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December 21, 2013

Waitlisted? Now what?

This is an updated and expanded version of a previous post on what do if you are waitlisted at an MBA program.

As MBA results roll in with  all their joy, pain, and annoyance have more or less emerged, some people will find themselves  admitted, others outright rejected, and others in that netherworld known as waitlist. For some, the wait will actually end relatively quickly, but for others, the wait might very well continue, well, for months and months. For some, the waitlist will ultimately convert into a ding.

While I have no numbers yet, my expectation is that admissions acceptances to top programs like Booth, HBS,  MIT and Wharton will have become lower for fall 2014 entry (Class of 2016) because of  making the essay burden lower (HBS, MIT, Wharton), proactive use of waitlisting to decrease an acceptance rate that is too high given its ranking (Booth)  and increase yield (Booth and Wharton, Haas and others likely), and overall  market effects (If HBS and Wharton become harder to get into, given the large size of their classes, this impacts competition at other schools as well.). Schools waitlist because they actually are uncertain whether their estimated yield- the percentage of admitted applicants who accept an offer of admision, see here for more about it- will be sufficient to fill their class. They waitlist because they don’t want empty seats. They waitlist because they hav e too many qualified applicants for too few slots, but want to reserve the possibility of eventually letting someone in.  They don’t waitlist to make applicants feel better by giving some sort of second prize.  Schools don’t waitlist because their are sadistic fiends, but from a waitlisted applicant’s perspective, it might feel that way.

In the rest of this post, I will provide advice on what do if you are waitlisted by an MBA program.


Don’t panic or become depressed. The reason you were waitlisted is because there were too many qualified applicants and adcom likes you, but they don’t know that they love you yet. Now is the time to think clearly and act effectively.

For those waitlisted in the first round, you should, of course, know that adcom likes you, but they really wanted to see the full pool of applicants, before making any decisions. You might be waiting for a quite a while longer, but be patient. Simultaneously, consider other options.

For those waitlisted in the second or third round, adcom also likes you, but they are not yet convinced that it would be right to give you a spot because there were simply too many qualified applicants. Your wait could go on for months. Consider other alternatives, but don’t give up because it is possible to get off the waitlist.

Be proactive, but not aggressively annoying, with admissions. Adcom will let you know what additional materials they will accept and you should most certainly provide them. That said, the worst thing you can do is send a continuous stream of correspondence or otherwise annoy the admissions office. If you turn yourself into an annoying freak, you can assume you will not get admitted.  
Also, keep in mind that some schools, simply do not accept any additional materials.  Wharton, for example, has the following policy:
“Candidates can expect to remain on the waitlist until the following round of decisions are released. There is no rank order to the waitlist. We are unable to offer feedback to candidates while they remain on the list. We are also unable to accept additional materials for inclusion in a waitlisted applicant’s file. This policy is designed to create an admissions process that is fair and equitable for all candidates.”

On their Admisssions Blog, Wharton reiterates this policy.  See here  for example.  If you are waitlisted at Wharton, the only thing to really do is just wait. Basically, they don’t recommendations, essays,  professional updates and it is even unclear whether they consider GMAT/GRE and TOEFL/IELTS increases. Still, I would submit test score increases to schools like Wharton that don’t take additional information.

Test scores: GMAT, GRE,  TOEFL and IELTS. If you can take it again, do it, if your score goes up report it. Higher scores are always helpful for any school that will take additional information.

If your GMAT or GRE is below the average for those admitted to the program, an improved test score is, many cases, the single best way to improve your chance of admission. On the other hand if your GMAT or GRE score is at or above the average, improved scores are likely to be of increasingly marginal utility.  That said, if you are from a demographic sub-group where scores are particularly high (Indian males who graduated from one of the IITs for example) then a really higher score could be of greater benefit.

For those required to prove their English ability through TOEFL, IELTS, or the other English exams that some schools will accept (but no one seems to take), an improved score here is always worth reporting. MBA programs want class diversity, but they also want those students who are most effective at communicating in English, so if you can show them better potential for that, do it!

Improving your MBA math skills:  If you have strong and objectively demonstrated quantitative skills based on your academic background, professional certifications (CPA, CFA), and/or GMAT or GRE scores, ignore this topic.
As you may have gathered from filling out applications, a number of schools specifically ask applicants to indicate their highest level of math taken or discuss their quantitative skills if not readily apparent.  If you are not strong in math or have no objective facts that demonstrate it (see examples in previous paragraph), that can really hurt especially at programs know for being quantitatively rigorous.   You can certainly take an online or evening course, but that can take quite a while to complete.  I highly recommend the online course,  MBA Math, because many top schools recommend it as preparation to their students.  It is a self-study program and you receive a certificate completion once you are finished with it, which can then be provided to a school you are waitlisted at.  (By the way, I have no connection at all to MBA Math, and this is in no way a compensated endorsement.)

Additional recommendation: If the school will take one, provide it. It is fine to send more than one recommendation if the school allows it. Think very strategically about your selection(s). You don’t want a recommendation that will not add something substantially different from what your previous recommendations stated. Try to use a recommender (or recommenders) who will do one or more of the following:
(a) A recommender who will provide support  to help you overcome any areas of professional and/or academic weakness in your background.
(b) A recommender who will provide a perspective on different part of your background.
(c) A recommender who will provide support for earlier or more recent period of your life.
(d) If academic recommendations are acceptable and your GPA is not great, consider getting an academic recommendation if you can get a strong one.
(e) If your English ability is maybe the issue, consider getting a recommendation from someone who can speak positively about your English communication skills. This is especially important if your iBT TOEFL or IELTS score is not that high or if you think your interview was not so strong because of your speaking skills.

Additionally, many schools will also take informal recommendations from alums or current students, so if you can get one from someone who knows you, it can’t hurt.

WARNING:  Usually the worst recommendations to send are from high level VIPs you don’t know you well and/or who you have not engaged with in some sort of organized purposeful activity (work, volunteer, mentors, academic, etc.). Sometimes applicants know a senator or a CEO or a former prime minister or someone whose family is a major donor at a university (but not the applicant’s family)  and obtain a recommendation that it more like an abstract character reference or a collection of second-hand reported information. This is not a good thing to do and will not help you unless the recommender has real organizational influence at the school.  If they do have such influence, they probably don’t need to write a formal recommendation to have impact.

Waitlist essay. Write one!

The typical components:

-Additional reasons why you want to attend to show your real commitment and passion for the school. Think classes, school’s culture, or any other reason that would make the school ideal for you.

-Discussion of changes that have taken place in your professional career after your applied. If anything new and great has happened, you should most certainly write about it.
- New content that was not emphasized in your application.

Use some combination of the following possible topics:
(a) Changes since you applied. Any positive professional or personal changes should be communicated. For instance, success on a project,  passing a professional certification exam, a promotion,  election to the board of a non-profit organization, etc.
(b) If you did not sufficiently discuss your leadership or teamwork abilities, you should most certainly do so.
(c) Write about contributions you can make to the school based on your experience, background, personality, and network.
(d) If your academic potential was not obvious, you should try to demonstrate that.
(e) If you have SUBSTANTIAL personal or professional accomplishments that you did not discuss in your initial application, you should do so.
(f) If you did not focus very much on non-professional content in your application, focus on it here, at least to some extent.
(f) If you were waitlisted without an interview, remember to ask for the opportunity to interview.

If the length is not stated, I would try to keep it to between 500 and 1000 words. More is not inherently better, quality is, so don’t write about everything you can think of. This essay is quite important, so make sure that the content is at least as good as that of your original application.

If you have not visited the school and can visit the school, do so. Make a point of letting admissions know this, either in your waitlist essay or through contact with them.  VISITING (or even visiting again) CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

For schools where you can actually meet with admissions, making a personal appeal is worth the effort.  Showing your commitment to a school that is open to such an appeal can result in a positive outcome.  Note:  The personal appeal approach does not work at all schools.  It is especially does not work if admissions has told you that they cannot meet with you.  It also does not work if you are simply not good at selling yourself.  My clients who have succeeded at this, have, in general, been highly charismatic individuals.

Get a fresh perspective on your application by rereading it now. By doing so, you will probably have a good idea about what kind of recommendation to get and waitlist essay to write.  To that end, I suggest analyzing your waitlisted application as though you had dinged already:  In order to figure out what you might need to mitigate in your application, analyze it is as though you had been rejected.  I provide a comprehensive way to do that using resources on this blog.  This will also help you figure out what you need to differently with any subsequent applications that you make. 

If you had an interview, how did it go? While it might not be easy for you to fully remember or assess it, think critically about your interview experience.  If you have done well on other interviews, did this one go as well?  While it is obviously too late to do anything about any interview that was not ideal, thinking about your interview experience might very well help you figure out where the problem was and consider how to approach future interviews.  Unless you are certain that your interview went well, assume the interview was at least part if not the entire problem.  Schools seemingly place a different level of value on interviews.  At HBS and MIT, for example, interviews are conducted by admissions staff who have taken the time to review your application completely, so assume a waitlist there, at least partially reflects the fact that compared to other candidates you were good, but others received an overall higher evaluation.  For schools like Haas or Columbia, where interviews are conducted blind, assume the interview is just one factor.  For schools that put a huge emphasis and have intensive interviews, such as IMD,  HEC, and LBS, assume the interview was certainly the critical factor for why you are now waitlisted.

Consider seeking the advice of an admissions consultant. If you have already worked with one, you can go back to that person if you are otherwise pleased with their work. They know you and they could help you put something together that caught admissions’ eye. On the other hand, you might want to pay for a fresh perspective. I offer waitlist, reapplication, interview, and comprehensive consulting services.

Do you need a PLAN B? If you are waitlisted and/or dinged everywhere you applied, it is now time to start thinking about whether you are going to apply for more schools for 2013, reapply for 2014, or expand your career in some other way. Whatever the case, you need a Plan B in place. If you are thinking about applying to more schools for Fall 2013 or just reconsidering school selection in general, please see here.

Best of luck and may your wait be short and culminate in admission!

-Adam Markus
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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