The truth with the wait list is that it is hard to crack exactly why you made it on that list. After all, your application was seen as certainly “admissible,” but there is something that didn’t quite push it into the admitted pile. A major reason is the sheer quality of the applicant pool. With so many talented candidates applying to business school, sometimes strong is not considered strong enough given the competition. In other cases, you may have applied in a year when many people with nearly identical backgrounds applied. It can also be a result of numbers, be it a GPA or a GMAT score. An applicant I know was placed on the wait list of a top MBA program and after I read her application, which was very strong, it occurred to me that her Achilles heel was her GMAT. It was several standard deviations from the norm. She had retaken the exam and had done quite well but unfortunately the new score was not taken into consideration because the MBA program did not accept additional information after the deadline. Her application was ultimately rejected. It is therefore important to apply to MBA programs when you have the absolute strongest application you possibly can assemble.

If you find yourself in the inevitable position of being wait-listed, here are some practical steps you can take to manage the process:

1. Immediately express your interest in remaining on the wait list via an email to the wait list manager.

2. Inquire about the policy, size of the wait list, and timing for the decisions (If this has not been clarified by the wait list manager).

3. For programs open to receiving additional information, consider sending new and relevant information to bolster your case. A higher GMAT score, a promotion at work with additional leadership responsibility, or an award for community involvement are all good examples of valid information that you can send to the MBA Admissions Board. The challenge, however, is that each MBA program has a different wait list policy, so make sure you know precisely what’s acceptable and what’s not. For instance, Wharton explicitly requests that you do not send additional information, while Kellogg accepts compelling information in support of your admission. These policies can change from one year to the next so call to confirm the program’s current wait list policy.

If you’re on the wait list, it’s in your best interest to keep your other options open. The bird-in-hand theory applies here. Do you accept the offer of admission from another school while you wait to hear back from your preferred program where you are wait-listed? It is a delicate balancing act. Ideally, you should try to get an extension before you make your decision.

Meantime, you should find out whether there is anything else you can offer to bolster your case at the wait-listed program. Obviously, if it is May and you have been on the wait list for a while, you may have to accept that it is highly unlikely that you will get off the wait list.

If this is the only MBA program to which you applied, or if all your results from other programs were unfavorable, make it clear to the admissions board that its program is your top choice and that you are willing to remain on the wait list to the last day and will enroll at the last minute if an admission offer is extended.

I would caution applicants from assuming that having been on the waitlist in one admission cycle suggests that they were very close and would likely get admitted if they applied the following year. There are a lot of people who were waitlisted, then reapplied the next year and were rejected outright. The admission outcome comes down to what the admission committee viewed as your weaknesses in the first place and whether you are able to proactively address them in a subsequent application.

I have also seen firsthand the powerful impact brand champions (your avid supporters) can play in support of a candidate on the waitlist. While you have to be careful not to inundate the admissions board with calls and emails from alumni demanding to know why such a star applicant like you is on the waitlist, you can strategically engage a few individuals (such as a professor) who know you/your work to provide additional support for your candidacy.

Chioma Isiadinso is the author of “The Best Business School Admissions Secrets” and the founding CEO of EXPARTUS, a global admissions consulting company. She has more than ten years of admissions experience and is a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management.

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