Rejection: How to Deal with Business School Dings

June 18, 2020 | by Heidi Hillis

Fortuna Director Caroline Diarte Edwards is co-hosting a weekly podcast, Business Casual, with Poets&Quants Editor-in-Chief John Byrne and ApplicantLab Founder Maria Wich-Villa.

Each 30-minutes session is packed with valuable insights and timely perspectives. This episode focuses on dealing with rejection, including how to assess next steps and ultimately bounce back to reposition a successful application.

You can listen this 30-minute episode, or view the transcript below for all their insights and tips. Transcript lightly edited for length.



John Byrne:
Today we’re going to talk about something that’s very much a personal story. And something that is very much in the moment, which is rejection. What do I mean by rejection? Look, every person who applies to a variety of business schools inevitably get some dings. How do you deal with a ding? How should you interpret a ding? What does it say about you and your candidacy? And if you get a ding, how do you recover from it? Do you move on just go to another school that accepts you, or do you stubbornly dig your heels in and say, you know what I’m going to reapply next year. So, Caroline, have you had anyone on your couch this season who’s been dinged?

Caroline Diarte Edwards: Yes, obviously it happens every year. And you know, admissions is a very unpredictable process. It’s not just about who you are and what you bring to the table. Your chances depend on who else is applying at the same time – and that’s something over which you have no control and very little information. So, you can’t control the outcome, regardless of how good a candidate you are.

For many candidates, it’s very difficult because in many cases, it may be the first time that they’ve ever really failed at anything that they’ve set that heart on. Typically, candidates to top schools are highly successful people who’ve gone to top undergraduate programs, who’ve excelled in their careers. And it may be the first time that anyone’s ever really said no to them when it’s something that they really, really wanted to do. So, it is very tough to take.

You have to take your time to digest it. And, consider your next steps, get some advice on why you might have been dinged, and then over a period of weeks, and maybe months, consider your course of action. It’s not something that you should figure out overnight.

John: Exactly. I would bet that there are many people who are your clients who get dinged and those dings even surprise you.

Caroline: Absolutely, yes. And sometimes I feel like contacting the admissions committee saying, ‘what are you thinking? What is wrong with you – you can’t refuse this person!’ And, you know, we sometimes see people get in and you think… wow. Or, I’m really surprised that person got in. And then somebody else, you think it’s crazy, it’s a perfect fit, they will be brilliant. It’d be such a great addition to your school.

John: And Maria, I’m sure you’ve seen, it’s common where you get Stanford accepting someone, and then Wharton or Kellogg rejecting the same candidate.

Maria: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I like what Caroline was saying. I would just want to start off the conversation by telling people, it really does come down to a crapshoot many times. So, if you get rejected, maybe it was you, but it could have been so many other factors. So, first of all, don’t necessarily take it personally if you get dinged because it is so random. People seem to think that it’s like a linear thing, right?

John, as you just said, people say, ‘Okay, well, if I get into Stanford, then since they have a 6% acceptance rate, I’m definitely getting into Harvard, which has, you know, almost twice as much.’ And then I’m definitely getting into Wharton. I worked with someone a couple years ago, who applied to all of the top 10 schools, and some other admissions consulting firms that he had reached out to wouldn’t even work with him because of certain aspects of his profile. And he only got into Stanford. But not only did he get into Stanford, he got a full Merit Scholarship at Stanford. But he didn’t get in any [others] ­–not Kellogg, Wharton, Haas, none of them. But he got into the hardest school!

I’m sure Caroline and I could probably spend three hours here telling stories just like that. It’s really not like a linear logical process, where if you get into a school with a 10% acceptance rate, you’re definitely getting into a school with a lower with an easier acceptance rate. I see people rejected from, for example, Kellogg all the time, who then they find out from Kellogg first – they’re super depressed – and then they get into Harvard two weeks later.

I think one of the first things I would like to emphasize is that it really does sometimes come down to a crapshoot, or random little things about fit, or as Caroline mentioned, who your competitors happen to be in the same pool at the same time. So that’s lesson number one: don’t take it necessarily personally.

John: What’s lesson number two?

Maria: Lesson number two is you might want to take it personally.

John: Because those random rejections may even puzzle you more, right? I mean, it’s going to make you ask even deeper questions about hey, why did Stanford like me and Kellogg not?

Maria: I think I think there are a couple of things to say that first of all, I do think that there is something to be said for fit. I think fit is a word that gets thrown around a lot in admissions circles. And I think most people, especially applicants, sort of roll their eyes at it and are like, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. But I do truly think like this person who got into Stanford was a Stanford person. And so, you know, you have to spend some time knowing the schools and knowing their cultures, and knowing that they’re looking for people who are changing the world.

So I think number one, it comes down to fit, but then once you sort of get beyond that, I do think that there should be a moment of self-reflection, because for every person who is shocked when they get into a Stanford or Harvard, there are probably 20 people who thought they were shoe-ins and who were sort of taking this whole process very casually, who perhaps did not have the same level of either introspection or humility that I think this process merits.

John: Yes. And incidentally, if you have been stung during this season, it may be fun for you and a little amusing, entertaining interlude to look at the story we ran last week on a video that was run and produced by the Columbia Business School follies on dings. It tells a story of someone who is dinged from all M7 seven schools and is now looking at all their safety options. And it’s quite a lark really is.

Caroline, what are the most common reasons why people get ding to begin with? You’ve been in a position to ding people.

Caroline: Yes – it can be a lot of different things. You have to understand, what the school is looking for and understand their criteria and be honest about how you match up to that. And even then, even if you’re a brilliant candidate, and you tick all of the boxes, it may be that they have too many management consultants, or too many investment bankers apply at the same time as you and they just can’t take everybody. So, it does often come down to a numbers game, and they can’t take every one that they like. So, one of the difficulties is that you can’t get feedback from the schools, often the schools are not able to give feedback.

John: It’s true.

Caroline: It may be because they just have too many candidates. And so it’s too time consuming to give feedback. And it’s also because the deliberations of the admissions committee are confidential. They may feel that they’re not able to tell the candidate that you had a terrible interview or one of your recommenders wasn’t as supportive as we would have liked. All that information is confidential, so they’re often not able to give feedback. That is a challenge for candidates – to get to the bottom of why they were dinged and to understand that.

And we sometimes have candidates who come to us, they haven’t worked with us on their application, but they come to us when they want a diagnosis and our perspective on how the application looks and what the factors may have been that led to that rejection, and therefore, should they reapply? Or should they come up with another plan? Now, that can be very difficult for people to figure out when they don’t get feedback from the schools directly. Getting someone else to go through it with you and go through your materials and debrief with you on your interviews and all the elements of your application can help figure out what went wrong and whether it makes sense to give it another shot. We had a client earlier this season who applied to HBS for the third time and got in.

John: Three times? Three times’ a charm!

Caroline: It happens, right? And even his grandfather was in tears when he finally got in, it was really moving.

John: Yes, and I think I mentioned last week there is one student who’s graduating this year from Wharton, who is on our best and brightest list of the Top 100 MBA graduates of 2020. And he was rejected by Wharton the first time, second time he applied, he was on the waitlist. And he persisted. He sent them updates. And it was not until three weeks before the start of the program that he was finally taken off the waitlist and admitted, and here he is two years later, among the 100 Best and Brightest MBAs in the world. So, figure that one out, right?

Caroline: Yeah, I think you’ve reported that about 10% of the HBS class are reapplicants.

John: That’s right. Yes.

Caroline: And so, you know, that’s a pretty high percentage. Yeah, it shows that in many cases, it’s not that you weren’t the right fit. So, the right candidate, it’s that it’s a numbers game, or maybe it just wasn’t the right time in your career. And when you come back, you’re able to showcase even more impressive accomplishments.

John: Now, Maria, do you do autopsies as well?

Maria: I do. I think everyone who works on the front end of the process also gets requests for feedback on the tail end of the process. I think there’s different categories for reasons of rejection. They’re the obvious ones where someone’s GMAT score, or especially the quant side of the GMAT score, is just too low and to the point where you’re desperately looking for their through their profile for any evidence of quantitative ability, like, okay, they’re not a good test taker, but let’s go to the transcript – do we have A’s in calculus? Do we have, oh we don’t? Oh, no. Right. So I think those are sort of like the basic.

I have this whole theory that there’s sort of a hierarchy of needs for admissions committees and I think like number one is if they are worried that you are going to struggle in that classroom, then not letting you in is actually merciful. You might think like oh, I don’t care as long as I go to Harvard, it doesn’t matter. But if you go to Harvard and you’re struggling when everyone else is like doing fine, it’s actually not a great outcome for either party. And so, I think there are some cases where it’s pretty obviously things like that.

I think its unrealistic career expectations, saying, ‘oh, once I go to your school, I’m going to become a partner at McKinsey before I’m 28 years old…’ Maybe, you know? And then it can also be other things like arrogance, you can work with someone on their essays and, you know, really create the best version of them in written form. But then if they step into that interview, and they forget everything you’ve told them, and they suddenly say something like, ‘well, my biggest failure was because my coworker was lazy and stupid.’ So, I think it comes down to a lot of factors.

John: How do you know when to give up and move on or whether to hang in and reapply?

Caroline: Well, that’s a very personal decision. And it depends on timing. And I think that’s one reason why it’s worth starting this process earlier rather than later. So if you’re trying to figure out the timing of when to apply to business school, and schools are looking for some solid professional experience, it’s easier to showcase accomplishments, professional accomplishments when you were a few years into your career rather than in the first 12 months. But I often counsel people to start; if the timing is borderline, error on the side of starting earlier rather than later because it’s not unusual that takes people more than one cycle to get into a school that they really want to go to. And if you’re applying a second time, you may be at an even better place in your career, but not starting to look too old for the program.

So, I think it depends on where you are, and also, some people feel that you know, I’m going to go into business school, now’s the right time, it’s the optimal moment for me, given where I am, and maybe a year later or so, you’ve moved on and you’ve got a promotion or you’ve got a new job offer. And the moment has kind of passed. And maybe it’s not essentially at that stage that you have to go off to business school.

John: Right. I’m also thinking that for the reapplicant, practice is good. I mean, generally, the more you practice, the better you get. So, I’m assuming that in many cases, a reapplicant has the advantage of learning the first time around, maybe not exactly what went wrong, but having a sense for how to improve their candidacy. I mean, do you often see in applicants a better application than you would in their first go?

Maria: If they work with people like us…

Caroline: Yeah, there’s a huge learning curve in the application process. It’s a whole new world often for someone tackling it for the first time. So, there is a big learning curve and you can gain a lot from that and also, in particular, the interview experience. With a written application, you have time to prepare that, right? And you can go through iterations, but the interview is, you know, very particular experience and you can prepare for it, but actually being put on the spot. And going through that process more than once can be super valuable for some candidates.

John: I’m also thinking that a lot of candidates probably develop relationships with recommenders too late in the game. And that extra year that you give yourself after getting rejected, would allow you to devote much more time in that relationship and get a much better recommendation. So, Maria, do you have a framework for people to decide whether or not to just go to a lesser school that you got into or to, in fact, hold on and reapply the following year?

Maria: I mean, I wouldn’t really call it a framework because so much of this process is so subjective, and at times random. I think what I do is I try to do pattern matching in my head. And I advise people to do this, too, I tell people to find something that I call the resume twin, which is trying to find someone who was just like them before Business School, maybe a few years ago and then see – where did they end up? You know, if you work at a company that routinely sends people to one school, but just can’t seem to crack a certain tier of school, like maybe that’s a sign for you that it’s time to maybe realign your expectations. So, it really just comes down, for me, to pattern matching and saying, ‘okay, when I’ve seen people like this in the past, reapply, do I think they have a good shot? Or do they not?’ I think one time, I do tend to urge people to reapply as if they are younger in their careers, as Caroline mentioned. And also, if they’re solid candidate strong candidates, but they just happen to come from an overrepresented pool – like there are only so many McKinsey consultants these schools can take. And so, if somebody is falls in that category, where I think, man, it’s the only thing that I can really shift, there’s really nothing wrong here. The only explanation I can think of maybe there were just too many people who looked just like you on paper, then I would be more likely to recommend a reapplication.

John: Yes. So, Maria, when you applied and you got into Harvard Business School, were you rejected by any schools?

Maria: I was not, but I only applied to two schools. And now that I’m an admissions consultant, I tell people, whatever you do, don’t apply to only two schools. I think that was really stupid of me.

John: And your other school was which one?

Maria: It was Wharton.

John: Ah, and you got into both. Caroline, when you apply to INSEAD, was INSEAD the only choice you had?

Caroline: You know, I only applied to INSEAD and it’s quite common, actually. So when I took the job as admissions director at INSEAD, I started doing surveys of the incoming class and discovered that at that time, about half of the incoming class had only applied to INSEAD. So, it’s quite a unique port and that has changed over time. So now, there’s more overlap with some other schools, especially with more global mobility of students. But still, there’s a big chunk of the class that have only applied to one school. And as Maria says, it’s not necessarily a good idea. But yet, it’s a somewhat different experience. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not always easy to find an alternative.

John: And that’s why INSEAD’s yield is quite high.

Maria: It is, it is very high.

John: So, here’s a question for both of you. And I think this is a fun one. What percentage of the people that you’ve counseled in all your years in admissions consulting, have been rejected from at least some of the schools they applied to?

Caroline: Yeah, I mean, most people, if you’re applying to multiple schools. I mean, as you said, most people get rejected from at least one school. Some of our clients are working with us only on one school and they get into that one school, but for people who are applying to the top 5-6-7 schools, they’re not going to get into all of those schools. So, the vast majority of people that we work with who apply to multiple schools would get rejected at least once.

John: And Maria, I’m assuming you’ve seen the same pattern.

Maria: Yes, especially when people think – it’s only Harvard, Stanford, Wharton or nothing, and I’m like, ‘okay, well, be ready to reapply next year – I’ll be, I’ll be waiting for you, I’ll still be here.’ I’ve got a video up on Applicant Lab where the title of the video is applying to only Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. And when you click on the video, it’s a video of my son wiping out on the ski slope. He was fine, he wasn’t hurt, but it’s like him sort of going on a ski slope and then just poof, just falling right on his face. And I’m like, this is going to be you if you’re a little too full of yourself. And I tell people like it’s fine to only apply to those programs, if you are okay, in your head knowing that you will probably have to reapply to other places in a later round or a later year.

John: So, for someone who’s making say, $200,000 or quarter of a million dollars a year, and they’re at a hedge fund or a private equity firm, it may be the right decision to only apply to one or two schools at the very top. And if you don’t get in, you just move on.

Caroline: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. John, have I told you the funny story of my husband and his application experience?

John: No…

Caroline: So, he applied to a whole bunch of schools, and he ended up getting into all schools except for one school. And that was Kellogg, and he says that he thinks he didn’t get in because when the Kellogg interviewer asked him, so you know, where are you applying, which is your number one choice? He told the Kellogg interviewer, his number one choice was Stanford.

John: Which is where he went!

Caroline: He’s just such an honest guy! You know, he’s not very good at telling a lie. So, he told them honestly, my number one choice is Stanford. He said that the interviewer’s jaw dropped, and the tone rather changed after that. So, he did get dinged from Kellogg.

Maria: Caroline, does your husband think that Kellogg rejected him proactively only because they didn’t want to have their hearts broken and have him damage their yield? Because when I see people who don’t get into Kellogg, who then get into a Harvard, Stanford Wharton MIT, whatever, I sometimes ask myself like, I wonder if there’s sort of like, you know, [awareness] that this person might get in some place better.

Caroline: Yes, I think that does happen. And I think also that happens between Harvard and Stanford, that sometimes Harvard or Stanford will reject a candidate who is outstanding, but they think that that candidate is probably a better fit for the other school and will probably go there. I see that happening.

John: You know, Maria, it’s funny that you would mention broken hearts. I had to host an admissions panel the other day at CentreCourt Virtual. I had four admissions directors from top schools on the panel, and I asked the question, ‘what do you dislike most about your job?’ And I expected the most obvious answer, which is we hate turning down great candidates, not a single person mentioned that. And in fact, one person mentioned that they disliked feeling jilted. So, they actually felt the other way around because of course, applicants who are accepted to multiple schools have to tell other schools, they’re not going to go. And sometimes when that reverse logic occurs, people feel pain because they do get overly invested in some candidates.

Caroline: Yeah, that is tough. It’s very disappointing.

John: Yes, totally. Anyway, so you can get dinged in two ways. The candidate gets dinged, but the school gets dinged as well. And that’s just the reality of the whole crazy application process to a top highly ranked, highly selective school no matter where it is.

Now, again, Maria and Caroline lots of news related to the pandemic today. And you know, we record this just to let everyone know several days before we actually release it on Tuesday mornings, but today, Businessweek decided that it would pause its MBA ranking this year. Their decision followed a request about two weeks earlier, by GMAC and two accreditation agencies that were hoping that all of the organizations that rank business schools in the MBA programs would postpone the rankings because they feel the data that will come out of the schools this year, is going to be all over the place in regards to acceptance rates, standardized test score averages, GMATs, obviously employment data and that those differences probably would cause different rankings to go a bit haywire. Even though you would think that they might reveal which schools are doing the best job in navigating through the crisis and which schools are doing a less good job. But it was a really surprised decision because, you know, there have been over the years many attempts by schools to either decline cooperation with a ranking or to get ranking organizations to rank in a certain way or to tier schools, instead of giving them miracle rankings. It’s the first time a ranking organization has basically given in to the appeal to put a halt to the ranking. What do you two think about that?

Caroline: It is an extraordinary decision. But it’s understandable, everything is going to be topsy-turvy over the next 12 months. God knows what the ranking would throw out. I mean, on the other hand, it’s quite brave if the rankings publish it because, you know, they love a good story, right? And so, if everything is shuffled around and everything is upside down then that makes for quite fascinating stories. So, , they’re turning down the opportunity to be able to publish that and I’m sure some other rankings publishers will continue.

John: True, and as we know rankings, even in normal years are topsy-turvy. I mean, in the last Businessweek, ranking Dartmouth Tuck was number two. UVA Darden was number five ahead of Wharton, MIT and Columbia.

Caroline: Yeah, so these publishers love nothing better than to shuffle things around and make a big story out of it, right? If the if the ranking was exactly the same every year, then there would be no story and no eyeballs looking at it. It’s interesting, but also the schools have enough to deal with right now. And the rankings are a pain in the backside for the school administrators and I think they have enough headaches right now.

Maria: And I think they’re playing a long game, too. I think they’re saying look, we’ll give up one year of the scandalous headline with the shocking change in rankings, like, we’ll give that up for one year by currying favor with the schools now, they’re not going to kick them while they’re down. So hopefully once things do get back to normal, they will play nicely with us. That’s just sort of my unofficial, unscientific theory, that they’re sort of cutting the schools a break, looking at it more from the longer term of relationships with the schools.

John: And one of the interesting things about the BusinessWeek decision too, is that they’re announcing that, but they are saying they would like to pivot to do a survey of students who have gone through this online learning experience to see what they think of it. So that actually could yield interesting information if the schools agree to cooperate with that. I’m assuming that that is less or some less of a burden to a school to simply allow students to be surveyed, who have plenty of time since they’re at home.

Maria: And they’re doing it in a clever way too, where they’ve already said that they’re not going to publish, they’re not going to try to shame schools who have been terrible at online learning. Like they’ll just publish the aggregate results, if I understood correctly, but then they will share with the individual schools. Here’s what your students said about your online learning. So that also gives the incentive to a school to try to get as many people to reply as possible, because I’m sure they are kind of secretly dying to get that information. I think they’re going about it in a clever way.

John: Yes, in a way, they’re saying, hey, we’ll give you some free consulting, some research that could be helpful to you. And we won’t reveal it to actually our readers. The other big news, so was that at our Centre Court event, in fact, Chad Losse, the Managing Director of Admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, told us that Harvard is exploring the possibility of increasing its incoming class size for next year. The decision to even talk to the university about its capacity to do that, is based on the fact that Harvard believes a number of people will take them up on their offer to give a deferment to any admit who wants it, number one, which would then cause those people to be piled into the next admission cycle. But also, the anticipation that as the recession takes hold, MBA applications will spike and there’ll be significantly increased demand for the program. What do you two make of that?

Caroline: Yes, I think a number of schools may do the same, especially schools like Harvard where they have a big Exec Ed business. INSEAD is another one where they quite heavily reliant on Exec Ed and so that’s likely to go down, stay down over the next year or so. And so, these schools will have excess capacity, both your physical and the faculty and so on. It makes sense to look at the option of potentially increasing class size in that context for the school to, you know, to maintain revenues. But also, it’s great news for applicants, because there’s a lot of concern about places and future classes being taken up by the deferred students, and therefore, you know, the competition increasing. So that’s great news for people who are in the pipeline now.

John: Really true. Maria, what do you make of it?

Maria: No, I think it’s a great idea. That way, if in case a lot of people do defer, that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the incoming applicants. I think they probably have the facilities for it. They might have to repurpose a room here or there, but I don’t know. I think it’s really smart. And I think what’s super smart about the way how Harvard’s doing the deferral is that you don’t know, when you request the deferral if you’re going to get a one-year or two-year deferral. I think it’s just so, so smart. So, are you willing to take that risk, how badly do you want that deferral?

[Update: Since the recording of the Podcast & publishing of this blog, HBS announced a 200 student shortfall for its Class of 2023.]

John: That’s really true. And the other thing about that is look, companies are laying people off right and left right now, companies are beginning to go bankrupt. You don’t know, even if you’re in a company that seems to be doing at least okay, what your prospects are going to be over the next one or two years. Would you really want to get laid off or get stuck in a job where there’s absolutely no opportunity for advancement and then have to wait two years to go to business school? Probably not.

Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder & Director Caroline Diarte Edwards is former head of Admissions at INSEAD. For more free advice and a personal, candid assessment of your chances, you can sign up now for a free consultation.

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