Musings On MBA Failophobia

You lose sleep over it. You sacrifice a normal social life as you scavenge the net because of it. You also re-read the same article at 10 times, hoping that your next read will reveal some golden nugget of rare wisdom that you hadn’t noticed before.

I call “it” MBA failophobia (n): the fear of not getting into any of your top choice business schools;. However, “fears” might be a more accurate description of this phobia since it is characterized not only by the classic “fear of failure”, but is an aggregate of many; it is, in fact, a sum of fears:


Applicants to top-rated schools in any field tend to be overachievers in general; thus you have a pool of  thousands of overachievers competing against thousands of other overachievers–globally; not fun. The fear of not making the cut is as real as it is debilitating in such a competitive landscape.


The nagging possibility that you just might be out of your league. This fear is fed with every headline or anecdote of another ex-navy seal, poker world champion, former Olympian, single mother who discovered the cure for leukemia on her part time consulting job while lifting burning vans off of small children in Haiti during a natural disaster as her community service extra. Seriously, who can compete with that shit?


If you end up not making the cut because you are outclassed, does that make you a fraud? It’s a chilling thought to consider how many perfectly smart and capable people will put a lifetime of achievement into question based on whether or not we gain admission into a top 10 or 15 MBA program.


This fear isn’t just for dating. Its the concern that after basically allowing this process to take over your life for nearly a year (or better) that you will ultimately get a “thanks, but no thanks” from the object of your affections–your dream school.


The frightening possibility of being strung along on an admissions wait list, only to have your dreams deferrred in the end. Surely, there must be a method of rejection that is more civil, more humane, than this.


This one is enough to just make you mad. I can take a loss, but wasted time? Let’s just say that its not what I get out of bed for every day.


There is a special (and familiar) sting that comes with investing large amounts of money and having nil to nothing to show for it in the end. Ironically, this fear is likely to inspire you to invest even more money hedging your bets: an extra school visit; one more application (to a safety school, no less); a ding analysis to prepare you to reapply next year (IF you’re under 30; at my age, its now or never).


One of my favorite political pundits is Randi Rhodes. She has this saying that I love because it really causes one to think: “If you win, what will you have won?

Well, one of the things that successful MBA matriculation can win you is a mountain of debt that could have you end up in one or more of the following scenarios:

  • Taking an 80-hour per week job you hate so you can pay back your loans.
  • Selling all your possessions in a mad dash to eliminate debt.
  • Going into a non-traditional field (like entrepreneurship) with a 4-figure loan bill each month and no guaranteed income to pay it with.
  • Saddling your debt for the next 15 0r 20 years, paying 10′s of thousands of dollars in interest.


Failure may be a part of the journey of success, but failing publicly can be an awful experience; just ask O.J. Simpson–but at least he won some football games. The mere thought of putting in all this work and proclaiming your lofty top MBA goals to the world and then coming up with nothing can be enough to make you max your visa on the next admissions consultant with a website and a pulse.

Some Common Coping Tactics of MBA Failophobiacs

The following are a list of common tactics that I have observed (and in many cases, followed) as MBA applicants attempt to create an emotional air cushion as protection against a totaled ego in the event of an admissions ding (or multiple dings, which would be more like a pile up). Most applicants actually employ any number of these tactics simultaneously (a cocktail) as they formulate a larger failophobia coping strategy.

  1. GMAT Obsession – locking oneself up in a quiet corner of your home to study for the GMAT exam ad nauseum; oscillating between periods of extreme focus, bouts of shame and procrastination (should I really be watching Game of Thrones, or should I be practicing combinatorics?) and the resultant guilt that comes naturally with the latter.
  2. Taking a Vow of Silence – the practice of not revealing your top school choices–at least not as yourself (hence using pseudonyms like “mbaover30″ or refusing to say a word about any of this madness in polite company). The theory behind this is that while not getting into your choice program(s) would be a huge disappointment, you at least might get to save yourself the embarrassment of having that happen under the watchful eyes of other people who have watched you obsess about “getting in” for the past 6-18 months.
  3. Periodic Ventilation – starting/commenting on blogs, joining online mba/gmat support communities, etc. as a way to vent concerns, frustrations and fears, all the while starving for the slightest sign or gesture of affirmation that things will turn out fine (like someone of a similar profile getting into your dream school; or someone getting dinged for a weakness that you know you don’t have).
  4. Applying to Safety Schools – Applying to schools that you have NO INTENTION of going to just so you can avoid a wipeout scenario (not getting into ANY of your preferred programs); question is, would you even attend your safety school(s) if you didn’t get into your target(s)? Think about it.
  5. Sour Grapes – Trolling MBA admissions forums, blogs and communities viciously attacking the credibility of programs that you’d like to go to, but don’t feel confident about your chances of getting into (or have already been dinged by). This idea crosses my mind every time I read  comments like “Wharton sucks. They’ve fallen from grace!” or “Stanford is soooooooo overrated; SANTA CLARA is really where it’s at!” or “My best friend’s roomate’s cousin’s neighbor said that her experience at HBS was the pits. How could anyone go to such a place!” REALLY?
  6. Hiring Mercenaries/Buying Your Freedom – Throwing thousands of dollars at GMAT prep courses and/or MBA admissions consultants (genus chargus maximus); the more cost effective (read: shoe string budget) alternative to which seems to often be taking a sour grapes approach to both of the above, claiming that they don’t really work (despite hundreds of testimonials to the contrary). Personally, I’m agnostic as to whether or not to take this route; I say do what works for you. Though, its hilarious to sit back and watch how hard people who’ve chosen either path will fight and flame to justify and validate t heir choice either way.
  7. Essay Regurgitation – Taking one comment from an adcom or piece of advice from a consultant and running with it in your essays. Says HBS’s Dee Leopold in her WSJ interview, “For a while, people were getting advice that when we asked for three accomplishments you had to give one professional, one personal and one community service. I don’t know where that came from. They got to be a little formulaic.
  8. Gluttony – can be a by product of both guilt and stress; also often attributed to refusing to cook (or clean; or bathe) while hopelessly chained to a Kellogg essay or GMAT study guide. What’s your poison of choice? Late night pizza? Haagen dazs?
  9. Denial – putting everything off until the very last minute, hoping  that that taking a more zen,laissez-faire/”it’ll get done” attitude will make things better; it doesn’t. It just adds more stress at the end.
  10. Self induced trauma – Purposefully putting more stress on  yourself at the every end, hoping that the adrenaline rush will help you to “perform under pressure”, resulting in moments of rare brilliance and perfect execution of your MBA apps at the buzzer. Good luck with that.
  11. Self deprecation – repeatedly saying that a particular dream school of yours “is a long shot” (or speaking in uncertain terms like “IF I even get in…“) to save face in the event of a possible ding. The theory in action here is if you never allow yourself to be too gung-ho about it, then any disappointment will be mitigated. Unfortunately, this tactic may also prompt you to give  less than your best, which may be likely to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Look, you’re not a perfect person; and neither am I–by far. Any one of us can become susceptible to chronic or acute failophobia at any given moment: while studying for the GMAT, writing an essay, or biting fingernails while waiting on the verdict of your wait list status at Columbia.
Its ok, and you’re still normal. Do what you have to do to get through it. Just remember that ultimately, you aren’t defined by your admission into a top MBA program. Students make programs what they are, not the other way around.

P.S. Have you noted fears and coping tactics not list here? Feel free to add them below so that all may be forewarned.

MBAOver30 offers the perspective of a 30-something, California-based entrepreneur who is applying to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, Northwestern, Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Southern California. He hopes to gain acceptance to the Class of 2015 and blogs at MBAOver30.

Previous posts on Poets&Quants:

How I Totally Overestimated The MBA Admissions Process

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.