MBA Waitlist: What it really means

I Understanding MBA waitlist dynamics
II Why have I been waitlisted?
III Moving on after being waitlisted
IV Advice for getting off the waitlist

When candidates are waitlisted by a school, they often feel disappointed, deflated and frustrated. I recently gave an interview for US News for an article entitled Avoid 4 Mistakes Wait-listed MBA Applicants Make I spoke with the reporter on the phone for over thirty minutes about what candidates should or shouldn’t do. Here’s one of the quotes from the article:

“If you’re wait-listed, it means you’re a great candidate,” says Derus, who received her MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in 2010. “You can apply next year. And when you’re as old as I unfortunately am, you’ll look back on your 20s and it’ll all be a big blur anyway. So, honestly, a year plus or minus doesn’t change things.”

My message to you is – look on the bright side young samurai, you may be waitlisted, but at least you’re not old (and don’t look at my picture – I already Photoshopped all the wrinkles out of it :)


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I Understanding MBA Waitlist Dynamics

This analysis applies to schools with three rounds (like Stanford). Generally the first round (submission in September/October) and the second round (submission in January) are considered the only realistic rounds in which to apply for 99.9% of candidates. If you’re submitting an application to a top fifteen school in February..March etc. that’s what I call a third round submission.

Waitlisted in the round one (September/October submission):

  • The school is waiting to see what their yield looks like from first round. How many admitted candidates will accept the school’s invitation and how many won’t. As a first round waitlist candidate you’re poised to be offered one of those places. In fact, you may very well be up to the school’s standards – it’s just that the school wants to see if just maybe someone from round two can top those standards.
  • You’re competing with the applicant pool in round two in the same way that you competed with the applicant pool in round one and vice versa. The round two candidates are being sized up against the pool of waitlisted candidates from round one.

Leah’s take: Waitlisted in round one?
You have a fighting chance of being admitted. In particular there are two dates to watch out for. The first is when the school requires round one admits to make a financial deposit to hold their place in the program. The second is when round two decisions are released. Another way of looking at this is to say that if the school’s standard is to admit 10/10s the waitlisted candidate from round one is a 9/10 or a 10/10. The school wants to see if some of those 10/10s don’t accept the offer or if a few 11/10s pop up in round two.

Waitlisted in round two (January submission):

  • The school has already seen 99% of the viable candidates. The waitlisted candidate didn’t quite come up to the standard the school was looking for, but nearly did. The school is now waiting to see what its yield looks like from offers made in round two and candidates taken off the waitlist from round one.
  • You’re not competing with people applying in round three because so few people do to begin with, and even fewer serious candidates do that the number is mathematically insignificant.

Leah’s take: Waitlisted in round two?
You’re less likely to come off a round two waitlist then a round one waitlist. Another way of looking at this is to say that if the school’s standard is to admit 10/10s then you’re a 9/10 or an 8/10 and the school is waiting to see if some of the 10/10s who applied in round two or came off the waitlist from round one don’t accept the offer extended to them.


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II Why have I been waitlisted?

As Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford is quoted as saying, ‘It’s much easier for an interview to keep you out than to get you in. … if one of our alumni says, This person is not a good fit for the Stanford community…This person doesn’t share our values. Why would I dispute that?’

The reason a candidate gets waitlisted is because (in 90% of cases) he/she didn’t perform as well in the interview as other candidates did. Performing well does not mean that you simply didn’t give ‘the right’ answers to the questions put to you – although that may be the case, there really are no right or wrong answers to start with. More likely you just didn’t convey quite enough social awareness, emotional intelligence, energy and ‘executive presence’ to receive as favorable a rating from your interviewer as other candidates at that school did. Different schools have different standards which is why a candidate can get in at School A and be waitlisted at School B. That said, you had nearly enough of what it takes. After all, you didn’t get rejected – you’re on the waitlist.

Most people do not want to believe that the interview may have been a deciding factor because it’s too painful and depressing – especially when you’ve already had your interview but wish you could go back and do things differently. Consider this: 100% of the candidates looked good enough on paper to be offered an interview. Following the interview a % were offered a place, a % were rejected and a % were placed on the waitlist. The only variable was the interview. On paper everyone looked good. In person, lines were drawn.

For the other 10% of candidates I have a theory. Since schools like to keep their yield as high as possible they may waitlist candidates who they suspect might just be applying to their school as a back-up plan. Yield=# of candidates that accept an offer/# of offers extended Schools have become increasingly better at figuring out which candidates are most likely to attend their program so I think that 10% might even be an overestimation on my part but I do think it happens. Think of it like dating – you might not think it is worthwhile to chat up someone who for whatever reason you considered to be ‘out of your league’ right?

I have a friend from Casablanca who likes to say ‘Personne ne sent sa propre boutique’. That’s French for, ‘Nobody smells the odor from their own shop’. My friend’s unique and colorful analogy is rooted in the time he spent hanging out in the Casablanca souks as a kid. As he explains, the olive merchant doesn’t think his shop smells like olives….the fishmonger doesn’t think his place smells like, well, fish.

A lot of times candidates simply aren’t able to decipher what went wrong in the interview (or why they’ve been waitlisted) because they lack perspective on themselves. In fact every person lacks perspective on themselves simply because we don’t lead our lives from a removed and objective vantage point, but from an involved and subjective one. That’s why working with a coach is the best way to identify and iron out any issues you may have. If that isn’t an option for you then I’d suggest making a video of yourself answering questions similar to those you got in interview. Pay particular attention to non-verbal communication (intonation, attitude, body language). Ask a friend to review the video as well.


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III Moving on (with life) after being waitlisted

Conveying executive presence now and in the future

The number one lesson you should learn from being waitlisted is that you need to work on your ability to present well in interview and to exude executive presence (not just in interview but also in the workplace). Working with a coach who can help. If you’re admitted off the waitlist you’ll soon find yourself in networking and interview situations during your first year as an MBA student looking to secure an internship and eventually a job. If you apply for an MBA the following year, you’ll need to up your game in subsequent interviews. Even if you forego an MBA and simply continue on your professional path, having great presence in interviews and at work will be a determining factor of your lifetime earnings and career success. That’s because people aren’t hired and promoted by computers based on objective criteria but by people based on their own, very human, subjective criteria and conscious or subconscious impressions.

Should I apply in Round Three?

99.9% of the time the answer is an unequivocal no. Some schools have three rounds and some have four. When I suggest not applying in round three what I mean is, not submitting an application in rounds in February, March, April etc. Unless you are in a situation where this year is really your last reasonable chance to apply for an MBA because you’re at the very top of the age/experience curve, then you’ll be better served waiting until round one of the following year. You might hear some people say that applying in round three is a good preparation for applying in round one of the following year if you’re not admitted. That is totally untrue. You don’t go out on a bad date and then think to yourself ‘Hey maybe I should call that guy/girl up again and ask for a second date’. Make your best first impression the first, not the second time around. For most candidates that means waiting until round one of the following year.


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IV Advice for getting off the waitlist

Be aware of what types of updates the school is interested in

The reason employers want to hire MBAs is because they have an elusive combination of intelligence AND the inter-personal skills and social awareness necessary to lead people and organizations. There are lots of people out there who are smarter than the average MBA. There are likewise lots of people who have the social savoir faire. An MBA has both.

If you’d like to let the school know that you have only one of these two skill sets, then feel free to bombard them with frivolous updates that the school is not interested in. You’ll start to look like you don’t know how to follow rules and fall in line, which is never a good thing. For as much as schools like tout their diverse student body, MBAs are by and large risk adverse and conformists. If a school, like Wharton, only wants updates on your GMAT score, a new job, or additional coursework, then that is all you should send them. Conform. Conform. Conform.

Consider sending additional information about…

Information to support your candidacy can include updates about job changes or promotions, new extracurricular involvement, an updated test score or course that you have undertaken to bolster your quantitative skills.

Be judicious

You might be tempted to grasp at straws and hurriedly get involved with a nonprofit or join a sports league in an effort to pad out your community service and leadership. At this point in the game it’s too little too late. Resist the urge.

Influential people and letters of support

People can be influential in absolute but may be of little help to your case with the admissions committee. The best letters of support are submitted TO THE DEAN OF ADMISSIONS BEFORE the admissions deadline. That’s so the Dean can, if he or she so chooses, ask the Admissions Committee to be on the lookout for your application. The Dean does not wield absolute power over the admissions process. He or she needs to take the professional and collective opinion of the rest of the committee into consideration at all times. How does the Dean look when he appears at the eleventh hour insisting that Candidate X be admitted? He might come off looking a little despot-like, and nobody wants that look.

That’s why letters of support can help a candidate but even the best letter or call of support doesn’t always help. Still it’s an avenue worth pursuing if you’re in a position to do so. The hardest part is often figuring out who to ask. Don’t get desperate and start grasping at straws. Maybe a friend of yours knows Kofi Annan who attended the Sloan Fellows Program. Your friend says that he could ask Kofi to write a letter for you – maybe Kofi would even agree to do that. But what could Kofi possibly write about you not really knowing you or having worked with you?

The best letters of support from influential people or people who are senior people will be from those who know you personally and have worked with you. (I can’t stress this enough). They’ll be able to cite specific anecdotes or examples of your work, team building skills and disposition. Ask them to emphasize aspects of your candidacy that the Admissions Committee may still be uncertain about (these can be ascertained through the DIY analysis I referenced earlier).

A letter from a current student or recent graduate can be a great way to communicate more about who you are as a person and why you’re the type of person that other students would appreciate having in class and as a fellow alumnus/ae. Get your friend to write a great anecdote about you followed up with a supportive statement about your personality, community involvement and ambitions.

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