Enter The ‘Rank-Climbers’: The Newest MBA Applicants Of The Pandemic

Highly-selective business schools are opening their doors to admit candidates to their MBA programs

If you want one sliver of evidence that this year’s MBA admissions cycle is in utter turmoil, consider the bold decision by the Kellogg School of Management today (April 14) to encourage applicants who had been rejected in an earlier round to come back to the school for reconsideration. As unprecedented as that decision is, it was also accompanied by Kellogg’s equally surprising announcement that it would waive the GMAT and the GRE for candidates who apply by its final June 1 application deadline this year.

Both moves at one of the most highly regarded business schools in the world have been greeted by gasps from admissions directors at rival schools as well as admission consultants. Yet, other schools, including MIT Sloan, are planning to revisit candidates who had been rejected in earlier rounds as well. “It looks a bit like desperation; that everything is negotiable,” sighs a prominent admissions consultant. “There’s no end, then, to the lobbying or to the finality of a decision. I’ve never heard of a decision being reversed, even though every year I see people who should have gotten in and didn’t to any number of schools. And so they accept and move on.  It just puts admissions officers in a more difficult position.”

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has upended all the rules of MBA admissions. Most schools have significantly expanded their admission rounds, often by six weeks or more. The closure of test centers all over the world has led many schools to agree to review applications without a test score, holding back admit decisions until an official score arrives. With most consulates still closed around the world, the ability of an international student to gain a student visa in time for the fall start of a program seems highly likely.


Just about every admissions director, working remotely from home now, is worried about yield, the percentage of admits who actually enroll in a program. That’s why the top schools have significantly larger waitlists and will likely pull more applicants off of them than ever before. Hardly a day goes by without another headline-busting announcement. Yale SOM is now considering whether to waive GMAT and GRE tests for applicants with grade point averages of 3.7 or above, an exception it already is making for its Silver Scholars program for Yale college seniors. The University of Virginia’s Darden School and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School are accepting SAT and ACT scores, as well as MCATs and LSATs, in lieu of a GMAT or GRE. Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management will now take expired test scores.

“From an admissions point of view, this will be the craziest cycle in the history of business schools,” predicts William Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.  “It’s just so topsy-turvy.” Asked about Kellogg’s encouragement to dinged candidates to reapply in the same admissions cycle, Boulding adds: “I have never heard that in all my years. To me that says whatever I said about it being the most topsy-turvy year ever, I must be understating it.”

Admission consultants who are counseling clients through the turmoil agree. “It is the wild, wild west out there,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, one of the largest MBA admissions consulting firms. “I heard from another admissions officer recently, who will remain nameless, that her school is expecting late acceptances from M7 programs to affect her class significantly. Anyone who is in the predictions game is destined to have egg on his or her face. This is the year of the applicant and classes will be shaken up.”


An unintended consequence of the extended admission rounds is that consultants are seeing something they have never seen before: An increasing number of clients already admitted and deposited to schools who are now scrambling to apply to higher ranked MBA programs. That new trend threatens to make an already difficult admissions cycle even more troublesome for schools. If a fair number of applicants who have already been admitted somewhere apply to higher-ranked programs, and a significant number of them are accepted, the downstream ripple effect on yield will be virtually impossible to predict.

Yet, that very likelihood is already playing out. At Accepted.com, for example, one client candidate accepted and deposited to London Business School is now applying to Columbia Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Another, with significant scholarship money from both UC-Berkeley Haas and Michigan Ross, is now trying to Wharton. And yet another, whose dream school has long been the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, is now applying to Yale’s School of Management and Columbia.

Enter a new breed of MBA applicant: the rank-climber. “Applicants are playing a game of musical chairs that will lead to their receiving acceptances, declining acceptances (even after submitting deposits or receiving tantalizing scholarship awards), moving from waitlist to admitted status, and making a final decision very close to the start of class,” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com.  “These enterprising ‘rank-climbers’ are going to intensify the business schools’ yield drama and trauma. More than ever, MBA programs can only be confident of a student’s enrollment when he or she shows up on that first day of class.


“From the applicants’ perspective it makes sense,” adds Abraham. “There is opportunity in this applicant/buyer’s market: A sizable chunk of buyers (those who need a visa) can’t travel to the marketplace i.e. business school. Instead of “rounding out” their classes late in the application cycle, schools are worried about their ability to fill up classes. They are actively recruiting for this cycle at this time of year. That’s unprecedented.”

Just about every admissions firm is confirming that at least some clients are reconsidering their earlier decisions. Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, says his firm has a client who was accepted to Duke Fuqua and UVA Darden previously.  “She just submitted her Wharton application R3 (April 15 deadline), and she is working on her application for MIT Sloan, targeting what I am calling “R3E” (extended R3) which is “rolling” so we’re advising her to submit as soon as possible.”

Min is seeing another unusual trend unique to this year: More international clients applying in round three. “We know traditionally R3 doesn’t work well for international applicants applying to U.S. schools due to not being able to complete the visa process by the fall when they need to show up on campus,” he adds. “Because schools and applicants know U.S. embassies around the world are closed, accepted students will most likely be provided extra accommodations, such as being allowed to show up later on campus once they can obtain their visa, assuming classes are back in session on campus.  Or, possibly be granted deferrals.”


Only today, Judith S. Hodara of Fortuna Admissions had her first conversation with a candidate who deposited at Tuck but was denied by Kellogg in round one. The admit is deciding whether to reconsider and appeal the Kellogg ding now that the school is encouraging rejected applicants to come back for reconsideration.

“We know that this is the first of many conversations,” says Hodara, formerly the acting head of MBA admissions at Wharton and a co-director at Fortuna. She and her colleagues have come to the conclusion that “this is not all that different from an Early Action deposit at Fuqua or CBS, where a student is also then admitted to Wharton, HBS or GSB subsequently. The the only tactical ‘issue’ then would be their forfeited deposit. CBS or Fuqua will manage for this yield wise, in their regular pools.

“Since schools do not cross-check acceptances or deposits, unlike undergraduate admissions offices which share very specific agreements about binding decisions, business schools have yet to enter into that territory of knowing who has cross- deposited. They seem very hesitant to do so. However, ethical considerations, and how you feel as a future business leader about this decision, is really a personal matter. We have  many students who agonize about this choice for that reason.”

One big question for prospective rank-climbers, adds Hodara, is whether they want to revisit the application process yet again after putting down a deposit. “Of course, trading up as it seems will take time and energy for the student, but we imagine that there are students who will continue with the ‘Why not?’ approach, and then once they have all the cards in, make their decision accordingly.”

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