Business school waitlists have been significantly expanded for a number of reasons – the unknown issue of how many students will defer given travel restrictions or difficulty to get a student visa, as well as the fact that many MBA programs are kicking off with a hybrid format blending courses online and in person.
This episode of the Business Casual weekly podcast, co-hosted by Fortuna Director Caroline Diarte Edwards with Poets&Quants’ John Byrne and ApplicantLab’s Maria Wich-Villa, zeros in on how to get off the MBA waitlist along with advice for positioning your candidacy in what looks to be the biggest application cycle ever.
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 the upcoming admission cycle, which of course starts in September with round one deadlines, and then extends into the Spring with round three and round four. And we’re going to talk about getting off the waitlist; there are a lot of people sitting around on waitlists right now. Waitlists have been significantly expanded because of the unknown issue of how many people are going to defer given travel restrictions, difficulty to get a student visa, as well as the fact that many of these programs are going to be starting with a hybrid format with part of the courses online and part in person. First, let’s talk about, do we think this upcoming admission cycle will be the biggest ever?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: It’s quite possible, business schools always get a bump in application volume when it’s an economic downturn, so it’s cyclical. When I joined INSEAD and took over as admissions director, I looked back over the admissions data over decades. It’s clearly a cycle that is related to the economic cycle, but the application volume is increasing when there’s a downturn, and then application volume will taper off as the recession continues and doesn’t pick up again until the economy has recovered. Given the rapidity with which this crisis set in, I think there could be sudden big bump in application volume for round one. Whereas in the past, we’ve often seen recessions that have gradually set in and triggered a slow burn of increasing application volume over a number of rounds, I think this will trigger a sudden jump up in round one.
John Byrne: Maria, you’re seeing a lot more activity on the applicant lab site, right?
Maria Wich-Vila: Absolutely. I think people are looking for a safe haven, they either see the writing on the wall, or they have in many unfortunate cases, already been laid off or furloughed. When you’re not sure when the economy is going to come back again, there are worse things you could do with your time than to spend a year or two improving your skill set and improving your earning power and riding out the storm in the safe haven of schools. I definitely think this upcoming round one is going to be a pretty energetic one, in terms of applicants throwing their hats in the ring.
John Byrne: Yes, the unemployment rates in the United States are at record levels, great depression levels. And a lot of the people who are no longer employed are young professionals; people who’ve been laid off from companies like Airbnb and Uber and other well-known companies. We’re also looking at a lot of pent-up demand, we’ve seen five consecutive years of declines in two-year MBA residential programs in the United States, overall, three years for the best schools. Therefore, you have pent up demand, you have a recession that will be the greatest downturn in our history with a lot of young professionals who are either now unemployed, or who have seen their opportunity for advancement and opportunity in their current companies diminish greatly, if not disappear entirely. And I think all this is the perfect storm for what I am anticipating is the single biggest admissions season in the history of Business Schools.
Here’s also my other proof, I’m looking at our traffic on our website for this past April, we had the biggest month in traffic in our 10-year history. In May, we beat that considerably. I see that increase in traffic as an expression of far greater interest in going to graduate school and getting an MBA and looking at the options available to you. And while the price tags on the programs might scare some people, the truth is there’s a lot of money out there in terms of scholarships, so there’s a lot of discounting going on. And in many cases, particularly at second-tier schools, you can get an MBA degree at half or more of a discount that the sticker price indicates. I think we’re going to see one intense admissions period, which also means it’s going to be one of the most competitive seasons to get into a good school. And that’s going to benefit both of you, because people are looking for help and guidance, and basically swinging the odds in their favor, right?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Yes, as you’ve said, there’s a lot more activity right now, we’re seeing that across the board. I do think that not all of that will translate into submitted applications, because a lot of people are evaluating options right now, thinking about what they should do next and they’re looking at different possibilities. If we’re seeing, for example, double rates of inquiries right now versus last year, I’m not sure that that will translate into double of application volume for round one. Also, people have doubts about what the format will be and whether now is the time that they want to go to business school, given the pandemic given and ongoing concerns about being able to travel, whether or not the programs will be fully on campus or part virtual. There’s a lot of noise right now and some of that will translate into application volume, but not all of that.
John Byrne: Incidentally, there are a number of schools that have extended their deadlines and the word they most often use to what’s happened is ‘surge’. A lot of schools have experienced a surge in applications as a result of the extended deadlines, I think that’s also a sign that next year is going to be really big as well. Maria, you said the traffic on your applicant lab site is more than double, right?
Maria Wich-Vila: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I think it’s a matter of the extended round three deadlines, people throwing their hats in the ring, especially for the schools that have waived or have indicated a leniency with the online GMAT requirements and GRE requirements. Another reason I think that this upcoming season is going to be more competitive is because so many people are either trying to defer or drop out of consideration and reapply next year, that is people who were accepted already who are now saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to go if it’s online, I don’t know that I want to start in August.’ Those people will now be put back into the applicant pool, so I think it’ll also be more competitive as some of these spots may be officially or unofficially spoken for, in terms of deferrals or re applicants trying again for the following year.
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Yes, I think also partly the volume increases driven by candidates who have jumped in because they see the opportunity of applying without having the GMAT. A lot of people postpone applying because they’re procrastinating about the GMAT or they’ve taken the GMAT, but they haven’t yet got the score that they want, which takes them longer than they expect. That’s often an obstacle to applying, that obstacle to a certain extent has been removed, which has increased application volume right now. It’ll be interesting to see what policies the schools carry forward for the next season on the testing.
John Byrne: Afterall, the GMAT online has had a number of technical glitches and there’s some real concern about taking it. In fact, we ran a story that said people are flying to the few open tests and driving hundreds of miles to get to an open test in order to avoid taking the online test. Schools are reading these reports, and you must be thinking, ‘We’ve got to be a little more flexible, at least in round one.’
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Yes, I think they will have to be. Some test centers in some locations are starting to open up. In some locations, it’s starting to get a little bit easier to take those tests, maybe that will become more widespread, hopefully leading to more availability of physical tests over the summer months, and that will start to change. Normally, a lot of round one applicants would have taken the GMAT by now, so if they haven’t, yes, the schools will probably have to be flexible and carry that forward.
John Byrne: Maria, do you think they’ll extend the flexibility that they’ve shown in the round three and in the extended rounds into the new admission cycle?
Maria Wich-Vila: I believe they are hoping that they don’t have to. I have heard admissions officers at the some of the schools that are deferring say, this is a one-time thing, we are not planning on deferring going forward. However, I think that was assuming that there would be some return to normalcy in terms of testing. I wonder if the GMAC organization were to get rid of that virtual whiteboard, I think that would change things dramatically.
John Byrne: But rather than spend 10 to 20 hours practicing on the whiteboard, you can devote that time to getting a better overall score.
Maria Wich-Vila: It’s probably better to switch to the GRE to pivot to that other test than it is to master the whiteboard. That’s just my gut feel.
John Byrne: Both of you are in the business of helping candidates succeed in a highly competitive environment that’s going to exist next season, whether we agree that it’s going to be a total record and volume of applications, or whether it’s just going to be a big bump. What’s your advice to the person out there listening to us? Say, it’s going to be more competitive, there’s going to be more applicants, and for a variety of reasons, all coming together that could potentially make for the biggest admissions season ever in the history of Business schools. What’s your advice to them?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: I would say take your time to prepare your applications. It’s not something that you can cook up overnight, it takes a lot of reflection before you start to put pen to paper and drafting your materials. It’s important to give yourself the benefit of that process which can be a great learning experience. They ask some quite profound questions often, and if you take advantage of the reflection process, it can be a valuable process to take a step back and think about where you’ve come from, where you’re heading in the long term. And I would say, have your plan A, but also have your plan B. You may have your heart set on one of the very top schools, but it might not happen in this cycle. Think about if it doesn’t happen, are you applying to other schools as well? Or will you wait and reapply next year? You have to be prepared for that scenario.
Maria Wich-Vila: Yes, I always advocate casting a pretty wide net when it comes to this, and I will emphasize that even more now. There’s so much uncertainty in terms of the quality of candidates who are coming in and all the different variables that we’ve already discussed. As an applicant, you have no idea what’s going to happen nor does anyone else. If you strongly want to start business school next autumn, then, like Caroline said, don’t obsess over one or two top schools, apply to many schools. Unfortunately, many of the schools have indicated that they are not planning massive changes to their essay questions for the upcoming season, which is a relief for everyone in the ecosystem. If people want to start thinking about their essays, now is a good time to brainstorm.
John Byrne: Good advice. Well, there are a lot of orphaned applicants right now all over the world. They’re on vastly expanded waitlists, because schools are worried about the issue of deferments and who’s going to be able to come and who’s not going to be able to come. What can they do other than be really nervous and full of anxiety?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Yes, it is a very difficult situation to be in and you don’t really know when you’re going to get a final decision, you can be on the waitlist for several months. Having been on the other side, the first thing is to take a step back and think about if you’re committed to staying on the waitlist, or do you want to work at getting off the waitlist, or do you have another plan? Maybe you’re applying to other schools or maybe you’re going to accept another offer. Don’t have an emotional reaction to being put on the waitlist. I see candidates that sometimes take it very personally, but the door is still open. If you are motivated to gain that place, then keep at it. And if you want to get off the waitlist, then you need to respond positively to the school. I’ve seen some awful responses to waitlist announcements where candidates have responded in a very resentful way, which doesn’t create a positive impression. You’ve got to stay positive and reiterate your motivation.
John Byrne: What is an effective strategy to get off a waitlist?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: You definitely want to stay on the school’s radar screen, but you don’t want to contact them so frequently, that you become a pest. I would say, get in touch about every three to four weeks and make the school aware that you’re still interested, that you’re committed, that you will accept the offer if they make you an offer. The school doesn’t necessarily know once they’ve made someone an offer on the waitlist, whether they will actually accept that offer, if they make them a confirmed offer. The yield on candidates who are waitlisted is always lower than the yield on straight admits. At INSEAD, my experience is probably about 20 to 30% lower yield on admits from the waitlist.
John Byrne: That’s fascinating, I would have thought the opposite.
Caroline Diarte Edwards: People have started to make other plans, because they don’t know if they’re going to get an offer. Quite sensibly, they figured out other options and maybe they’ve decided to pursue another path.
John Byrne: That is a real key piece of advice, because I could see that schools might even use a waitlist to protect yield. In other words, if you’re in communication with the applicant and you know they’re going to accept, you could actually make sure that if your yield is suffering on the other part of your applicant pool, you might go to your waitlist and communicate with people before you actually offer them the position.
Maria Wich-Vila: Schools have actually reached out to people on the waitlist to casually check in and say, Hey, let’s have an update call. Putting people on a waitlist to begin with is a way to try to protect yield by massaging that number and manipulate it a little bit. I think this year in particular, if you’re on a waitlist right now, not only continue to indicate your interest in a program but be outspoken when you express that you are okay with classes being online. If you do that, I think it will really help you quite a bit. Aside from that, you should always follow instructions; schools have different waitlist policies, and if a school says, please do not send us additional letters, do not send additional essays, then do not do it. I recently heard an admissions officer from one of the top programs say that she received a physical letter to her home address from a waitlisted candidate. That candidate probably thought they were going above and beyond by pleading their case, but that’s just creepy.
John Byrne: Besides letting the school know that they are your first choice and that you don’t care whether the courses are online or not, what else can you say? What other kinds of communications are appropriate here?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Over the months that you’re waitlisted, perhaps you do have some interesting updates about your profile to share such as an exciting project or something that’s new in your profile. Or it may be a very brief message to reiterate, ‘I’m so motivated, I just want to check in if there’s any news, please let me know.’ And it might not always be an email, it could be a quick phone call. We would sometimes have people calling here almost every day and it doesn’t help their case, so you don’t want to communicate too frequently.
Maria Wich-Vila: My advice is if you’re applying to a school that really values you getting to know their community, take that opportunity to reach out to other students with the same interests. A couple of in-depth conversations with members of the community is always a great idea, not every school cares about that, but many schools do. Also, if you take a sober look at your profile and think that perhaps there are some concerns about your quantitative skill, you may want to take a class like mbamath.com or maybe use the summer month to try to retake the GMAT, because if you’re on the waitlist and remain on the waitlist, you’ll be reapplying, so you’re going to need an updated score anyway.
John Byrne: It’s funny, I was thinking the same thing that if I am a consultant and I want to go into banking, should I call up one of the professors who teaches those courses and have a conversation with him, then relay that back to admissions, perhaps a slightly different way to do it.
Maria Wich-Vila: I don’t know about a professor, that might be a bit too aggressive.
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Unless you have a mutual connection or something, but it’s a good point that it’s worth spending some time reflecting on why you might have been waitlisted rather than admitted straight away. You might be able to get some feedback on that. If you’ve, been through alumni interviews, then I encourage candidates to reach out to the alumni and let them know that you’ve been waitlisted, ask questions and advice on feedback. You might get an indication of what they may have said, the input that they might have given to the admissions committee that might’ve raised the doubts. Sometimes candidates come to us and we haven’t worked with them on their application, but they come to us when they’ve been waitlisted, and they want us to help them figure out why they were waitlisted, what they can do about it. That reflection process can be useful because the reason for being waitlisted can vary a great deal from case to case. Bottom line, you can invest more effort, especially if you’re waitlisted for several months.
John Byrne: When it comes to waitlisted candidates, generally, what percentage of waitlisted candidates are taken off those lists and admitted? Would you say it’s under 10%?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: Well, it varies score to score and certainly by profile and for some schools, it might be under 10%.
John Byrne: In your years at INSEAD, what would it have been?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: I would say the minority of candidates get off the waitlist for any school. You try not to over waitlist because there’s no point having a massive waitlist when you know that there’s absolutely no way that the bulk of them will get into the school. But on the other hand, you’re also using the waitlist to manage not just the numbers, because you’ve got a target, you’ve got to fill the classroom, but you’re looking to build for certain diversity of profile and background and international experience, gender and so on. You’ve got all of these different variables to take into account, which is why the schools are using the waitlist to manage that. I would say for any school, the majority of waitlist candidates are not going to get an offer.
John Byrne: Maria, is it 10%, 20%, 30%?
Maria Wich-Vila: I can’t give a percentage because at the end of the day, I do want that balanced class and I do want those diversity of industry experiences. People tend to reach out asking what went wrong? But it’s not about that, if something would have been terribly wrong, you would already have been rejected. But yes, I would agree it’s a minority of people who get off the waitlist.
John Byrne: Here’s the good thing for all people who are on a waitlist, even if you don’t get off, you were so close that if you reapplied, I would think that your chances of another really good shot were pretty good. Would you two agree?
Caroline Diarte Edwards: I would reapply and show that you come back as a better candidate. For anyone who’s going through the reapplication process, you don’t want to submit looking like the exact same person who applied 12 months ago, you need to show evolution. And if you can demonstrate that, then you should have a good shot. The schools know it’s not easy for a candidate who were waitlisted, they empathize with that. If you come back and you reapply again, they appreciate that demonstration of motivation.
Maria Wich-Vila: In my experience, people who have been waitlisted in the past, tend to have slightly better chances as reapplicants than people who were outright rejected the first time.
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.