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)

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