It’s not a secret that getting an MBA is a very challenging journey and needs excruciatingly long preparation. That is why not getting accepted for an MBA is disappointing. But getting dinged even before an interview is more frustrating. Particularly if you are among those with great standardized exam results and professional experience, you will assume that you will at least have an advantage.
If you’re one of those that were rejected despite the fact that there was no interview that happened, this episode is for you. It may look unfair, but is it really unfair? Listen in to what John, Maria, and Caroline have to say.
[00:00:07.290] – John
Hello everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. And welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. This time of the the year is the time that round one candidates, the eager beavers who applied to Elite business schools very early, are getting answers. The answers they get, well, you could be invited to an admissions interview. That would be the ideal answer at this point. Or you could be deferred and put on a waitlist for further consideration around two or the awful outcome you’re rejected outright without even an interview. Two weeks ago, Harvard Business School put out their notices and as the day and age where people rush to social media and report on every aspect of their life, well, of course, the people who were rejected and some who were accepted to at least get an interview went online and reported the results. One person dinged by Harvard said, trying to keep from bawling my eyes out at work today. Yes, it’s sad, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, particularly after you put a lot of work into your application. But what struck me was the number of people with exceptional standardized test scores that were getting dinged.
[00:01:32.280] – John
I’m just going to read you some quick reports here that were put online on Reddit. 760 G MAT veteran ding 770 Pilot dinged 330 GRE vet with a 3.65 from an idle university dinged top 20 university Army Vet three seven eight GPA 337 GRE dinged 760 Service Academy Grad dinged 770 GMAT magna Cum Laude at Ivy League ding. Here’s one that surprised me. 740 GMAT three seven GPA from a top five university, a first generation graduate with a low income background and a background in tech dinged. So obviously what we can’t tell from any of these quick descriptions of these disappointing results are what are these candidates really like? A test score. You’re not a test score. You’re an actual person who graduated from an undergraduate institution. Maybe it was highly selective or not. You have work experience, perhaps you have significant achievements at work. You have extracurricular activities, you have a GPA. In some cases we don’t have a GPA. And you have short term and post MBA career goals. You have letters of recommendations, your essays. We have no clue about any of that, which makes our guessing game as to why people, why these people and others get rejected.
[00:03:05.520] – John
But there are general reasons why people who appear to be exceptional candidates do get turned down. And Caroline and Maria, of course, have worked with many people who get in and a good number of people who don’t quite get into a Harvard or a Stanford, but get another really good choice. So Caroline, what separates the people who do get in from those who don’t who gets rejected? And do you have any reason at all to wonder why 757, 60, 77 GMAT who are military veterans could possibly be rejected without even an interview. So we’re not even talking getting accepted or not. We’re talking about not even being invited to an interview. How can that be?
[00:03:52.990] – Caroline
Yeah, it’s very tough, as you say. It does look extremely unfair. But as you also said, there are so many different elements to an application and so many different elements that have been considered as part of the candidates profile that without that full picture, it’s difficult to judge. Right. And there is an element of luck. These schools are so ridiculously competitive, and it depends on who is applying at the same time and who has a similar profile to you and whether or not they have something that gives them an edge over you. So there is an element of the lottery in applications to these very top schools. So I know it’s very tough to get that rejection, and my heart goes out to those candidates who, as you say, they’ve put their heart and soul into their applications. And it’s heartbreaking when it doesn’t work out. But you’ve got to realize that you’re in very good company, right? Lots of amazing people get rejected from these top schools, and it’s not the end of the story.
[00:04:56.860] – Caroline
You can still get into a fantastic program. You could apply to other schools. You can reapply next year. We’ve had people who’ve applied three times to HBS, and they finally got in.
[00:05:09.070] – Maria
[00:05:11.360] – Caroline
It’s not the end of the story by any means, but there’s so many different elements. I mean, we talk about Holistic review of the application, and there are so many different parts to that. So I think candidates can try to take a step back and reflect on whether they have any sense for whether there might have been aspects of their application that may not have been so competitive. It can also be helpful to get feedback from a third party, right? Someone who can look at it with fresh eyes and give you some feedback on whether they have any sense of where you might have compared less favorably on which element. But for sure, I mean, a strong GMAT does not guarantee getting interviewed at a top score, right? I mean, there are plenty of people with stellar GMATs, and I can remember turning people away from INSEAD with 800, right? It’s just sometimes they’re overconfident in this process and they’re not bringing enough in other dimensions. And there’s more to an academic profile, for a start, than a GMAT. And then there’s all of the professional experience, and that’s absolutely critical, right? You’re not going to get into a top business school just because you’ve got amazing academic profile, but you’re not also someone who has really proven themselves and is on a very strong fast track professionally.
[00:06:46.030] – Caroline
And then beyond that, you can be amazing on those dimensions. And the school might think, well, you know, you’re not a great fit for this program, right? Maybe there is some element where they think this is not the best school for you, or perhaps they see you as someone who is very focused on your career, but you haven’t done much outside of work and therefore they have doubts about whether you’ll contribute to the community beyond the academic experience and careers. They’re looking for people who are going to contribute to the school across a lot of different dimensions. So that is all important as well. So there’s just so many pieces to the puzzle. But I would encourage candidates to take a step back, reflect, and then think about your plan B. You can’t put all of your eggs in the basket of Harvard, Stanford, or Washington.
[00:07:44.050] – John
Unfortunately, that’s so true. And it’s worth noting that last year the acceptance rate of Harvard was 9.5%. Nearly 7500 applicants out of fewer than 8300 were rejected. And you got to know that a high percentage of those are people who are fully qualified to get in, would likely do very well in the MBA program, would land a great job, and be very successful because that’s how self selecting and elite the applicant pool is at a Harvard Business School, at INSEAD, London, at Stanford, Wharton, and other top schools. Maria, why do you think so many high GMATs with veterans no less? Because you know what? Veterans have had a lot of success in these programs. A lot of schools aim to get veterans in. They tend to be more mature, they’re well liked by the consulting firms. What do you mean? I rarely actually see this many 750 plus GMAT scores from veterans and this many rejections.
[00:08:52.310] – Maria
Well, yeah, in general, I sometimes wonder if folks think that the admissions committees ask for things like resumes and recommendations and essays and interviews just because they’ve got nothing better to do, or is it that they have an actual reason? You want to get to know who someone is on a pretty robust level. And so if it were just about the GMAT score and clicking a box of oh, where were you working? I was working at Amazon, I was working in the army. Then admissions officers wouldn’t have much of a job to do because you would just know within 2 seconds if you’re getting in or not. So when we you know, I think Caroline and I have been saying over and over again that we’re blue in the face that it is truly a holistic, holistic process for me, the academic portion, I talk to people about this sort of hierarchy of needs, right? So that there’s a you know, yes, there are all these different things that matter, right? Your academics matter and your job performance matters and your leadership, but they don’t all matter in the same way. So academics is the first hurdle that you need to cross as an applicant.
[00:09:57.240] – Maria
But once you cross it, it’s like, okay, we’re going to focus on so many other things. So if you can’t cross the academic hurdle. If I truly believe that someone’s just going to flunk out of a program, then it’s not worth spending anyone’s time on letting them further. But if somebody can handle it academically, now, my focus shifts towards a hundred other well, maybe not 100, but to many other things. And so for me, that academic hurdle is the first hurdle, but it’s also a hurdle that doesn’t matter as much if you squeak over the top of that hurdle by, like, a millimeter or if you sail over it by a mile. I don’t know that that part is what matters quite as much. You just need to prove that you can do the work. And then once I’m confident that you can do the work, now, my focus is going to really shift to other details within your application. So you were asking me specifically about military members and veterans who with very high scores. Well, for starters, I think the number of veterans applying is going up and up every year. Thanks so much to what nonprofits like Service to School are doing, as we spoke about a couple of weeks ago.
[00:11:03.970] – Maria
But then the challenge then is for military members. Now the bar is getting higher because now, you know, maybe 20 years ago, there were only three fighter pilots applying, and now there might be 40 fighter pilots applying. So now within that bucket, how do you stand within that bucket? And if somebody says, I’ve been in the military for five years, that could mean so many different things. That could be somebody, you know, leading people into literally leading people into battle. Or it could be that they were trying to make sure that the warehouse, the munitions were all in stock and making sure that the vehicles were all repaired. I’ve seen so many different responsibilities across military resumes over the years. And so, look, somebody who’s led a group of people into battle and someone who is responsible for making sure that the equipment is well oiled and working, you know, there are pretty different it’s a pretty different gap in terms of the leadership that’s been demonstrated. So simply knowing that someone was in the military and has a 760 GMAT doesn’t really tell me or any of us enough to sort of be shocked one way or the other.
[00:12:17.910] – John
Yeah, that’s really true. Now, I bet that both of you over the years have had candidates that you thought, oh, my God, there’s no question that they’re going to at least get interviewed and then surprise, surprise, they don’t. And then there are other candidates who you think, okay, I’m going to give it my best shot, but I know the odds are against this person, and I’m doubtful they’ll get in and get the interview at least, and then they surprise you when they get in. How does that happen?
[00:12:46.360] – Caroline
Caroline well, it comes back to being a competitive call, and only the admissions committee can see who you’re being compared against as a candidate. So we can comment on somebody’s individual merits, but we can’t comment on how they compare to the individuals who have applied at the same time. And so that’s always an important factor, especially at these schools, as you say, where the stats are quite terrifying in terms of the number of people that they’re turning away. I would say some of the ones where I have been frustrated. I can think of some candidates who just fascinating profiles. A wonderful professional experience. But maybe the GPA wasn’t so great or the GMAT wasn’t so great. But you love them as an individual.
[00:13:39.240] – Maria
And you know that they’re going to.
[00:13:40.140] – Caroline
Be so successful in the future. And you just really want them to get into that top school and you want the school to take a chance on them. And just sometimes it doesn’t work out right, and sometimes it does come back to those academic statistics that Maria mentioned, even though the candidate brings so much more to the table. And that can be very disappointing and frustrating. So sometimes it does come down to something as simple as that, but it really does depend on who else is applying and the timing. And there’s so many different criteria that the admissions committee will be assessing that, and it’s very rarely just one factor that will swing the decision in one direction or another.
[00:14:30.150] – John
Yeah, and as you point out, it’s really there are invisible things in the process that you can’t judge. For example, everyone is part of a sub segment competing with others, and more often than not, it comes out to, hey, I like this candidate better than that one. And we can only take this many candidates who are military veterans, or this many candidates who are consultants or investment bankers or product managers at tech companies or nonprofit types or NGOs, and we just happen to like this one a little bit better than the other one, even though there’s really nothing wrong with the other one. And I think that happens too. What’s interesting when you read the social posts of people who’ve been rejected is the angst in the frustration, which is understandable, but also the outright, I can’t believe that I was rejected. I don’t understand it. And then you get someone like, here’s a 730 GMAT 3.4 from what the candidate said was a random state university who was a Marine infantry officer. He got an interview, so people online asked him, well, how in the world what made the difference, do you think? He said, I had very strong letters of recommendation, and I’ve been number one ranked in several units I’ve been in.
[00:15:54.870] – John
Otherwise, I’ve been a typical grunt in charge of 50 to 500 people with a couple of deployments, one to the Middle East. I have several good ECS once my schedule settled down, and I spent a lot of time in my essay, not sure that that completely answers the question, but it gives some insight, I think. Maria, how about you? When have you been fooled and frustrated with your own candidates?
[00:16:19.150] – Maria
Well, just to go back to that person for a second, they said they weren’t an infantry officer, which I think means that they were literally people leading others into battle, which is I think I just said a few minutes ago, like, that’s the sort of thing that Harvard likes to see. I’m actually not surprised, even though they’re.
[00:16:33.300] – John
From a state public university and they have a three 4730, GMAT is 40, 50 points below others. Bingo.
[00:16:43.990] – Maria
It’s the hurdle. And if you picture a hurdle, it’s the academic hurdle. It doesn’t matter if you squeak over it by a little bit or you sail over it like, so high. You’re so high in space I can’t even see you. That’s how high, it doesn’t matter. Someone with a 730, can they do the work at Harvard Business School? Probably. Can they do well in the case environment? That’s what the interview is going to tell me. But if I’m talking to someone. If somebody’s like. Writing an essay about. I work with someone in the military a year or two ago who literally had to jump out of a helicopter to rescue someone who was in the water. And then somebody else is also in the military and thank everyone for their service. But that other person is like. Well. I had an inventory management system to make sure that we were ordering the right supplies on time. That’s great. Awesome. Everything is important. But in terms of raw leadership, the person who jumped out of the helicopter has had the opportunity to demonstrate more of that leadership. So in that situation, I don’t know, I’m actually not surprised at all.
[00:17:49.900] – Maria
I’m just a regular guy who has led 50 to 100 people in the battle. That’s amazing. Do you know how I mean, that’s so hard to do.
[00:17:59.890] – John
[00:18:01.010] – Maria
[00:18:03.410] – John
And we’re talking about not just people, we’re talking about diverse people and making sure you’re helping to motivate them to face, let’s face it, I mean, the dangerous situation you can face in life.
[00:18:18.190] – Maria
Seriously, like, you know, if someone can convince someone to potentially follow behind me, you might get shot to death or you might die. How much you know, if that person goes into the corporate world is like, hey, I need that presentation by Friday at five. Guess what? They’re not going to struggle as much as perhaps other people do in terms of exhibiting leadership in the corporate world. So something like that. I am not surprised. When we were talking a little bit about a second ago, like, what are some of the things that might have done these people in people who at first glance, you’re like, this is perfect. This candidate is like, there’s nothing wrong here. I think Caroline might have touched upon this a little bit, but first of all, I think, anything resembling a sense of entitlement. If you get a 760 and you’re from the military and you spend a lot of time on some of these message boards, which I don’t think you should do, people will pat you on the back and highfive you and say you are it all my you are golden. If you walk into the process thinking, I’m golden, then my essay is going to be all about like, here is an examination of how golden is Maria.
[00:19:17.280] – Maria
Maria is so golden. Here’s 900 words about how golden I am. And that’s going to totally strike the wrong tone. Or another mistake I see people make is two people might have, let’s say hypothetically, they have identical experiences, identical everything. But one person in the essay describes what they did on a shallow level. Right? I was in charge of the project. I called the meeting. I made sure that the team stayed on track. And the other person, however, describes their exact same experience, but they go into the emotional insights that they had in convincing someone. Right. Someone on the team wasn’t responding to my proposal. The client didn’t like my proposal. So what did I do about it? How did I use my emotional intelligence to drive that project forward? Even though those two people who have identical resumes, the one who demonstrates the sort of emotional maturity behind how they were able to get something to happen, that person is more, much more likely to get an interview versus someone who’s just like, well, you know, I put together the project. I have a lot of tips for the Harvard Business essay, but one of them is, tell me the story behind the bullet point.
[00:20:22.180] – Maria
Don’t just rewrite the bullet point. So the bullet point was, I led a project to do whatever. I can guess as a moderately educated person that if you’re leading a project that includes things like setting meetings, having a project plan coming out, you’re making sure that everyone is on time with the deliverables. So that’s assumed. But what I don’t know was that, I don’t know, your boss threatened to fire you the day before you had to scramble to catch someone was in an accident. Those sorts of hidden stories that really prove to me that you have leadership to inspire people or to motivate people or to change people’s minds, those are the details. So I think sometimes people might not focus on the right details. So even if they had an amazing experience, maybe they just didn’t describe it well enough within the essay.
[00:21:10.980] – Caroline
And that also brings it to life as well. Right? So you’ve got to remember that the admissions reader is plowing through dozens of applications at a time. And if you can tell a story, as Maria said, that really brings it to life and jumps off the page, then you’re going to make a much bigger impression than someone who just sort of regurgitates the facts that we’re already on the resume.
[00:21:33.690] – John
That’s really true. The other thing there are, because there are so many international applicants, it’s worth noting that in many other cultures, high test scores, high grades immediately grant you admission to their home country institutions. And really the game is to score well on a standardized test and to do well with your grades, and the story ends there. But that is really not true in business school admissions at the highest level, and it’s a very big difference. And it’s a difference that’s seldom understood, particularly by many international healthcare.
[00:22:13.160] – Caroline
That’s very tough, because if you don’t come from that culture, you may not have that backgrounded history of engagement and extracurriculars that a lot of North American candidates would have had since they were sort of five years old. Right. So it’s often a big challenge.
[00:22:32.140] – Maria
That also shows up in the essays as well. For example, if you’re talking about, like, an accomplishment, someone from one of those cultures might be more likely to say, well, one of my greatest accomplishments ever was that I came in first place in my city for a chess tournament, or I took the standardized test and I was in the top 1% of scorers in my country on this particular entrance exam. And so what a wasted opportunity, because that’s not according to, like, the sort of MBA definition of leadership. It’s an accomplishment in terms of, like, yeah, you have to work hard, but it’s not a leadership accomplishment. And so that’s another mistake that I think people make, is that they focus on the wrong. They either have the right accomplishment, but they don’t describe it well, or they focus on describing something that they think is going to impress the emissions officer, but it’s not.
[00:23:17.740] – John
Yes. Right. So I’ll go back to a lyric that Sinatra sang. He said, Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. And there was one really clearly exasperated candidate who went online and after reading all these reports, these disappointing results, said, ding, ding, ding. I made ten plus drafts in my essay. I worked closely with extremely helpful alumni. I read and reread my application. I regret nothing. But I got INSEAD, so that’s good consolation. Chin up, things squad. We’re relentless, and we’ll make Adcom’s regret not admitting us sooner. I don’t know how Caroline feels about.
[00:24:03.340] – Maria
[00:24:06.040] – Caroline
[00:24:07.620] – Maria
But anyway, it’s the revenge mindset that sort of like, whoa, I’m going to make them sorry. Oh, great. Cool.
[00:24:20.740] – John
You see, sometimes revenge should be great motivation for some people. Hey, it’s really true. Well, there you have it. Look, if you struck out on one or two or even three round one applications, there is round two. There are many great schools out there, many great MBA programs that would allow you to achieve your dreams and your ambitions. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. Because it happens. Like Caroline mentioned, there are people that she has worked with who applied to Harvard three times, got in, the third time was a charm. I got to wonder, in terms of reapplying, what new stories they had to tell, something new in their backgrounds and application to warrant an admin, I would imagine. Right, Caroline?
[00:25:13.780] – Caroline
Yeah, you’ve definitely got to show evolution and show how the significant progression in your profile, you can’t just reapply with the same old story.
[00:25:23.310] – John
And when you reapply, do you actually say, I applied last year and I was rejected, but now I understand why and this is what I’ve done as a result. Or you just ignore the fact that you applied earlier. You don’t want them thinking that they already rejected you.
[00:25:39.220] – Caroline
What’s your well, they know. Everybody knows, right? The school knows that you’re a re applicant. They keep track of that. They will know. So you can’t sort of pretend that you’re a new applicant and they’ve never seen you before. That’s not going to work.
[00:25:58.350] – John
But then do you address it directly.
[00:25:59.980] – Caroline
Or there’s different ways of doing it? But you do need to show that you have learnt something from the process that you’ve reflected and that you are coming back as a more mature and more valuable addition to the program. And so it’s good to show that you have some understanding of why you were not the great candidate or for HBS or GSB or in Seattle or wherever it is last time around and how you have been proactive in addressing that.
[00:26:31.470] – John
Of course, Caroline just strolled into INSEAD, was never rejected, never had to reapply. Same is true of Maria at Harvard School. They just rolled out the red carpet for both of you.
[00:26:43.990] – Caroline
Yeah, we’ve never failed anything.
[00:26:45.550] – Maria
Maria, they rolled out the red carpet once I paid that tuition deposit.
[00:26:55.160] – John
Touche. All right, everybody. Hey, good luck to you. And if you did get a disappointing result, we feel for you. But know that there are plenty of other schools out there and if you got what it takes, you’re going to get in. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You been listening to Business Casual or weekly podcast.