Why MBA Admissions Is Not The Crapshoot You Think It is + The Year In Review
Maria |
December 21, 2021

We all know how difficult it is to get into business schools. When people hear of applicants being accepted into selective and highly ranked programs but being rejected by others, they often start thinking that admissions decisions are made at random. 

In this episode of Business Casual, John, Maria, and Caroline are going to discuss exactly how arbitrary admissions decisions at the best business schools are. Plus, what are the grounds for an MBA applicant’s acceptance to a much more selective and highly ranked university yet a rejection from a lower-ranked university?

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.510] – John

Well, happy holiday, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’re listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast. And I have my co host, Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Maria, as you all know, is the founder of Applicant Lab. And Caroline, of course, is the former director of admissions at INSEAD and a cofounder of Fortuna Admissions. So a few things it’s the end of the year and what we wanted to do is to look back on the year and discuss some of the highlights in the area of graduate management education. We also want to look forward a little bit and talk about what some of our resolutions might be as pertains to our business or the business of business goals. But right now, of course, a lot of people are getting their decisions. Some are getting happy decisions, some are getting sad decisions, many are being put on wait list. And a good number are getting kind of decisions from the admissions offices. That leads them to wonder how arbitrary are admission decisions at the best schools? There is one fellow here who mentioned that today he was accepted at Wharton and rejected by Duke Fuqua, and that really surprised him because he thought he was a long shot at Wharton and he thought he was a shoe in at Duke Fuqua.


[00:01:34.280] – John

There was another person who joined in on this discussion. This discussion is actually on Reddit who says he was accepted to Chicago booth with a scholarship but dinged at both Dartmouth, Tuck and Fuqua schools that are ranked well below Chicago booth. And it goes on from there. Another person who dined at Michigan Ross and yet got into an M seven school and rightly says admissions is not an exact science. Another person gets a full ride to USC, Marshall, gets $70,000 in discounts or scholarships to UCLA Anderson, and then is waitlisted at the University of Washington in Seattle. And it’s just one thing after another that kind of makes you scratch your head. Caroline, how do you make sense of this when a candidate is accepted to a school that’s much more highly ranked and is more highly selective and then is actually rejected from a small that’s less lower ranked?





[00:02:35.670] – Caroline

I think there is an element of candidates trying much harder and putting much more effort into their applications for schools that are really their dream and their stretch. And it often comes across to file readers if the school is not the dream school. Right. It’s very tricky for candidates because you do have to make each school feel like they are your number one choice, even if they’re not. And even if that feels a little bit artificial. And the schools, of course, know you’re probably applying to multiple schools, so it’s a little bit of a game. But Far readers are very astute. They’re very good at reading between the lines. They understand if a candidate is talking in somewhat generic terms about the school and their sense of fish and their motivation. And the schools can also spot that this candidate is probably a better fit for another school. Right. They may be very well qualified candidate objectively. They may have a lot of wonderful accomplishments and a great profile, but it may not be the best fit for them. There may be other schools that are better options, and schools want to select candidates who are the best fit for them and also who are likely to accept their offer.


[00:03:59.120] – Caroline

So if schools are recognizing that it’s not the best option for them, they may be rejecting them. But I do think that often candidates just struggle to put in as much effort to all of their applications, especially applying to multiple schools. That’s very difficult to do. And our readers are very experienced. They recognize that very quickly.


[00:04:22.530] – John

Yeah. And the other thing is schools are protective of their yields. That’s a very important statistic that’s looked at, because what it does mean is when you accept the candidate and are rejected, that means they’ve chosen someone else other than your school that can say something about your reputation, say something else about the admissions office inability to close a candidate. That’s a very closely watched metric by the leadership of the school. So it gets managed. Isn’t that right, Maria?


[00:04:56.490] – Maria

Absolutely. And I think, as Caroline said, I think sometimes candidates have a tendency to underestimate the intelligence of the file readers. I mean, these people are pretty astute, right? So if you write an essay that’s like, I like the way that your business schools, a schooling in business is why I want to go to your business school. And it’s like, oh, my gosh. Okay, well, do you really love me? Right. If you’re dating two people and you take one of them to a Michelin starred restaurant and you take the other one to a Burger King off the interstate, you think the second person isn’t going to think to themselves, Maybe I’m not this person’s first choice. I mean, it’s pretty these little hints. And right now you’re like, oh, that’s an exaggerated Maria. Like, I actually put the name of the school in my essay, so I don’t make those mistakes. But little subtle clues like that can absolutely come across. And I think in terms of yield and fit. We were chatting right before we started recording this. I was sharing an anecdote of how after I do HBS mock interviews with folks, I just write little private notes to myself.


[00:06:00.150] – Maria

I’m like, what do I think their chances are just to see how good my Spidey sense, how good my six sense is on candidates. And there was one person that I wrote at the end, I wrote, I love this guy. The only way he’s not getting in is if they figure GSB is taking him instead because he’s so good. He’s definitely getting into GSB. And therefore the only way he’s not getting into HBS is if they fail. And sure enough, I got the email in a GSB rejected from HBS. And I’m not saying that that’s the reason. But I was like, boom. I am sure that this person was so strong that they knew he was going to go someplace else. And so why spend the effort and get your heart broken if he’s just not that into you or you know that he’s going to date someone else and take them to the Michelin starred restaurant, why would you even bother with the Burger King date? I just think that I think that’s a really big part of it. And in some cases, I think the schools are actually doing people a favor. Like this person, as much as I love HBS, this person is actually going to be Stanford is going to be a much stronger program for them for very specific reasons that I won’t get into.


[00:07:06.150] – Maria

But so I’m like, you know what? I actually think they’re pushing you in the right direction there. So, yeah, I think that’s part of it.


[00:07:12.840] – Caroline

And yeah, and at the end of it.


[00:07:13.900] – Maria

Some of it also just comes down to luck. Let’s be honest, it is not a quantifiable process. If the schools only had 20 candidates a year, you might say, wow, this is really shocking. But the school says thousands of candidates a year. And in that pool of thousands of candidates, there are dozens, sometimes perhaps even hundreds of copycat resumes. Right. There are only so many investment banking analysts. After a while, they all start to look pretty much the same. And at a certain point, I think you just have to say, well, we can only take one out of these three.


[00:07:45.900] – Caroline



[00:07:46.400] – Maria

And so it’s not necessarily a rejection of you as a person. It’s not necessarily that you were a bad candidate. I sometimes get emails of people saying, well, what went wrong? Especially if they get on the waitlist, I’m on the waitlist. What do you think went wrong? And I’m like, nothing went wrong if something had gone wrong and rejected.


[00:08:02.490] – Caroline

Yeah, what the heck?


[00:08:04.190] – Maria

So anyway, those are my thoughts on this.


[00:08:06.500] – John

Now, let’s face it, admission officers also make mistakes, don’t they?


[00:08:12.650] – Maria

Not Caroline. Caroline didn’t.


[00:08:15.230] – Caroline

I never did, of course.


[00:08:16.520] – Maria

When she was a hot person. Yes. But ever since she left, I do have to say that perhaps a few admissions officers and other lesser schools have perhaps from time to time made mistakes.


[00:08:31.350] – Caroline

It’s not a scientific process. Right. And there is an element of luck. You could be the 55th file that the poor reader has plowed through that day and they’re not in a good mood. And you just get shunted aside in a way that you might not have if you’d be on top of the pile that morning. So there is certainly an element of luck. And the interviews also play an important role. And that is you don’t have as much control over how that goes as you have over your written application. Right. So you may have a good report with the interviewer or you may not. And again, your interviewer may be having a bad day, and that can influence the report that they give on. You know, there’s just a lot of variability. Or you could do what my husband did, which is tell his Kellogg interviewer that GSB was his target score.


[00:09:32.070] – Maria

Did he get into Kellogg?


[00:09:33.950] – Caroline

So his interviewer, apparently his jaw completely dropped. Can quite believe what he’d said. Poor guy. He’s just very honest. Right. He’s very honest. And no, he got rejected by Kellogg. Of course he did.


[00:09:50.680] – Maria

That’s a good thing. He actually got into Stanford because otherwise. Yikes. Yeah.


[00:09:55.500] – John

That’s so funny.


[00:10:00.190] – Caroline



[00:10:00.740] – Maria

Anyone listening? Don’t do that in your interview.


[00:10:03.160] – Caroline

Exactly. Yeah.


[00:10:07.430] – John

Oh, my goodness. That was gutsy. Because obviously he didn’t have a Stanford except in his pocket yet.


[00:10:16.500] – Caroline

Yeah. I’m not sure he thought it through very carefully, being brutally honest, which he generally is something that I’ve learned to live with.


[00:10:30.050] – Maria

I love this story.


[00:10:33.710] – John

That is a riot. Now, this just tells me, look, it’s really important to apply to a range of schools, not just one or two, because any kind of thing can, in fact, happen. I mean, you could get at the bottom of the pile and you’re the 55th read that a reader has, and they’re just not in a great mood and they’ve seen too many like you, or you are naturally a better fit for another school, given your background and your career aspirations. So I think it’s important to let every school know they are your first choice, number one. And number two, to apply to a number of schools just in case. Because in the event that you draw a bad straw, it might be very helpful to have other options, right?


[00:11:27.430] – Maria

Yes. And one more thing I would say. One thing that we were chatting about before was you had said that someone on the Reddit Post had said, oh, I had totally I nailed this one schools interview and I didn’t get in. And the other interview, I had a fever of 107, and I got in there. I don’t understand. I find that candidates are often very bad at judging their own performance in the interview, not because of any lack of critical thinking on their part, but because in the interview, your adrenaline is going 100 miles an hour. And so your memory or your emotions are heightened. And I just feel that people walk out of interviews sometimes feeling like they nailed it. And sometimes or they walk out and like.


[00:12:01.540] – Caroline

Oh, she hated me.


[00:12:03.410] – Maria

And I just think there’s just so much emotional variability. Caroline pointed out that there’s a lot of variability in what you will do in the interview, what kind of interviewer you will get. But I also think that sometimes my message here is, do not read too much into the interview. I have so many people even like, oh, I just bombed it. And I’m like, you don’t know that yet. Maybe they were being tough with you because they actually respect you. Or my interview was too easy. My interviewer was too hard on me. That means I bombed it. My interviewer was too easy on me. That means I bombed it. And I’m like, just don’t. Or Conversely, like, I nailed it, man. She loves me.


[00:12:36.040] – Caroline

And I’m like, maybe not.


[00:12:38.730] – Maria

So that’s the other thing I would say is just do as best as you can in the interview. But please do not torture yourself over it or get too cocky.


[00:12:47.350] – John

Yeah. So the general conclusion here is that admissions really isn’t the crapshoot that it sometimes appears to be. It really isn’t as arbitrary as it can seem. Right? Is that what the bottom line is?


[00:13:00.080] – Caroline

There is an element of luck. But as a candidate, you don’t have the full picture.


[00:13:05.540] – Maria



[00:13:05.940] – Caroline

Because you don’t have access to the pool, you don’t know who you’re being compared to. You don’t have the feedback that your interviewers have given. So even though you feel that you have a strong sense of how things went and where you should get in and where your chances are more tricky, you don’t have that full picture that the admissions office has. So as you say, you need to therefore hedge your bet.


[00:13:36.010] – Maria

And that’s the benefit that people like Caroline and I bring. Not to Pat myself on the back publicly on this forum, but that’s the part of the benefit of hiring someone with a lot of experiences that we do see. You might be like, I’m the only person out of my group of ten friends who’s applying to Booth, and I’m the strongest out of all ten of us. And it’s like, yeah, but there’s like a thousand other people you start seeing pattern matching. So I think earlier, before we started reporting, John, when you were reading out some of these very flummoxyen and confusing results, I think Caroline and I were like, oh, but it could have been this or it could have been that. So I think it’s a lot. Once you start pattern matching, you start seeing that there is an element of luck. Absolutely. But it’s not as random or crazy as I think it seems.


[00:14:22.790] – John

Yeah, absolutely. All right. So 2021, I think pretty much all of us are kind of happy. It’s coming to a close, just as we were with 2020, given the lingering aspects of the pandemic and this new Daunting variant that seems to be exploding around the world, that’s leaving us entering 2022 with tremendous amounts of uncertainty and some anxiety. What do you think this past year for our business, the business of business schools? What has it been like, Caroline?


[00:15:04.730] – Caroline

Well, it’s been as crazy than 2020 as you said. I do wonder how things are going to evolve over the next year and we say, oh, we’re glad this year is behind us.


[00:15:16.000] – Maria

I wonder if we stay the same thing.


[00:15:19.250] – Caroline

Right, we’re not out of the woods yet. The good thing is that schools have learned to deal with the uncertainty. And whilst it was just an incredible scramble and a total nightmare for the administration to deal with when things changed overnight in 2020, things have continued to change fairly rapidly this year. But the schools have just got much better have developed systems for being more flexible. So that will be a great asset to the schools going forward, because frankly, we don’t know how things are going to evolve and when this will finish, if it ever does finish. So that experience of juggling things and having the capability of just delivering so much more in a virtual format or in a blended format is a great ability for the schools to have, and they may well need to draw on that again in the future. Who knows how things are going to go?


[00:16:22.190] – John

Yeah, that’s true. And you’re right. I think that schools have more or less learn how to have in person classes with a backup of hybrid models and ready to go if there is in fact a problem of any kind. And given all the testing, the vaccines, most schools have kind of learned to live through it. Meantime, the demand for the degree seems to be holding strong. As we know, during the peak of the pandemic applications exploded, they still seem to be very strong and the quality of the entering classes also remains very high. So it’s not like the degree is being viewed as less useful, less valuable. If anything, it’s more valuable than ever. And the compensation packages that have been reported by the schools for this past year are in most cases, record numbers on pay, as well as on sign on bonus in record placement rates, extremely high success rate on job offers and job acceptances in many cases also at record levels. So on one level, the MBA seems alive and very well, even in the uncertainty of time, when the pandemic still lingers, when there’s still a lot of test optional admissions processes going on, and the number of people taking the GMAT has declined significantly.


[00:18:04.380] – John

Maria, what’s your take on the year?


[00:18:07.170] – Maria

It’s funny, I think this time last year we were a bit more optimistic about 2021 than we are now. At the end of 2021, there was news of like a vaccine was on the way, it was being tested, and I was like, Hallelujah, this will all be behind us by May. And it’s funny, I think one of my favorite tweets that I saw during this past year was, guys, I’m starting to suspect that 2021 is just three 2020s in a trench coat. In 2020 we were like, 2021, man is going to be the year when everyone’s going to get vaccinated. And so I just think, oh, my gosh. As Caroline was saying, things are still in the dumpster fire, but we’ve all gotten really good at adapting to the dumpster fire. It’s easier from that perspective. Like my son’s school. They’re like, yeah, we had two covert cases in the 6th grade, so we’re shutting down for a week, and it was like virtual classes. There was nobody back. And it was just like, oh, yeah, okay, fine. Clear the kitchen table. We’ve been through the drill already for a year and a half, and so I think the business schools are in the same boat and as our students.


[00:19:14.750] – Maria

So I don’t know, man, this is ridiculous. The politicization.





[00:19:21.450] – Maria

I can’t speak. The whole fact that people don’t believe in science is driving me crazy.


[00:19:26.450] – John

That’s really true. And you’re right. I think at the end of last year, we thought, oh, boy, isn’t it wonderful that it’s come to an end? It’s got to be better in 2022, and it was better in 2022. I think just the emergence of the Omnikron variant in this last month has led many to be much more wary than we were for most of the year. And concerning because at Cornell University completely shut down its campus cases of coping in the past. But even there there’s some positive sense of this because by all estimations, you know, the people who get COVID more often than not get very moderate cases of it. Far fewer go to the hospital and far fewer die from it, largely as a result of vaccines. It may be a different story for the unvaccinated, but we’re not necessarily talking about them because most people on a graduate business school campus are vaccinated for sure. And in fact, in many places you cannot go if you’re not vaccinated. So that’s a bit of a different story. I think for the new year we might wonder if the MBA will remain strong. My guess is that it will in part because the economy is continuing to recover and in part because there is a labor shortage worldwide that has led to these extremely high, often record placement rates in the past year.


[00:20:56.990] – John

There also is no shortage of major challenges facing businesses all over the world, whether it’s global supply chain, whether it’s the climate change concerns, and how that’s going to affect business in the future, both positive and negative, whether it’s the need for analytical skills to better make use of massive sets of data for decision making. All of these trends bode well for the value of the degree and the value of applicants and candidates who are seeking the degree. Do you all agree?


[00:21:35.990] – Caroline

Yeah, absolutely. I think applications will remain strongly over the next year. I think, as you said, the demand will continue whilst they will continue also to be new options that increase and gain market share. So Masters in Finance, Masters in Management, Masters in Data Analytics, Online Programs. I think all of those will continue to gain importance in the market. But certainly I don’t see much change over the next year in the demand for an MBA from one of the top business schools.


[00:22:14.460] – John

Yes, totally. Maria, last words.


[00:22:18.170] – Maria

I think that if anything, a world full of constant volatility is just evidence that a general management education is more necessary than ever in order for you to be nimble, to adapt to whatever the world throws at you. And so I continue to be optimistic about the fate of the degree. Even if these other specialized Masters programs do come out, even if some of them do cannibalize from the MBA, I don’t necessarily think I think that it’s not going to take away from the MBA. I think it’s just going to be a great rowing pie of people that will just be getting some form of management education, whether it be data analytics, marketing, automation, you name it. There may be some cannibalization, but I don’t think that the MBA is in trouble here.


[00:23:04.960] – John

We are all unabashed advocates of the MBA, for sure and for very good reasons as well. Well, hey, it’s been a wonderful year. Despite the pandemic and despite the fact that we haven’t seen each other in person, but only on Zoom, and sometimes not even on Zoom, because my technical problems often require me to shut my camera off as I am off right now. But, hey, it is what it is, right? So for all of you out there and for Caroline and Marie, I wish you the best over these holidays and a really wonderful and fulfilled and healthy and safe New Year for all of you out there, the New year is a good one for you. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast.


Why MBA Admissions Is Not The Crapshoot You Think It is + The Year In Review
Maria |
December 21, 2021


New around here? I’m an HBS graduate and a proud member (and former Board Member) of AIGAC. I considered opening a high-end boutique admissions consulting firm, but I wanted to make high-quality admissions advice accessible to all, so I “scaled myself” by creating ApplicantLab. ApplicantLab provides the SAME advice as high-end consultants at a much more affordable price. Read our rave reviews on GMATClub, and check out our free trial (no credit card required) today!