The Ugly Truth About MBA Waitlists
ApplicantLab |
March 15, 2022

In this episode of Poets and Quants, our hosts John, Maria, and Caroline will talk about the dreaded wait list that everyone is not ready to talk about. If you are currently in limbo, you’re not going to like the answers, but you will definitely learn from them.

Points of discussion:

  • Why do waitlists exist in the first place?
  • What are the possible reasons why you landed on the waitlist? Where did my application go wrong? Where did my interview go wrong?
  • What are your next steps once you find out that you are on the waiting list?
  • What should be the right level of connection between you and the admissions office?

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.450] – John

Hello, everyone. It’s John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co hosts Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. We are going to talk about something that no one wants to be part of. It’s kind of like when you’re in limbo, you have no idea what’s going to happen. We’re going to try to tell you what’s going to happen. You’re not going to like the answer, but we’re also going to give you advice if, in fact, you land in limbo, which in our terms would be the dreaded wait list. Every business school in the world, that is the highly selective ones, of course, have wait lists. And people are going to find themselves on these lists shortly as the round two notices come out from many of the applicants. And as we all know, round two tends to be the largest single round. And over the next few weeks, people would be notified by schools on whether or not they got in or were rejected or in the euphemism of Harvard Business School were released. And then there’s that other group of people that are going to be in limbo.


[00:01:14.060] – John

I want to ask Caroline, who had been director of admissions at INSEAD, why do wait lists exist in the first place?


[00:01:24.170] – Caroline

It’s a very useful tool for the schools to manage the class. So when the school admits around the candidates, they have no way of knowing exactly how many of those candidates will actually accept their offer and finally turn up on campus. And the admissions office has some very specific goals about the size of the class, the profile of the class, the diversity, et cetera, et cetera. And they can’t control exactly who among their admits is going to accept the offer. So they need to have some buffer so that if people turn down the offer that they’ve made to them and some will inevitably, even at the very, very top schools, then they have someone else that they can bring in who will replace that person in the classroom. So it’s really an essential tool for managing the class and particularly for managing the class profile, I think. And towards the end of the season, the admissions team will be scrutinizing very carefully the composition of the class, who is left on the waitlist, and who would be the best fit for the waitlist, given the spots and the buckets of profiles that they’re looking to sell.


[00:02:40.820] – John

And it’s also used as a protection for yield, which obviously is you admit a certain percentage of students and then only a certain percentage enroll. People who are on the waitlist are more likely because you’re having some communication with them to be certain. In other words, you’ll know that they’ll enroll, right?


[00:02:59.370] – Caroline

That’s right. So the yield is always lower on waitlisted candidates. So that’s also an issue for the schools, right? Because if you admit someone straight away, there’s a much higher chance that they will actually accept the offer if you put them in limbo, as you said, many of them will start focusing on a plan B.





[00:03:18.920] – Caroline

Which makes sense because they have no guarantee that they’re going to get an offer. So that’s an issue for the school because they don’t know if they make an offer to waitlisted candidates, whether they will actually accept that. And so when I’m advising candidates who are waitlisted, it’s important to show that you are still motivated. Right. And you may have more or less opportunities to do that depending on the school. But it’s important to show if you genuinely do want to go to that school and if you genuinely would accept the offer, communicate that clearly to the school because they have no way of knowing that otherwise. And many waitlisted candidates will just sort of disappear from view and stop responding to communications from the school because they’ve moved on and they’ve assumed I’m probably not going to get in, so I’m going to forget that option and move on to something else. The school doesn’t know which type of candidate you are. Are you someone who is actually going to accept the offer if we make it, or are you someone who’s just focusing now on the plan B, unless you tell them now.


[00:04:26.340] – John

Maria, I’m thinking to be put on the waitlist is a special cruel form of purgatory and MBA admissions. Let’s face it, you’ve worked really hard to put in a great application. You studied really for many hours, days, weeks, even to get a good score on the standardized test. You lined up your recommenders, you’re waiting for a real decision, and instead you get a well, maybe it’s a special kind of torture, I think. Can you speak to the feelings, the pain, the emotional scars of applicants who end up on a wait list?


[00:05:05.220] – Maria

Yeah, absolutely. Because it’s almost like you’re so close, right? So it makes it almost that much worse, in a sense, versus a rejection. Because with a rejection, you say, okay, fine, they didn’t want me. I wasn’t the right fit, whatever it was. But with a waitlist, it’s like, well, we do think you’re good enough, but you’re not quite a Slam dunk. So we definitely think you could be on our team, but we’re not sure that you’d be a starting player. So it’s like this weird, sort of like it’s a compliment. And I know it’s very hard for obviously for candidates to feel this way, but it really is a compliment in some ways because they say something like, what went wrong? I’m on the wait list. What went wrong with my application? What went wrong with my interview? What do you think happened? And I say, well, nothing wrong happened because they would have just rejected you. They wouldn’t have even bothered to put you on the waitlist if something had gone wrong. So, yeah, it’s like you did everything right, and we really like you, but we’re not sure if we’re going to propose or just leave you in the friend zone.


[00:06:07.640] – Maria

And we’re playing the field. I use a lot of dating analogies, so it is kind of like we’re playing the field, like we’re not going to make a commitment, but we might want to date you. So let’s just see who else is out there. And I think that’s especially true for people. I mean, the good news is if you go on the waitlist in round one, I think it’s all the more agonizing, although I do think round one wait list, people have a better chance of getting in. But it could be. I think there are a couple of main reasons why people get on a waitlist. One is sort of an obvious weakness, such as we really like you, but your Gmail wasn’t really quite high enough. We’re not really sure that you can handle the coursework, but many times, especially at the more competitive schools where pretty much every candidate who makes it that far can handle the coursework, it can often be about, yeah, we really like you, but let’s just wait to see who else is out there. Let’s see in round two, if there’s someone in your bucket. Right. So let’s say somebody works in consumer packaged goods or they’re working consulting or they’re an engineer.


[00:07:09.250] – Maria

It’s like, yeah, you’re really good within your little world, but maybe somebody better is out there who’s going to apply around too. And so I like you, but let me see if I can get somebody better. And so that’s I think a particularly torturous thing because also it’s so out of your control. Right. You have no idea.


[00:07:31.730] – John

Yeah. This reminds me of my latest guilty pleasure, Binging Love Is Blind on Netflix. Do you know the concept?





[00:07:43.290] – John

Okay, here’s the concept. The show’s creators put a bunch of single men and single women, not together, but in separate rooms. And then they each go into pods where they can’t see each other, and they essentially date sight on scene. And the goal is to make a connection, an emotional connection with someone so that you are so smitten by them that you actually propose. And after you propose, you get to meet the person for the first time. The whole idea being, of course, we’re obsessed with physical looks, and this is an attempt to really focus on the personality, the person, the values instead of the physicality. And then they send these couples off to Mexico for a week vacation, after which they have to be married. But while they are in this pod situation interviewing each other, they are in limbo because many times one doesn’t know how the other feels. You can’t read the body language, you can’t see them at all. You can’t touch them. So you’re limited by a person’s voice in what they say. And it’s kind of like being on a waitlist.


[00:09:07.710] – Maria

I’d much rather be on a waitlist than a show.


[00:09:11.490] – John

That sounds terrible, but it’s an entertaining show. I have to admit.


[00:09:18.310] – Maria

Train wrecks are all train wrecks are entertaining to watch.


[00:09:21.220] – Caroline

I get it.


[00:09:23.950] – John

But back to the waitlist. I’m thinking this is a particularly difficult decision or time for a candidate who is, let’s say, has two admits from schools that they would be perfectly willing to attend. But then they’re on the waitlist for the school that they really want to attend, that’s sort of their dream destination. And then waiting around and playing one school against each other and deciding, okay, should I go to the two schools that have already admitted me, or do I wait till the very end to see if the school that I really want to attend will take me off the waitlist? And the truth is, the odds of getting off the waitlist are not all that good. Is that right?


[00:10:08.530] – Caroline

That’s right. There’s always more candidates on the waitlist. I would say then more than double what they could potentially admit.





[00:10:17.020] – Caroline

Because there’s different groups of people in the waitlist. Right. So it’s not that everyone on the waitlist could potentially take the place of anyone who turns down the offer. Right. So if someone turns down the offer who is, I don’t know, a female engineer from China, they’re not going to replace that person with an investment banker guy from New York. Right. They’re looking to fill specific profiles. So you do need quite a few people on the waitlist to have that many options, right. So inevitably, there are far more people on the waitlist and could possibly be admitted. So, yes, your chances are low, although they would be higher if you have got an unusual profile. So if you are the investment banker or the management consultant or the Indian male engineer, then your chances are going to be less than someone with a more unusual profile. But if someone’s got an offer or they’ve got a number of offers, you said from schools where they think it’s a great school, I would be very happy there. I wouldn’t turn down those schools for the sake of possibly getting into your dream school, but probably not getting into your dream school.


[00:11:39.370] – Caroline

Right. So I would never advise someone to turn down those other options. Potentially what they could do is accept an offer and wait to see what happens with the waitlist. But they will probably have to pay a deposit in the meantime. So they will have to be ready to forego that deposit for the sake of keeping that option as a backup.


[00:11:58.830] – John

Right. Now, Caroline, you mentioned earlier that one thing a candidate should do if he or she finds himself on the waitlist is to at least let the school know that you are motivated, you still want to go there, and that if you were, in fact, admitted, you would say yes. Are there other things that, Maria or Caroline, that you think candidates should be doing, because I guess you could become pretty annoying if you continually contact the school.


[00:12:27.720] – Caroline

Yes, that’s right. I mean, I’ve certainly had the situation where I was managing a waitlist at, where people are just calling all the time and they become a pest and they’re constantly trying to deluge the admissions office with additional recommendation letters. It really becomes a negative rather than the positive.


[00:12:51.260] – John

Did they send you wine and chocolate?


[00:12:54.950] – Caroline

No, they should have.


[00:13:00.270] – John

French wine is with chocolate, right?


[00:13:03.390] – Caroline

Yeah, that would have worked. So there’s a delicate balance to strike, and it depends on the schools. So the top US schools, I’m sure they’ve had some terrible experiences with candidates like that who’ve become incredibly annoying, and also all the other people who get involved, who start trying to put pressure on the admissions office, alumni and other donors and so on, who are getting involved on someone’s behalf. So it can get quite painful to manage. So in some cases, they will tell candidates to please not send in additional elements. But I think in most cases you can send in a statement about your motivation for the school, and you should definitely take advantage of that. And if they don’t tell you to not communicate with the school regularly, I would say be in touch with the school, like maybe every three or four weeks just to show that you’re still motivated. You would still accept that offer that you haven’t disappeared, which some other candidates will have at that stage.


[00:14:10.370] – John



[00:14:10.680] – Caroline

So you want to stay on their radar screen, but be thoughtful about what you communicate to that stage.


[00:14:16.480] – Maria



[00:14:16.940] – Caroline

Try to communicate something that is useful, maybe some updates on your profile, but don’t bombard them with a lot of additional information that may not be relevant.


[00:14:28.410] – Maria



[00:14:28.740] – Caroline

So it’s an important balance to strike.


[00:14:31.660] – John

Now this may be also your strategy should change, perhaps depending on what school you are involved with. Is that right, Maria?


[00:14:40.840] – Maria

Yeah, absolutely. And many schools really are quite open about what they are looking for on the waitlist. They will tell you you will get assigned probably a wait list manager, and they will say exactly like we want an update from you. If you’re still interested by whatever March 5, whatever that date is, send us the update. Some schools, this is not nearly as common, but some schools will even if someone’s on the waitlist, they might even communicate with you and say, look, we’re just really worried about your GMAT quantity. We don’t want you to struggle if you get in here. But, yeah, for the most part, just for starters, follow instructions. And then I think one of the things I think you can do that helps demonstrate your commitment to the school is that a lot of schools, especially now in this pro bid world, are doing online conferences. And so there might be like a women’s conference or a crypto conference or something like that online. And many of those happen in the spring. So I often tell people just sign up for the conference and attend it. So that way, at the very least, you can email the admissions office and say, hey, I’m Super interested, blah, blah, blah.


[00:15:42.400] – Maria

And I just attended the women’s conference last week, and it was wonderful. Really made me feel like I was part of the community, et cetera, et cetera, because that is essentially a free it takes time. But aside from that, it’s a way to demonstrate for them that you’re really interested in another way to communicate.


[00:15:59.220] – John

Right. Rather than say, hey, is there anything new you got to report stuff that is somewhat substantial or to Caroline’s point, adds value to your candidacy to maybe tip the odds in your favor, right?


[00:16:13.610] – Maria

Yeah. And I think it’s really important to also step it up at work. So step it up at work or in your community service. So that way you have something of substance to send instead of just like, well, I’m still hanging out, right? If you say something like, oh, last week I completed a project, or I’m up for a promotion next month, which is going to give me new managerial responsibilities. So when I get to campus in six months, I’ll have that much more to share with my classmates. And that’s a good idea if you’re on the waitlist. Also, if you’re planning to reapply next year anyway, because it will just make you that much stronger of a reapplicant.


[00:16:47.190] – John

True. Now, I’ve also heard people go after additional recommenders. You get a new recommender above and beyond the required number that’s asked for by the school, and you basically had that person say, hey, I understand that my friend or my colleague or my employee has been put on the waitlist. I just want to reaffirm that person’s. Incredibleness is worthwhile, or is that wasted time?


[00:17:20.590] – Caroline

It can be if they have a useful perspective to share. So it’s not at all necessary in every case. I think it depends on who you’ve already had as a recommender and whether there’s someone who brings a really useful additional perspective and perhaps knows the school particularly well. That stage, perhaps an alarm recommended, could particularly help as someone who can speak to your fit with the community. So if you have someone who’s going to really add an extra dimension, I think that is useful. But if you don’t, don’t worry about it. It’s not essential by any means, especially if you’ve already had two strong recommendations. If you’re confident in what has already been submitted, and that’s maybe something to check. Right. If you’ve been waitlisted, maybe touch base with your recommenders. And if you don’t know what he says about you, now might be a good time to check. I mean, it’s also something I think it’s important to say if you’ve been waitlisted, it’s an opportunity to take a step back and think about why you might have been waitlisted rather than a straight admit and sort of reevaluate every step of what you did and what you presented.


[00:18:34.130] – Caroline

And is there something that you could have done better? And it could be how you work with your recommenders.


[00:18:40.170] – Maria



[00:18:40.380] – Caroline

And I’ve seen candidates who haven’t been practiced in coaching the recommender and therefore maybe the recommender didn’t understand what was expected of them and submitted something that was way too light, as in didn’t really say very much about you or give much detail. So that can occasionally be an issue.


[00:19:00.310] – John

Let me make it more provocative scenario here for everybody. What if since I filed my application, I bumped into a family friend who said he knows Henry Kravis, who gave $100 million to Columbia Business School, and I am now on the waitlist at Columbia? Do I flick that switch and try to get Henry Kravitz to write me a little note to get me off the waitlist?


[00:19:30.710] – Maria

Maria, I mean, is Henry Kravitz going to write a note that says I’m going to withdraw my 100 million dollar donation if you don’t let this kid in? Probably not. If it’s someone who doesn’t even know you, then Holy cow. I don’t see how that adds any value at all. I have heard a rumor once of someone who was the CEO of a very elite private equity firm who had one of their employees on the waitlist. And that person did write a letter to the admissions office basically saying, like, boy, it would be a real shame if we didn’t recruit as often. I don’t know if that’s exactly what was said, but that person had at least some sort of a pull. They could at least they had a negotiating chip.


[00:20:16.630] – John

But certainly do you know what the result was?


[00:20:19.600] – Maria

They did get in.


[00:20:20.680] – John

I bet you that was Harvard.


[00:20:22.370] – Maria

Yes, it was. But it was at the very last minute, this person had actually already put in a deposit and had actually moved to another city. Because the other thing is, Caroline was saying, like, the private equity buckets are pretty full bucket. So what I’m guessing happened is that somebody else from the private equity bucket probably got off the Stanford wait list. And then that creates a domino effect. Like, okay, we have another private equity seat open. So this guy gets it, and then that guy quit his other program and then there’s scrambled to find someone else at the last minute point.


[00:20:54.170] – John

That’s really an interesting point about admissions. There is a cascading effect. So from the decisions made at Harvard to Stanford awarding INSEAD to London Business School, lots of other things happened to the schools below them. Right? So depending on who gets rejected, depending on who gets put on the waitlist, depending on who gets taken off a waitlist, it affects the admission decisions of schools that are further down on the ranking list. And that cascading effect is pretty significant in terms of what’s called summer melt and yield and all kinds of things that admission officers worry about on a regular basis, isn’t that right?


[00:21:39.530] – Caroline

Yeah, absolutely. It’s very tricky to manage, right. It’s an art, not a science. No way of exactly predicting how many of your admits are going to finally turn up on the first day of the program. Right? It depends on a lot of different factors. So that is very tricky for admissions officers to manage. And I would imagine that if you are a school that is further down the pecking order, it’s a bit hard. The issue with yields that we discussed about that we discussed earlier with waitlisted candidates is going to be even trickier.


[00:22:13.990] – John



[00:22:14.370] – Caroline

So I’m sure that it’s harder for them to assume that someone who’s been waitlisted, who then they can offer will actually join the program. I think it’s easier for a Harvard or a Stanford or a Wharton to make an offer to wait listed candidates than it is and hope that they will actually come versus some other schools. So those schools cannot count on filling all their places and using the waitlist to the same extent that those top schools can. So they have to admit a large enough people that they can assume that there will be a certain level of attrition and that they will end up hopefully fingers post craft with the right class size and profile at the end of the day.


[00:23:03.120] – John

Okay, so here’s a question. How often should I be contacting admissions so I don’t become a pest, but I make it very clear that I really want to be there. I really want to occupy a seat in that new full cohort come hell or high water. Should I contact them once a week? Should I contact them once a month while I’m on the wait list? What’s the right level of connection?


[00:23:29.430] – Maria

So I think about once a month is probably a good metric to follow. I would also be a little bit strategic about it. So, for example, if you are around one wait listed candidate and you know that a school has recently had its round two deadline, I advise people to reach out sort of shortly after the round two deadline to sort of remind them as they’re going through the other profiles, like you who, here I am. Don’t forget about me as you consider my bucket. Right. So I think that there’s that I will also say, by the way, like, the whole thing of like, I really want to come to your school. I don’t think that really sways at a Harvard or Stanford or a Wharton as much, only because they’re like, yeah, we know. Sometimes I read these post interview reflections for the Harvard interview, and it’s like, I just want to reiterate that if I’m accepted, I will code your school. And I’m like, yeah, they know, yeah, it’s a little less effective for those schools. But yeah, for the other schools. Showing them you love them. You got to show them you love them.


[00:24:29.460] – John

All right, there you have it. So if you find yourself in limbo over the next few weeks, know the odds are against you. But no, you need to reach out, make the school know that you really want to go. Don’t be a pest however and when you communicate with the school you should communicate something of a substance that adds to the value of your application. That makes it more likely that you get off the list. Otherwise you are in purgatory admissions. Purgatory. Well, thank you for listening everybody and thank you Maria and thank you, Caroline for all your great advice and insight. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants you’ve been listening to Business Casual.


The Ugly Truth About MBA Waitlists
ApplicantLab |
March 15, 2022


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