With Harvard Business School’s final application deadline just five days away on April 6th, the school is notifying applicants that it has about 100 candidates on its wait list for admission to the Class of 2017. The majority of those applicants are from the school’s round two application period, with a few from round one.
The dreaded wait list, an anxiety-inducing torture for thousands every year, is something of a concession prize for MBA applicants to top schools. It can mean you still have a chance—however slim—of getting into a school or it can simply delay the inevitable. In most cases, schools put highly desirable candidates on their wait lists in the event that applicants in subsequent rounds fail to measure up or they drop out, deciding to go to another school. They often get admitted when a school needs to balance out the diversity of a class in terms of work experience, educational backgrounds, or geography.
As admissions consultant Sandy Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com, explains: “Admission off the WL sometimes turns on them trying to round out the class, e.g., do they need more X or Y demographic by gender, geography, industry, etc. But that is also sometimes a smokescreen for them doing whatever they want. At this point, they just want to put a bow on this class and go home.”
WHY SCHOOLS ARE GENERALLY MUM ABOUT THEIR WAIT LISTS
Unlike many other schools, Harvard’s wait list has reverberations well beyond the Boston campus. Once HBS releases candidates, they are now free to accept offers from other top MBA programs which, in turn, impacts acceptance decisions and wait lists at many other highly selective business schools. In general, admission officials are pretty secretive about the wait list. A Wharton spokesman flatly told Poets&Quants: “Unfortunately this information is not available.” MIT Sloan, New York University’s Stern School and several other schools also declined to provide numbers.
The number of applicants on the wait list can vary season to season and throughout the course of an admissions cycle,” explains Isser Galloogly, assistant dean of MBA admissions for NYU Stern. “Therefore, we do not release the number of applicants on the wait list at any given time. From the spring through the summer, we review the wait list periodically as space in the class becomes available, as wait-listed applicants improve their candidacy and as we seek to finalize and shape our class.”
Sara Neher, assistant dean of MBA admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says that most schools keep their wait list numbers private to discourage lengthy and unproductive conversations with applicants. “Every time I have given people an idea of how many are on the wait list, they want to know where they are on the list,” she says. “But it’s not prioritized or ordered that way. No applicant is a number.”
Instead, Neher views wait listed candidates as applicants who are simply deferred to the next round. “Once I see the next round, I can make some determinations on the wait list,” she says. Most often those decisions are based on whether an applicant has improved his or her candidacy or has an industry or functional background considered important to the class. “For the case method, having people with different work backgrounds is really important,” adds Neher. “That’s why the list is not ordered in some kind of priority. Sometimes, we could really use some good writers and communicators and other times we might need investment bankers and other people in finance.”
‘NOW IT’S A MATTER OF SELECTION VS. QUALIFICATION’
In Harvard Business School’s email to wait-listed candidates, Eileen Chang of MBA admissions said that wait listers won’t have to wait very long. “We will…be making decisions fairly quickly (both admit and release) so you can be reassured that you will not have to stay on the wait list longer than necessary,” wrote Chang.
Of course, some of the candidates on Harvard’s list have endured the unusual torture of already waiting four months for some word–ever since round one decisions went out on Dec. 10. Each admissions season comes with its own peculiar wait list horror stories. Jeremy Shinewald, CEO of mbaMission, a leading admissions consultant, recalls one client who was put on the wait list in the first round but not admitted until after he had already enrolled in a rival MBA program. “He was admitted in the first week of school after someone dropped out. He literally picked up and moved to another school which is kind of crazy.”
Darden says it is not unusual to keep would-be admits on its wait list until a week before the start of the school’s MBA program. “We have definitely let people in who were driving in a U-Haul to another school,” laughs Neher. “None of us put people on the wait list if we don’t think they are either admissible or can become admissible. Every person on our wait list has the potential to be admitted or I would have denied them for their sake and mine. But sometimes there can be room available at the last moment.” Last year, she noted, three or four international applicants couldn’t get visas in time due to a State Department snag only two weeks before the start of school. That caused Neher to dip into the wait list pool.
FEEDBACK FOR WAIT LISTED CANDIDATES VARIES FROM SCHOOL TO SCHOOL
Chang noted that she has received a few requests for feedback from wait listed applicants at HBS this year but made clear she wasn’t encouraging additional queries from in-limbo candidates. “Feedback is typically not very helpful once a candidate makes it to the wait list because at this stage, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the applicant,’ she said. “Rather, it is more a matter of selection vs. qualification. Any feedback I would be able to provide would be somewhat generic and, as I said above, not very helpful.”
As Chang noted, the number of wait listed candidates can vary greatly at Harvard. Typically, however, the odds of getting in are still pretty stiff in you’re on that list. In 2012, for example, HBS disclosed in late March that it planned to accept between 25 to 50 applicants among some 178 who were on its wait list at that time—roughly equivalent to a 20% admit rate. That’s much better than the overall 12% acceptance rate at Harvard, but not all that comforting for a candidate who clearly is fully qualified to get into HBS’ MBA program.
“Most candidates mistakenly feel that being on a wait list is a repudiation of their candidacy,” says Shinewald. “But a school is indicating that the person is highly admissible and doesn’t want to lose out on the opportunity to get the person in the class. It is anxiety inducing, but applicants need to keep some perspective.”