“Why was I rejected?”
“I thought my interview went so well…”
“I got admitted to X school but not to Y school. Why?”
“My friend/colleague/sibling with a similar background to me got admitted, why not me?”
While my primary objective as a graduate admissions consultant is to help clients prepare applications that will get them admitted, one of my other responsibilities is to address questions like the above. Since I work mostly with MBA applicants (and significantly less so with those pursuing Masters in Law, Finance, Law, Public Policy, and the occasional Ph.D.), most of the time I am concerned specifically with the issues related to Business School admissions, and in particular admissions at top US and international programs.
While I will be discussing some of the ways that an applicant might get rejected because of things outside of the applicant’s control, I am not trying to provide anyone with an excuse. The factors I look at are explanations which impact results. Here I will consider some of the factors that may have quite a bit to do with who gets admitted to top US and international MBA programs.
TOO MANY QUALIFIED APPLICANTS
The actual level of competition at top MBA programs is somewhat confusing as raw acceptance rate numbers or number of candidates interviewed or yield (percentage admitted who attend), can cloud the actual level of difficulty. (See my posts “Beating the Competition, Gaining MBA Admission: Macro-Numbers,” “Beating the Competition, Gaining MBA Admission: Averages & the 80% Range” for my my recent posts looking at the MBA application numbers in detail.) Numbers can confuse the issue, especially if one makes the mistake of comparing undergraduate rates of acceptance to graduate school rates of acceptance. For example, an American applicant with an undergraduate degree from schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and University of Chicago, all schools were the acceptance rate is less than 10%, might look at HBS’ 11%-13% rates of admission as not necessarily harder than anything they already experienced and might take schools with MBA acceptance rates of around 20% like Yale SOM and Chicago Booth in stride. For those 2% who passed the Indian Institute of Technology’s (IIT) entrance exam, even the 6-7% admission rate for even Stanford GSB can look deceptively easy. Whether it is a Japanese who graduated from The University of Tokyo, a French applicant from one of the grandes écoles, or anyone who has graduated from a top school worldwide, MBA acceptance rates might not necessarily look daunting. However the problem is that the MBA pool of applicants is filled with elites who have graduated from such schools. Wharton actually makes this issue rather clear: “In any given year, approximately three-quarters of candidates are admissible based on academic factors alone. “ The IIT graduate suddenly finds herself not competing with everyone who takes the Joint Entrance Examination in India, but with those who passed it. While she is also competing with those who have gained admission to other top Indian institutions, she is surely no longer in a pool of general applicants. Hence, she finds herself competing with a relatively small number of applicants. She gets into HBS, but rejected from Stanford, while a friend with a similar background has the opposite result.
Further confusion is added in when one considers the full-time employment experience of those who apply to top schools. Here again, the vast majority of applicants have already gone through an intense selection process to gain employment in either companies with global or national prestige or smaller elite firms. Whatever the industry, the applicants to top programs, are, in general, coming from companies with highly selective hiring processes. Hence the MBA applicant pool is filled with people who have typically succeeded at least professionally, if not academically.
Too many qualified applicants: The overall result is that the pool might be statistically less competitive, but actually is more competitive because the high percentage of those who apply are actually fully qualified to attend the program. The practical need to limit the size of a class ultimately limits the number of those who admitted, no matter what the level of qualification. Combine this with the practical resource limits most schools have on conducting interviews and the need to be as selective as possible by not admitting too many qualified applicants, and it is clear enough why the number of qualified applicants far exceeds offers of admission.
The need to diversify the class: Combine too many applicants with the need to diversify the class by gender, nationality, profession, educational background, and intended post-MBA industry and the actual level of difficulty goes way beyond what ever number you can think of. Male Ivy League educated McKinsey consultants with degrees in economics suddenly move from being elites to typical applicants when it comes to MBA admissions at Stanford or HBS. The IIT graduate with a degree in engineering degree now working in investment banking is no longer all that special when it comes to getting into Booth or Wharton. While some applicants have an easy time differentiating themselves because of a very unique objective background through the combination of their profession, education, nationality, etc, many will have to depend on purely subjective factors (found typically in essays and recommendations, but extending to any interpretative content in the application form), and, if they are interviewed, by that extreme exercise in extreme subjectivity. And since everyone is unique, at least subjectively so, without objective measures of uniqueness, it is harder to stand out. The real rate of acceptance at a particular school might be 20%, but it also be 75% for one type of applicant and 10% for another. Such numbers, even if they could be internally generated in the admissions office, will never see be made public. Hence acceptance rates overall might be a very bad guide to any particular applicant’s chance of admission.
Another very important consideration are the needs of an institution and its stakeholders. The application process is not a level playing field at many institutions. No admissions officer who wants to keep his or her job is likely to admit this. Influences on who gets in take many forms and vary from institution to institution. Without naming names, I will give examples of some very specific ways in which the process favors certain candidates over others. Given a limited number of seats, each time an institution provides such special consideration, the applicant pool as a whole is negatively impacted. While some might wrap themselves in the language of fairness and desire to holistically review each applicant on the basis of their uniqueness, some applicants are more inherently desirable to an institution than others.
Some of the top US MBA programs regularly send their admissions officers to meet potential applicants at select companies around the world. These are not regular information sessions, but frequently small group sessions where applicants are given the opportunity to interact with the admissions officer. It is quite reasonable for admissions to conduct such events because they want to recruit those who are coming from top companies. These maybe companies that actually hire many graduates of the MBA program, so making such a visit is a way to maintain the relationship with a company that hires the program’s graduates. The MBA program and/or university make also have longstanding relations with said companies because of alumni in very senior positions, so this might also be justifiable on the basis of maintaining good relations with important alumni. However, if you are not amongst those who have access to such events, you are at a disadvantage in terms of your l evel of access to the admissions office.
Influences on admissions decisions involve everything from schools where informal notes written by an alumnus or current student are taken into consideration in the admissions process to pressure from a well placed alumnus or the fundraising arm (development office) of the school to guaranteed seats for a particular company. In regards to the last practice, I know of one top MBA program that has guaranteed seats for a limited number of applicants from particular companies in the US and Japan (and I don’t know their relationships elsewhere, which I am fairly certain they have). I have seen an applicant offered multiple interviews and subsequently admission at least partially on the basis of who his or her family is and with clear pressure from the development offices of four schools. And I know directly from alumni that sometimes those notes they send do have impact on the process. If you detect any particular moral criticism on my part, it is not actually the case. I think institutions have a right to take multiple issues into consideration when determining who to admit. Fairness and transparency maybe something one can expect in the legal system, but admissions officers are not wise judges, they are employees of an organization who are rewarded for supporting the overall needs of that organization. (For an analysis of admissions officers, see here.) The thing to keep in mind is that institutional interest might work against your application, which has nothing to do with the quality of your application or you as an individual. If a school can only interview and eventually admit a limited number of people, those applicants with institutional advantages both help themselves and hinder the rest of the applicant pool. On the other hand, if you had institutional interest working for you and still did not get in, chances are really good tha t there was a problem with your application or with you. A really bad interview can kill whatever institutional influence may have been present.
SUBJECTIVITY AND RANDOM LUCK
The MBA admissions process like any applicant selection process that is not based on pure objective factors is inherently subjective and subject to chance. The interview process is especially subject to luck: Get the right interviewer and you get in, get the wrong one and you don’t. One thing I really like about HBS interviews is that they are conducted in an extremely consistent way by highly trained admissions officers. They are still subjective evaluations, but at least the evaluator is highly trained and disciplined. Compare HBS interviews to Columbia Business School interviews and you will understand what I mean. CBS provides applicants with a list of local alumni that they can select from. Based on what I can see, these alumni have no significant training and follow the written evaluation document they have been provided with to whatever extent they want. The number of extremely unfair and unprofessional interactions my clients have experienced at the h ands of CBS alumni interviewers is far to many and extends around the world. While many clients experience professional CBS interviews, some are given extremely easy interviews, while others are treated with contempt by their interviewer. This is the luck of the draw at its extreme and no amount of work on application or preparation for interview can make up for such things. Eliminating alumni interviews entirely, as Wharton has done, is one excellent way to reduce subjectivity at its most awful.
While the interview is the most overt example of subjectivity coming into the mix since it involves human interaction, anyone who actually reads applications for a living (admissions officers and admissions consultants) has to take great care in the way they read and controlling for their own opinions. No one is a perfect reader and no one is objective. Admissions consultants, at least the good ones, take their time to read an essay (and read it again and again) in order to provide effective advice. Admissions officers have limited time for each application and even accounting for multiple reads by different officers, the degree of attention each application gets is not consistent. In other words, get read by the wrong person and you might end up rejected, get read by the right one and you might get in.
Finally, it would be a mistake to think of admissions officers as judges who bring fairness and consistent attention to their work. Like in any organization, the quality of the human capital in an MBA admissions office is highly variable.
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.