Your Past Shouldn’t Veto Your MBA Dreams

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted, offers some Stanford GSB application tips

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted

I frequently get inquiries from applicants that begin with a discussion of what they’ve done in the past.  And certainly, past accomplishments and flaws are critical to this grueling b-school application process you’re going through. Those pieces of your past have to be dealt with, but the starting gate for your application should be your goals – where you’re headed in the future, and not where you’ve been in the past. In short, you must ask yourself what you want to do when you finish your MBA. The answer to that question determines what degree you seek and what programs to apply. Your dreams for the future –and not your past – are really the starting point of your application.

Once you have that foundation you can build on it or perhaps adjust it based on your past. Your past will indicate if you are competitive in ways other than your goal. Do you meet the requirements of your target programs (relevant experience, appropriate degree, GMAT/GRE scores, in-range GPA)? If yes, evaluate your competitiveness by comparing your profile with the class profiles and other qualitative information available from your MBA program websites and from current students and recent alumni.  You should be competitive at most of the MBA programs you are applying to.

If you find that you are not competitive, you have to either improve your qualifications or change your target schools. If Top Choice B-School (and its relatives that are probably also out of reach) didn’t exist, what would you do? Would it be Second-Tier B-School that still has excellent placement in the kinds of firms you want to work for? Would it be a different career path?

How to Improve your Chances

If you don’t want to change your goal or adjust your target schools, then you need to improve YOU to compete successfully in this intensely competitive process.

This is where not letting your past have a veto really comes into play.

If your GMAT/GRE scores aren’t quite high enough, consider changing your method of study and retaking the exam. If you studied on your own for previous exams, try a course – online or offline, whichever works for you. If you tried a course previously, try tutoring now. But do change something if you want a different outcome.

Tips for MBA Reapplicants

Yes, you’ve been rejected from your target schools. You’re disappointed. Frustrated. Upset. Maybe a little embarrassed. But this is a setback. It doesn’t automatically need to be the end of your dreams, unless you decide the dream no longer appeals or simply isn’t feasible for you.

If your original goal no longer attracts you or isn’t worth the effort to make it feasible, that’s OK.  Research other paths and goals, and go after them. The fact that this MBA application or dream didn’t work, doesn’t mean you won’t succeed at others. Some day you may look back and say that you are glad things worked out as they did, because in the future you could realize that your new path really is the best one for you.

Alternatively, you may decide that this dream, this goal, still is right for you. It stimulates and propels you. You want it. You need to try again.

Great. The first step to a successful reapplication: evaluate your last attempt so that you can do better. Again, the past doesn’t have to limit you. Don’t give it a veto.

Reapplying Strategically

Realize that rejection is caused by one of the following four factors:

1. You weren’t competitive.

2. You were competitive at your target schools, but presented your qualifications poorly.

3. You did well on 1 and 2, but intense competition at your target schools and high application
volume kept you out. (Don’t hastily and lazily decide this was the sole reason; if you do, you’ll
not attempt to improve.)

4. A combination of the above.

It’s easiest to point to a below-average GPA, GMAT/GRE, or some number that isn’t up to par because numbers are so concrete. However, an ineffective presentation of your qualifications (for example, sloppiness or failing to demonstrate fit is just as dangerous, especially at elite MBA programs. Being a victim of numbers and competition almost always implies weakness in presentation, which means we see that combo a lot with clients who start working with us when they reapply.

To ensure a different outcome next time around, you must improve whatever is weak. That can be easier said than done, but that’s what you need to do to reapply successfully. Furthermore, even if you feel that you presented yourself well and that your academic stats were the issue, you still need to show commitment to the process and growth from your last application. I strongly discourage your submitting the same application essays as you sent in last year – even if the essay prompt hasn’t changed. Doing so shows a lack of growth and commitment; it will damage your chances of acceptance.

Finally, if you really don’t feel you can improve the presentation of your qualifications or your stats, you may have to change the route to achieving your goals. If you want to get an MBA to begin your career as a strategy consultant and can’t get into the top M/B/B feeder schools, consider achieving your goal in stages. You could start at a business school whose grads do well at second-tier consulting firms, and plan to work your way over to the elite strategy firms, or climb the ladder at these companies so that you get the best assignments. You’ll still be doing the work you want to do.

And you’ll have given your past a vote, but not the veto.

One of the questions you will almost certainly have to answer – either in an essay or an interview – is why do you need an MBA. Will you have a strong answer? Learn how to strategize effectively by checking out Accepted’s admissions guide, Why MBA? — get it here for

Linda Abraham is the founder of Accepted, the premier admissions consultancy. She has coached MBA applicants to acceptance for over 20 years. The Wall Street Journal, US News, and Poets&Quants are among the media outlets that seek her admissions expertise.

  • Usha

    Hi Linda! Hope this finds you well! This article is very helpful. However,
    I have a nagging doubt on how to open my essays- do I open with the
    line that my entrepreneurial interests guided my career choices and then
    work my way through the jobs and my learnings and leadership traits I
    displayed in the jobs and personal life; or do I open with a short
    powerful line which describes my life story/me at the core as a person
    and then connect the dots?

    Also, I am writing to ask you regarding my chances at Cornell/Columbia/MIT LGO programs. Here’s a brief summary of my profile:

    29 year old female from India, with GMAT score of 700 (Q-43 V-42 AWA-6.0
    IR-7). Professional experience includes both IT(Business Analyst to
    Product Owner to Business Analytics consulting) and research experience
    (CFD Analysis @ Chrysler Automobiles). I have switched fields in line
    with my entrepreneurial interests. While my target schools are NYU
    Stern, CMU Tepper, Kenan Flagler,Ross,Haas and Chicago Booth, I’d like to know my
    chances at Cornell/Columbia/Tuck/MIT LGO. My Post MBA plans are to work with MBBs as a
    Strategy and Leadership consultant for few years and then take on a
    leadership role or start my own business.

    Thank you for your time!