(This is an updated and expanded version of a post from 2008)
Was your admissions game plan for Fall 2009 a failure?
For those, who have yet to apply, do you want to understand some of the common pitfalls you should avoid?
Below are the typical reasons for rejection(stated as questions) and some of my suggestions for developing a new strategy for future applications (mostly stated as questions). I base the following on my experience helping reapplicants successfully obtain admission at such schools as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago GSB, Kellogg, LBS, and MIT.
1. Were you realistic? If there was one overall reason for failure that I would point to, it would be lack of realism about the process. Usually this involves ignoring one or more important factors:
-Specifically ignoring the rate of admission, average GMAT and/or iBT TOEFL / IELTS test scores, and GPA required of those admitted are all highly likely to result in applying to schools that an applicant has very little chance to enter. See below for more about this.
-Age. I don't blame applicants for this one entirely because B-schools often have an all inclusive message about who they admit that is not quite the real case. This is especially true in regards to age where it is very clear that programs can't say they will not let in older applicants, but actually they usually don't. For example, applying to Stanford GSB or HBS after the age of 30 might be worth trying, but your chances for admission (compared to the average rate of admission) are not great. HBS is fairly direct about the age issue (see my earlier post on the subject), but Stanford does not choose to deal with this issue in an honest and forthright manner. For those over 30, look at average age and age range when considering where to apply. Try to ask admissions privately about this issue, you might get a straight answer or not. (See my interview with Kirt Wood from RSM who gave a very clear answer on this issue.) Applying to most top programs once you are in your mid-thirties may very well be a complete exercise in frustration and once you are past 35, the chances for admission at many top programs appears to be slim. For those in and/or approaching their mid-thirties or older who want a full-time MBA experience, I think programs such as the Sloan programs at LBS, MIT, and Stanford as well as USC IBEAR are all very suitable. An EMBA is always an option.
-Last minute applications: Developing great applications takes time, doing them at the last minute is one of the easiest ways to increase your chances for rejection because it is highly likely that your essays were not well written, sufficiently strategic in the way they marketed you, and, possibly, not even proofread.
-Lack of substantial research into/networking for the programs being applied to. If you did not make full use of each schools' web-based information, did not attend admissions events, did not visit campus, and/or did not communicate with alumni or current students, you probably did not know enough about the schools you applied to make an effective case for why you fit at them.
-Did not obtain sufficient and/or effective advice on your applications and application strategy from mentors and/or admissions experts (see below).
One thing I have found about successful reapplicants is that are highly realistic. Reality is a harsh teacher, but one you cannot afford to avoid.
2. Did you really know about the programs you applied to? How was that reflected in your essays? Did you merely restate obvious information about the school or did you show exactly what aspects of it will meet your academic and professional goals? Did you demonstrate a clear connection to the program? Did you even think about fit? Stating unremarkable things based simply on reading the website or brochure is not enough, you need to show why a specific program really fits your personality and goals. If you had an interview, how effective were you at establishing fit?
3. Was there a problem with the way you expressed your desire for an MBA or your goals?Actually almost every re-applicant I have worked with had a serious problem clearly articulating their goals. If you think your goals might be the problem, read this and complete the table you can find there. Were your goals based on any research? Were they interesting? Finally, reflecting my recent post on trends for Fall 2009 admission, did you take the financial crisis into account? If you were trying to get into finance with no prior experience and making second round applications, your goals were likely to have been a serious problem.
4. Did your essays fully demonstrate your potential as a student and a professional? Did you come across as a unique applicant? The way you write about who you are and what you have done is a major way that admissions evaluates this. More specifically: Could you clearly express selling points about yourself in your essays? Did you provide sufficient details about what you did combined with a sufficient explanation for why? Are your essays about you or just about what you have done? Are your essays mere extensions of bullet points on your resume or do they tell effective stories about you? Do you really understand the essay questions? How effective were in writing about such common topics as contributions, leadership, and/or failure?
As is usual for Chicago GSB admissions, they have provided some great advice, this time on the topic of reapplication. If you plan to reapply to Chicago GSB or are just looking for general reapplication advice, I suggest reading GSB's "Making a Fresh Start." I especially liked the following very useful advice that is really applicable for any applicant:
Show us why you're different. Each year thousands of students apply to business school and yet many qualified candidates are not offered admission. With MBA admissions growing more and more competitive each year, it's really important to stand out in the crowd by attempting to differentiate yourself from those of a similar profile. Tell us about your challenges, interesting achievements, unique perspectives and stories.
Showing admissions why you are unique is something that all applicants should really focus on. For more about, please see my earlier post on being unique
5. Did you put a sufficient amount of time into writing your essays? Writing great essays usually takes time and multiple drafts. Did you write multiple drafts of your essays? Were your essays quickly written? Did a significant amount of thought go into them?
6. Did your resume (CV) present your professional, academic, and extracurricular experience effectively? A great MBA resume requires effective presentation of your past experience so that an admissions committee can gain insight into your potential to succeed in the MBA program and in your future career. A great resume is also an effective agenda setting device for an interview. Did your resume contain clear statements about your accomplishments? Did your resume honestly and effectively represent the full range of your experience? Did your resume showcase your potential as a manager, businessperson, and/or leader?
7. Did you really address any potential concerns that an admissions committee may have about your suitability as a candidate? Even though there is always an optional question available for this purpose, did you make use of it? If there was something you wanted to avoid discussing, maybe you should consider doing so.
8. How were your interviews? If you did interview, were you well-prepared? How do you judge your own performance? Did you practice enough? Are you good at interviewing? For non-native speakers: Are you good at interviewing in your own language? I believe that the only effective way to prepare for interviews is to be over-prepared: You need to appear relaxed and comfortable talking with the interviewer, to be ready to address the hardest questions, to be comfortable with your own selling points and the stories that support them, and have to have enough knowledge about the school to show a passion for it. If you were dinged from one or more schools that offered you an invitation to interview, chances are great that you really need to work on your interview skills. If you know that you are particularly weak interviewing, consider applying to at least some schools were the interviews are not considered very hard.
9. How were your recommendations? Did your recommendations honestly and effectively endorse you? Did they contain sufficient detail to help an admissions committee understand your selling points? Did your recommendations really evaluate both your strengths and weaknesses? Were your recommendations authentic or is there any possibility that an admissions officer would be concerned about their authorship? For more about recommendations, see here (Note: I have not posted an MBA specific recommendation post).
10. How good was the advice you received from other people about your application(s)? In addition to yourself, who read and advised you on your essays, resume, interview(s), and/or other aspects of your application process? Alums, mentors, admissions consultants or counselors, editors, and/or ghostwriters? While I would not suggest blaming those who advised you, you may want to seek out new or additional advisers. Of course if they told you that your essays, resume, or some other aspect of your application were weak and you did not address it, they were providing good advice. Additionally if they expressed concerns about your likelihood for admission, their advice might be good (beware of those who always hedge their bets).
If you relied extensively on an editor or paid a ghostwriter and seem to be getting dinged quickly, you have discovered the pitfalls of those highly dubious strategies. Consider writing your own stuff, getting an ethical and professional admissions consultant to advise you, and/or discovering the potential of your voice.
If you used an admissions counselor or consultant and did not get any good results and they told you that your applications were good, find someone else. If your counselor had limited experience, this is pretty much an indicator that you should have gone with someone experienced. If your counselor seemed exhausted or rushed, you also have a problem because this person is unlikely to be able to be devoted to helping you enough. If you purchased a counseling service and not the services of a particular counselor, I would not be surprised if you encountered someone overworked. After all, one critical difference between consultants who work for themselves and those that work for someone else is the amount they make for the work performed. Those that work for someone else make considerably less per hour and often have to work more and under higher pressure than those that work for themselves. Regardless of whether you use an individual consultant or a service, the issue will always come down to the specific advice you are being given, which means the particular person you are working with. In addition to contacting me, one good resource for finding a new counselor is through the Association of International Admissions Consultants where you can find a directory of my colleagues (including my guest blogger, Steve Green) around the world who are committed to providing high level service to their clients.
11. Was your GMAT within the school's 80% range? Was your GMAT below average? Obviously if your score was below the 80% range, you should assume your chances for admissions were less than the stated admissions rate. If it was was within the range, but significantly below the average score, you should assume that it was a contributing factor to your results. I am not saying to apply only to schools where you are within the range (see my earlier post on this issue), but I would suggest taking account of the risk in terms of (1) school selection, (2) the number of programs you need to apply to, and (3) expectations for success. As far as reapplication goes, studying GMAT is almost always necessary for those with less than a 700 GMAT. If your GMAT was 700 or higher and you were rejected, GMAT was almost certainly not your main problem.
12. Was your GPA equal to, above, or below the average reported GPA for the school? If it was below, this may have been a factor against you. If you GPA is significantly below the average GPA and your GMAT is equal to or above the average score, did you write an optional essay? Did you highlight your academic potential in some way to counter the issue of your GPA?
13. Did your TOEFL meet the school's minimum stated requirement? If your score was below the minimum, did you discuss this in the optional or some other essay to make the case for your English abilities? At this stage, you need to improve your score for Fall 2010 admission. If your score on TOEFL is really weak, have you considered taking IELTS? Some applicants actually will do better on this test than on ibt TOEFL. It is not easy to prepare for a new test, you might really want to try it out and see which test is better for you.
14. Were you realistic about school selection? I think you need to look at the portfolio of schools you applied to and ask yourself the following questions:
-Did I apply to programs with low rates of admission?
-Did I apply to enough programs?
-Did I apply to a wide enough range of programs?
See my posts on ranking such as "The 99" for some strategies for selecting schools.
15. Were you honest about the way you presented yourself in your whole application? As a strong advocate for honesty, I have a bias for this particular approach to the process. If you are getting dinged after misrepresenting one or more aspects of your experience, you might want to consider that it is the job of admissions officers to eliminate liars. Liars get through anyway, but not all of them. If you have over-marketed yourself, you may also have come across as less than authentic.
I know that getting rejected is no fun, but if you are committed to the process, I think you can make your next round of applications a success.
NEED MBA ADMISSIONS CONSULTING?
If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.
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