Recovering From a Business School Rejection
“It’ll only make you stronger.” “No risk, no reward.” “It’s just one step closer to success.”
People comfort themselves with these feel-good maxims when they lose. Make no mistake: Losing hurts. Sometimes, people don’t get a second shot. Some never absorb the lessons and repeat their mistakes. And playing fair and hard isn’t always the recipe for success.
Getting rejected by business school can be particularly disheartening. Here, you’re being judged on a lifetime body of work. Everyone believes they’re special – and they have academic, extracurricular, and professional accolades to prove it. Come decision time, some candidates are flat out better than you are. Others may be a better fit with the school’s culture, strengths, and aspirations. Cruel as this may sound, a rejection might be a sign that you’re not as good as you think. Not to mention, you probably didn’t make a compelling case.
Who knows, maybe you really belong at Haas instead of Harvard. And there’s no shame in that!
After you’re rejected, you’ll stumble through shock, fear, anger, and questioning – just like the 93 percent of Stanford applicants or the 5,281 Wharton applicants rejected last year. Trust me, you’re in good company. But don’t expect to see these applicants spend their careers stocking shelves or making cold calls. “We can learn more from rejection and failure than from acceptance and success,” writes Forbes columnist Matt Symonds. “And it is how you bounce back that defines your ultimate achievement.”
Symonds, the co-director of Fortuna Admissions, has seen plenty of rejection in his practice. And he doesn’t sugarcoat how devastating a rejection can be. “It is hard to see rejection from a business school as anything other than personal,” he writes. “After all, you have just shared details of your personal life from your teenage years, talked about your values, defining moments and what matters to you. You’ve sweated over the GMAT, described your career vision and the impact you want to have, and asked your boss to write on your behalf.”
However, Symonds recognizes that the admissions process is much broader than what happens between rounds one and four. Sometimes, it takes longer than a year – and far more introspection than you want – to get accepted. As a result, he encourages applicants to revisit their entire application – and be open to doing a lot more work. “Keep in mind that MBA programs do not make admissions decisions solely on grades and test scores so think about the content of your essays, recommendation letters, and your overall personal positioning to see if you can identify any areas that could have been stronger. Perhaps your career goals were poorly defined or unrealistic. Maybe you haven’t done enough research about a school to demonstrate fit, or show what you can bring to the classroom and community. It’s a good idea to get some feedback from someone who knows your target school well.”
Thinking and planning are all good, but what concrete steps does Symonds suggest?
First, he encourages students to take action to enhance their chances. “If you are really determined to get into your target school(s), and can show tangible improvement year on year (such as a promotion at work, [new skills and experience], a higher GMAT or a course to showcase your quant skills, a challenging and relevant community project, and a better defined application) you ought to consider reapplying for the next class.” At the same time, Symonds advises students to take a “different angle” with their essays, as adcoms have long memories and low tolerance for repetition.
Second, he challenges applicants to identify schools that that are the best fit. “There are many great MBA programs beyond the biggest name schools that can still help you achieve your desired goals and open the doors to great post-MBA jobs,” Symonds cautions. By better connecting their goals with a school’s curriculum, applicants stand a better chance of being accepted. “There are always some candidates who don’t get in because they haven’t done enough research and don’t do a good job of conveying an informed vision of why they’re a good fit for the school,” Symonds observes.
Finally, Symonds invites readers to ask the real question: “[Is] an MBA is really what you need to progress in your career?” For example, he cites other business master’s programs or even online options as ways for applicants to accumulate knowledge and skills needed to make themselves more attractive.
Regardless, applicants shouldn’t sweat over an initial rejection. In the end, it is a temporary setback. After graduation, they’re bound to finish second for promotions or have their game-changing ideas rejected. Chances are, being rejected early gives them an advantage over those who had easier paths.
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