War-Gaming the MBA Wait List Process:

by on June 24th, 2015

I was ahead of the game. In the summer of 2014, I fine-tuned my resume, I started writing several essays, and I began preparing for hopeful invitations to future interviews. However, I knew I had a long road ahead for the 2014-2015 application cycle.

Let me introduce myself. I am a West Point Graduate, class of 2010, former Army Artillery Officer, and not your typical MBA applicant.

I was a French and Spanish major at the academy, I had a 3.2 GPA, and I scored a 650 on the GMAT. The top schools were going to be a stretch for me, but I didn’t let that get in my way. I applied to HBS, Wharton, Booth, Kellogg, Darden, Columbia, Yale, Georgetown, and Vanderbilt. Yes, I threw my name in about as many hats as I could.

No surprise, HBS and Wharton did not invite me to interview. However, I was invited to interview with every other school, so I knew I had a shot. Unfortunately, when December of 2014 came around, I found that my prediction was correct. The process was far from over:

  • Kellogg: Rejected
  • Booth: Wait List
  • Darden: Wait List
  • Columbia: Wait List
  • Yale: Wait List
  • Georgetown: Accepted
  • Vanderbilt: Accepted

Oh yeah, schools loved wait listing me. While I was thrilled to receive an offer from two phenomenal programs, I was devastated to learn the process would continue. Like any competitive applicant, I saw that I had a chance at a top-ten program, so I kept my name on all the wait lists and vehemently researched how to earn an offer of admission. 11 months after I started those first essays, I received that once-in-a-lifetime phone call from Booth offering me a place in the class of 2017.

My goal for this post is to provide motivation to stay on the wait list and to prove your GMAT and GPA aren’t everything. Here is how you can prove to the top schools that you are worthy of getting off the wait list and earning an acceptance:

1) The Reaction

EMRACE IT! Your hard work and countless hours paid off. Do not forget, this is NOT a rejection. This is the school saying, “Yep, you are worthy, but let’s see if you can prove it.” I will admit it, I was beat down after being wait listed at four places—that was a lot to handle. However, I promise you, it is not a terrible place to be. There are steps you can take to show you are willing to improve and that you truly want to be at that program.

2) What now?

As you have already done for months, it is time for some more soul searching. How badly do you want to be at this school? What is this school looking for that you may have missed in your application? Have you visited the school and met with admissions? Are you willing to put in a few more months of work to earn admission?

3)  Steps to Take

Follow Directions: This is where, as a veteran, you should shine. First, ensure that you read every e-mail they send to you. Each one could have vital information on what you can do to improve your candidacy. For example, Booth allowed wait listed applicants to send in a video. If they give you an option like this, DO IT! If you are not willing to put in the effort toward the options they give you, why would the admissions team think you will go the extra mile at their MBA program? Next, call admissions and ask  where you fell short in your application. Some schools won’t tell you (Booth/CBS) but some will be completely honest and give you direct feedback (Darden). Make the call either way. Finally, reach out to the veterans clubs at each school and get connected with someone who survived the wait list. This is crucial to keeping up motivation, receiving stellar advice, and again, proving you truly want to be at that program. Hint: fellow vets will go to bat for you.

Take Action: Listen to the feedback, assess your options, and drive on. It was obvious that I had to retake the GMAT, and I did. Additionally, I enrolled in MBA Math to show that I am willing to work on the skills not reflected in my application. My GMAT only improved to 660, but I displayed the grit to keep working hard. Furthermore, if you have the time, are in the area, and can make it happen, visit the school! Veterans on deployment, this is impossible, and schools understand that—don’t worry. I happened to be near Chicago for a wedding, so I dropped in to Booth, went to a class, and sat down with admissions one more time to show how much I wanted to be at that program. These bits of effort go a long way.

Keep in Touch: This is by far and away the most important piece of advice. You must remain in contact with the school. Some programs will tell you how often and some won’t. Columbia told me to reach out every two weeks, so I literally e-mailed them every two weeks to the day with a minor update or simply to remind them of my interest in the program. I read on several blogs that an e-mail every few weeks works, so I went with every three weeks, and I felt like I could give the other schools a bit of an update each time. They want to hear about progression at work, updates on test scores, and simply that they are your first choice! Make sure admissions teams know that you will immediately accept an invitation. This truly helps admissions teams make decisions and they know they can trust you should they find a spot for you. Remember, sometimes a phone call is better than an e-mail for your update, this allows your personality to shine through rather than sending another dry e-mail. Nevertheless, here are the types of updates I sent:

  • New GMAT Score
  • Supplementary Letter(s) of Recommendation
  • News on joining the board of directors for a small business
  • Plans for the summer before school starts (I interned with a mining company to gain experience in something other than military)
  • Other activities (I was getting my pilots license at the time)
  • Supplementary essay if necessary
  • I wrote a song with a friend who is an incredibly talented musician and, yes, I sang about the top ten reasons one school should admit me … It obviously worked a little bit—I got in! Try to find anything that will differentiate you from the crowd and show that admissions team your creative outlets. Examples: Music, Art, Poetry, Video, Athletics, etc.
  • I attended the Deloitte CORE Veterans Leadership Program (incredible program, I highly suggest you look into it!)
  • I contacted professors at each school in the department of my interest. These conversations allowed me to dig deeper into the academic program, and it allowed me to send an update to admissions showing that I was doing my homework and already building relationships at the school.

4)  What NOT to do

As an applicant who survived the wait list, I can only speculate on some methods/actions that may not work at all. Some of these may seem obvious, but they are important to understand:

  • Don’t bug the crap out of admissions. Ensure they know you want to be there, write your updates every few weeks, and leave it at that. They are busy, have thousands of applications to sift through, and although they will remember who you are, it may not be in a positive light.
  • Don’t tell admissions teams where you are accepted and where you are also wait listed. No, I am not telling you to lie. However, I am saying that this is probably a waste of time. Spend your time telling them how you are progressing, how you will make their program better, and that they are your number one choice. Focus on that school and that school alone.
  • I read somewhere that you should “only leave your name on one or two wait lists.” I find this incredibly ridiculous. You put the work in, you paid to apply, and you want to be at a top school. Do not take your name off a wait list unless you really decide you don’t want to be there anymore. That being said, when you do get into a school of choice it is only fair to take your name off the other lists immediately.

5)  Contingency plans

A contingency plan will relieve stress about being on the wait list. It is never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket, especially with how competitive the MBA process is today. Even though I was admitted to a couple of great schools of the bat, I still planned for employment. The wait list is unforgiving; they will not give you any idea of whether you will get in or not. I did have one school, which will go unnamed, completely lead me on to believe I would be accepted, but I never received the call. That being said, it is important to have a back-up plan. I went to a veteran’s career conference and met with several organizations that interested me for immediate work and post-MBA employment. This helped in several manners: 1) it showed that I was responsible enough to have a back-up plan, 2) it displayed my sincere interest in these companies, and that an MBA would help me earn employment there, and 3) a couple of the schools actually sent admissions representatives to the job-fair so I was able to spend time with them and reinforce my interest.

The wait list process is long, frustrating, and exhausting. My best, cliché piece of advice is to keep working hard. You will generate solid updates by continuing to excel, and by ensuring you can fill the gaps in your application. Don’t worry! Earning a spot on the wait list is an achievement in itself. As you would when met with adversity in the military or in combat, just embrace it and take the necessary steps to fix it. Make sure you are never wondering “What if I had done this?” Take every step possible, and it will all be worth it in the end.

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