Rejected By Business Schools? A Former Admissions Committee Member’s Perspective

Having recently received a business school rejection letter, you may believe that this is the end of the road with the school(s) that rejected you. It is understandable to think this way, but once you’ve had a chance to digest the outcome, if you still have your heart set on a particular school, you really should consider applying again. “What’s the point?” you may ask.

Having sat in an admissions chair for several years, I can say without question that I have accepted many students who have reapplied. Why? In addition to providing a stronger application, the fact that an individual shows the persistence and never-give-up attitude to apply again speaks volumes about his or her ability to succeed long term. Being able to recover from failure is one of the most important skills a business person, or ANY person should learn. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

While not always the case, some programs will take the time to give denied applicants feedback prior to reapplying. This is a gift. If you have that option, use it gratefully.

Before you go down the road of reapplication and whether you get feedback from schools or not, here are several critical questions to ask yourself:

1) Was I qualified for the program(s) I applied to?

If you had weak test scores, low grades, or insufficient work experience either quantitatively or qualitatively relative to your target school’s current class profile, then it’s easier to understand why you were dinged. The good news: these are all circumstances you can mitigate or change!

If your test scores are weak, retake the exam, or try taking the GRE if you didn’t do well on the GMAT. Consider a tutor if you took a class previously. If studied on your own, consider taking a test-prep class.

If your grades were low, take some courses to show that the circumstances that led to those grades in undergrad are gone now. If you have inadequate work experience, you presumably continue to work, and each passing day adds to that experience. If you take it one step further and actively seek out more responsibility and leadership roles, you will increase the possibility of measuring up to the schools you are seeking acceptance at.

Action Item: If you analyze your profile and conclude that you weren’t competitive, either improve your qualifications or change the programs you are applying to. You should be competitive at most schools where you apply.

2) Did I really put together the best possible application?

While it’s hard to objectively evaluate your application, you need to do so. During my time in admissions, a common reason for denying applicants was poorly written essays. This could mean poorly written on a literal basis, or poorly written in terms of choice of topic, not answering the question(s) asked, or (heaven forbid but I’ve seen it!) not referring to the proper school in an essay (i.e. “I really feel that the Columbia MBA Program is right for me” when you are applying to Booth). Also, lackluster reasons for being interested in a school is a real turn off.

Another common reason to deny an applicant is a poor interview. The interview is really your one shot to seal the deal. Your application impressed the committee enough to warrant another look. If you show up disheveled, unprepared, or ramble with your answers, this is a surefire way to be denied. Practice with someone in advance, and also look at yourself in the mirror while responding to some of the questions you are sure to be asked, like, “Why are you interested in an MBA?” or “Why are you interested in this particular school?”

Action Item: Write essays that answer the prompt, relate what you want a school to know about you, tell a story, and make clear why it is important the school hear this story. so that you are ready to answer general questions about your career, behavioral questions, or probing questions based on a review of your resume or application (specifics depend on the school).

3) Did I choose the right schools to apply to based on my goals?

Did you truly select programs based on   and qualifications? Did you properly portray fit? Did you focus too heavily on rankings and brand instead of showing that given your goals and qualifications and the school’s strengths and culture, you and your target school fit like hand in glove?

If you applied for a program that specializes primarily in entrepreneurship and finance and your goals are related to general management at a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company, your goal will easily signal to an admissions committee that you chose to apply to that program for a reason other than their strengths. Your reasoning, or lack thereof, will assumed to be linked to reputation, location, or network. You will have failed to show fit.

It is so easy for application readers to see through this shallowness – I could spot these people a mile away! If you don’t take the time to either visit the campus or speak to current students or alumni, you wouldn’t have had much to say about your fit with the program. You will also not have thought about how the school’s program (not brand) will help you go down your desired professional path. I wanted to admit people who were likely to come to the program for the right reasons.

Action Item: Make sure you can make a case that your target school’s curriculum, placement record, and extra-curricular activities are the perfect bridge between your current professional location and your dream career path.

4) Did I apply early enough in my target schools’ application process?

For most programs “early” translates into an application submitted during or prior to the January deadlines. Round 1 (and at the latest round 2) is the ideal time to apply if your profile is well-represented, either demographically (Indian IT male, for example), or professionally (consultant). By the time round 3 rolls around, the incoming class has largely taken shape with many (if not most) spots taken. By that time, the admissions committee is more interested in bringing in outliers.

Action Item: Apply as early as possible provide you don’t compromise the quality of application.

5) What am I going to do differently?

If you move forward with reapplying, the first thing to decide is what you are going to differently.

There is one approach you should NOT take: The same one you took before.

As I mentioned earlier, try to get some feedback directly from the programs themselves. There is no substitute for their feedback on how to best prepare yourself to improve the likelihood of admission.

Alternatively or in addition, consider our MBA Rejection Review. One of our consultants can read through your application and provide their expert opinion on how to approach reapplication. Plus, it will cost you a lot less money (and time) than another fistful of rejections.  

Action Item: Access an experienced, knowledgeable MBA admissions expert to evaluate your qualifications and your dinged application with Accepted’s MBA Application Review

Jen Weld, MBA admissions consultant at Accepted, is the former Assistant Director of Admissions at Cornell’s EMBA program. She enjoys guiding MBA applicants to acceptance at top MBA and EMBA programs around the world.