Why was I waitlisted?

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In love and admissions, there’s no answer as painful as a “maybe.”

If you’re one of the Round 1 applicants who opened up the admissions portal to find the dreaded wait-list letter, a lot of questions probably started rushing through your head.

  • Should I apply to more schools in Round 2?

  • Should I risk losing a deposit to a second-choice school or hold out for a final acceptance?

  • Should I contact the admissions committee or stay quiet?

  • If I’m applying to more schools later on, should I change my application materials?

However, the first question you should ask yourself is “Why am I on the Waitlist in the first place?” After having helped dozens of clients successfully navigate this process ourselves, we find that the answer comes down to a combination of four reasons:

1. Your narrative was too complicated.

Admissions Committees have thousands of essays to read through in a short time window. Do they have a lot of time to appreciate nuance and subtlety? No. Are they going to appreciate having to go back and re-read your story when it takes an unexpected turn? No. Are they in a hurry for you to get to your point so they know what your story is about? Yes.

Your job was to use your application to communicate a narrative story that was as simple and easy to digest as possible. If you did not accomplish that, then you need to start your analysis there. Complicated stories are far less compelling than simple ones, but they are a lot easier to write! That’s why you don’t see a lot of simple stories about waitlisted candidates.

To write a simple story requires two basic steps. First, strip out all detail that does not aid in understanding the story.  If there were five reasons why you moved from job A to job B, but one reason captures 90% of the story, just give that one reason! If your job has three major areas of responsibilities, but only one of which relates to your narrative, reduce the real estate on your resume that you devote to the irrelevant parts. Otherwise, the adcom will be inundated with so much detail they won’t know which ones to focus on.

Second, structure all transitions in the story as simple cause-and-effect. Humans naturally search for causes to the effects they observe, and get confused when one is not readily available. That’s why magic exists! Don’t write your essay like a magician, with your motives coming out of thin air. Instead, articulate what formative moments in life led you to make the decisions that you did or else your chances of admission will disappear!

2. You lacked a clear mission statement.

People are never as excited about supporting other individuals as they are about solving problems. At Ivy Admissions Group, we like examining narratives through the lens of politics, so indulge us – Which person do you think was more excited to cast their vote: someone endorsing Hillary Clinton’s superior qualifications, or someone extending a big middle finger to the world by voting for Donald Trump? 100% the latter.

Admissions Committees work in a similar way. They are more excited about marshalling the resources of their programs around candidates out to solve a clear problem in the world, than those just out for their own career progression.

When I read applications from waitlisted candidates, they almost always talk a lot about the job they performed or the life they want to lead without discussing the problem they want to solve or the vision for the future that they want to create. Simply put, an overachieving professional working in the healthcare industry is not as compelling a candidate as someone on a mission to end childhood obesity in America.

3. You did not differentiate yourself among a crowded field.

What is the difference between whole wheat bread and multigrain? All I know is that when I go into a new supermarket I have to sort through a wall of bread and sometimes get so overwhelmed that I don’t want to buy any.

How do you think adcoms feel with management consultants? They all pretty much do the same thing in the same place for nearly identical companies. If you’re coming from a traditional pre-MBA background (consulting, finance, big tech), unless your application makes clear that you offer something very different than your peers, it’s likely that your admissions journey will take a detour via the waitlist overpass.

4. You didn’t seem sold on their school.

Schools hate rejection as much as candidates do. If your application didn’t convey passion for the program, or a lot of specifics that show you have done your research, they might reasonably believe that you would go to a different school if given the option.

Schools also have a lot of pride. They are not offering a generic MBA, they are offering their MBA. Schools are most excited to admit students who they believe will experience the biggest transformation by going to their program: ones whose unique gaps in skill sets will be filled by the resources that school has to offer. If your application failed to mention what gaps you are looking to close in business school and how that school’s unique and specific resources can be used to fill those gaps, you missed an important element.

So what do I do now?

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If you could go back and re-write your essay. That’s what you’d do, right? Well that option is not available to you. Instead you’re going to have to find more creative and unconventional ways of communicating your improved story to the admissions committee. That’s what we do in our Waitlist Campaign and that’s what makes our approach effective. How often do things work out?

63.6%

That’s how many waitlisted candidates over the 2017-2018 application season that Ivy Admissions Group got admitted to their desired program.

If you’re interested in getting our help for your waitlist situation, sign up for a consultation with us here.

How to apply as a re-applicant

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Not everyone get’s into business school on their first try. Don’t worry if that’s the case for you — many business schools explicitly welcome and encourage applications from re-applicants. But what can you do to make sure you' don’t set yourself up for the same disappointment?

Step 1: Gut Check

Before you invest any more time, make sure that your MBA school selection is reasonable based on the raw statistics of your profile. For example, if you are applying to the M7 and are not an underrepresented minority, is your GPA at least above 3.0 and your GMAT above 700? If not, I probably wouldn’t waste the application fee. If you need any help determining whether you have the raw stats for your choice of schools, feel free to fill out our What are my odds? form and we’ll have a conversation about it.

Step 2: Focus in on the Story

For every candidate, the area of the application that has the highest return-on-investment for admissions odds is the story. Everyone will tell you to write a good story (which isn’t very helpful, right? Why would you intentionally tell a bad one?). Essays that are fun to read are good. But the real key is in understanding the next level deeper of what other objectives you want your story to accomplish.

Step 3: Autopsy

What went wrong with your last story? The short way to accomplish your task at hand is to run a ding report to understand where your last story broke down last time:

  • Was it too complicated?

  • Did your goals lack credibility?

  • Did you fail to connect your candidacy to a larger cause or problem to solve?

  • Did you fail to create resonance through emotion and values?

  • Did you fail to articulate the urgency of your candidacy?

Many schools ask re-applicants to submit essays explaining what has changed in their life and career since their last application, so it is imperative to understand where you fell short so you can then show improvement.

Step 4: Tell your Narrative

When we lead our clients through the Narrative Bootcamp portion of our Complete School Packages, we start from the facts of their life and build an argument from the ground up as to why this background is the ideal preparation to solve a particular problem. We then explain how our client is on a mission to solve that problem, starting from an emotional origin story and proceeding to some important vision for the future. We then show how they are prevented from accomplishing that mission in their current position, but how business school will allow them to achieve that mission if admitted. We call this specific structure of story a "Narrative" and you can read some posts about it here and the process we recommend using here.

Should I Write Waitlist Letters?

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Many candidates on the waitlist wonder if they should write letters to the Admissions Committee or if they should stay quiet. Essentially they are asking if they should take an active or a passive approach to the waitlist experience. Our advice at Ivy Admissions Group is emphatically to take an active approach by sending in letters to the Admissions Committee; here is why:

1. There is no downside

Even if the Adcom truly doesn't want to hear from you in any capacity, there is no chance that they would penalize you for thoughtful, respectful, and infrequent update letters informing them of important updates and affirming your commitment to staying under further consideration. If such a strategy can only be helpful or neutral, you have an opportunity for upside with no downside and should absolutely take it. People would wait years and spend tens of thousands of dollars to be accepted to a top MBA program -- on the other hand, the investment it takes to write these update letters is quite small.

2. Prevent your application from becoming stale

Your application will be reviewed in comparison to the submissions in subsequent rounds against applicants who will all have three additional months to grow in achievements and qualifications -- becoming, in essence, three months more qualified and impressive than you. The Adcom has already read your application and taken a pass on you, so it's likely that when it comes to filling interview slots (for those waitlisted pre-interview) or spots in the class (for those waitlisted post-interview) they will almost entirely draw from the fresh candidates. You are competing for fewer spots than you think and need to stand out. 

3. Stay ahead of the competition

Many of the deferred and waitlisted candidates will be mounting influence campaigns by writing update letters and having mentors contact the admissions deans (many of whom their mentors will know personally). Silence in this environment is a huge comparative disadvantage.

4. This has worked in the past

We've seen empirically that those who use their time on the waitlist to examine, correct, and redeploy their narrative using the techniques we discuss on this website have a far higher acceptance rate than those who refrain from sending in email updates.   

5. This strategy is in-line with the words of the letter

Some schools state explicitly or implicitly that no further materials will be added to your file as you wait on the waitlist. Usually Adcoms say this because if they didn't, they would be flooded with low-quality material from desperate candidates, making their job unmanageable. When we work with waitlisted candidates, we always develop personal improvement plans that figure out what you will want to tell the Adcom has improved about your candidacy in a few months time, and then work backwards to find the steps you need to take in your personal and professional lives to make that happen. Even in the unlikely case that the Adcom won't consider important new facts about your application, waitlist letters will still keep your name on the top of the waitlist manager's mind so that when the Admissions Committee turns to her for help in filling the last few interview invites, she will propose your name.

Conclusion: A low cost investment, if you know what to say!

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Ultimately, the call is yours. The base-level odds of getting into an MBA program off the waitlist is pretty comparable to the program's acceptance rate overall -- which is to say, pretty low. By putting you on the waitlist, the admissions committee is telling you that you are "good enough" to be admitted, but that there was something off in your narrative that made them hesitate. Writing (high quality) waitlist letters is a relatively small time investment to make that can have big effects on your candidacy. The key is to identify what was wrong with your narrative the first time around, develop content that actually fixes those shortcomings in your storytelling, and improve the facts of your candidacy along the dimensions where the Admissions Committee found were weak. Getting help on these last three dimensions is where admissions consultants can be quite helpful.

Dinged Without Interview from HBS? Find Out Why

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Today the deans in Dillon House (see left) release interview decisions for the last batch of Round 2 applicants at HBS. Some will be among the lucky few to score one of the few remaining interview invitations with the admissions committee (in which case, talk to us about how to prepare!). The rest will get the "ding", or in HBS parlance, "be released from consideration so you can move ahead with your other applications."

Getting the ding can be a real bummer. You might think, was my application really not good enough to make it to the interview phase? What would have happened had the Adcom actually met me? What does this mean for my other applications? Does this mean that I don't have a chance if I reapply next year?

You shouldn't give in to such negative feelings. In reality, schools like HBS are super receptive to re-applicants; the key is that you need to dispassionately evaluate what exactly went wrong in your application and -- most importantly -- use that information to put forth an even more kick-ass application in the future! That's our objective when we run our Ding Reports on clients. Below are some of the most common areas of improvement that we find:

Unimportant narrative - HBS wants students who are going to change the world, not just change their job. Ask yourself this: would the Adcom feel that they are making the world a better place when they admit me? If not, then you have failed in this dimension.

Not credible in mission - Maybe you have a good mission in life; the challenge is why should I believe that you are the MBA who is going to accomplish it? As important as it is to pick a good mission, you also have to choose where to place the goal posts. A mission that is too broad or not aligned with your previous work experience may appear too unrealistic to be credible.

No cohesion in life story - No one likes a flip-flopper. Sure your career can take twists and turns, but can you argue that everything is all a part of a singular overarching mission? We can, and you should.

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Not aware of / not addressing weaknesses - Everyone has weaknesses. Good leaders show self-awareness about their weaknesses and consciously work to improve them. If you don't, you might not fit in with the continuous self-improvement mindset of HBS.

Never answered "why HBS?" - MBA applications should be like love letters - they need to be personalized. No other school should be able to read it and fall in love with you. HBS wants high commitment individuals that will thrive in its on-campus, case-discussion dominated environment. To get in, you really need to show the Adcom what you are going to do with that spot that you can't do at another business school.

The wrong recommenders - Business schools prioritize work experience above all else, and the single biggest champion for your work experience is your recommender. The challenge is that if you pick someone who is too far in your past, or too senior to have directly observed your working behaviors, the vivid recommendation you need will come out blurry.

Aiming at the wrong tier of business school - If your GPA and GMAT are not in the ballpark, you might not have a chance no matter how good of an application you have. Reach out to us here and we'll help you determine your odds and which schools you should be targeting.

How to get off the MBA waitlist (Part 2)

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(Click here if you missed Part 1!)

5. Mount an influence campaign

I would only recommend this if you (1) truly need to be admitted to one particular business school in one particular cycle and (2) you are comfortable taking on the social capital debt of such a favor.

The people who make up admissions committees are social animals like the rest of us and can be influenced by others. Specifically two types of people: VIPs with opinions that the Adcom would respect (e.g. famous CEOs, political leaders, and prospective donors with whom the school is trying to curry favor), and current students whom can vouch for your “fit” at the school.

When it comes to VIPs, either you have one or you don’t. Personal/family connections are often too weak to be meaningful, and the waitlist timeline is usually too short to develop a good relationship with a VIP from a cold start.

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When it comes to current students, start by looking at your network on LinkedIn and see who is currently at your target school. Look for shared connections such as employer, undergrad, or high school. If you find someone you know well, explain your situation and see if they are willing to vouch for your fit at the school to the Adcom, using your new awesome narrative (see point #1). 

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6. Be humble, be positive, be patient

Showing any sign of frustration with your situation is absolutely lethal to your application. Often, admissions deans are just itching to find reasons they can remove people from the waitlist – don’t give them one. Remember: you are the happy warrior, and the waitlist is a marathon, not a sprint.

7. Worst case scenario: use the lessons of the waitlist to make a better application next time.

Many schools look favorably on re-applicants and the classrooms are full of them. Next time, hire us the first time and we will make sure that you put your best foot forward.

How to get off the MBA waitlist (Part 1)

Being put on the waitlist is disappointing – I would know.

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When I applied to business school I was waitlisted by my top three choices: Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, and Wharton. Getting stuck on those waitlists was frustrating and demoralizing; I had spent so much effort studying for tests, getting recommendations, and writing essays only to come up short.

Unfortunately, few admissions consultants if any offer help to those on the waitlist! I knew that I couldn’t leave my fate to a dice roll of the waitlist officer, so I did a ton of research, worked with every mentor I had, and executed my action plan -- it worked! By late spring I had been admitted to Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton.

While getting off the waitlist is a very difficult task, my personal experience and the subsequent work I’ve done with the admissions officers at Harvard Business School have taught me how to give an individual applicant their best shot as success.

Ivy Admissions Group offers a complete package of services that examines what went wrong in waitlist applications and develops a comprehensive plan to correct it. We work with you to refine your personal narrative, bolster personal areas of weakness, and communicate with the waitlist committee in the most effective way.

My 7-Step Plan for Getting off the Harvard / Stanford / Wharton MBA Waitlist:

1. Re-examine your narrative

If you’re on the waitlist, you're likely “good enough” to be admitted, but you lack that special something that puts you over the top. By putting you on the waitlist, the admissions committee is asking why the final spot in the class should go to you and not one of the dozens of similarly qualified candidates in the applicant pool. This question is not rhetorical. They want an answer.

Most often that special something you’re missing is a compelling narrative. Crafting such a narrative is extremely difficult. First, it requires considerable skill at writing. Second, most applicants aren’t able to step out of their own bodies long enough to see their experiences, motivations, and interests in a holistic manner. And third, most admissions consultants are more focused on sorting their many clients into buckets (consultants, ex-military, etc.), rather than developing unique story arcs for each.

Having a compelling, credible narrative is imperative to getting off the waitlist. As the admissions officers buzz about in their offices, deciding who should get the last spot off the waitlist, you need them to have the ability to describe you in a quick synopsis. For example, as that “clean water gal” or that “urban development guy.” If you don’t build this narrative for them, they will (1) likely forget you and (2) likely not champion your candidacy in committee. Admissions officers will not infer your narrative for you. You need to explicitly spell it out.

2. Evaluate your weaknesses

Everyone has a weak point in their application. Did you sufficiently address yours? 

It is the job of the Adcom to ensure that every student admitted will thrive academically and socially. Could the Adcom wonder whether you would succeed in the classroom? Whether you’ll be able to keep up in finance class? Whether you will be the kind of person who enriches the school community?  Re-read your application and develop a hypothesis as to what the hang-up is. We read tons of applications and have the expertise to help you see where you need to improve.

3. Start credibly fixing your weaknesses

Show the admissions committee that you have the self-awareness to know your weaknesses, the humility to admit them, and the drive to fix them. Have a low GMAT? Consider studying up and re-taking it. Some schools jealously protect their average GMAT score and hunt for applicants who will improve it. Others just want to see scores that are “good enough.” Often when you take the GRE instead, the school has more flexibility in admitting you since it doesn't impact their GMAT average.

Missing that all-important “impact”? Look for quick quantifiable wins at work or in your volunteer activities. Think the Adcom has trouble imagining you as the leader of a student club? Join a local community organization or non-profit that fits with your narrative. Better yet, found one! Not all titles and achievements are treated the same. Go for the ones that have the greatest institutional prestige.

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4. Don’t stay silent

Some Admissions Committees specifically welcome updates. Others say they are not necessary. Regardless, if you know how to communicate with the Adcom, there is a lot of upside and very little downside to providing substantive, well-written updates. The problem is that it is pretty easy for a novice to write a bad update – the kind that makes you seem mediocre, annoying, or worse.

These updates can serve two purposes: first, show improvement upon the application in the areas of weakness discussed above, and second, reaffirm commitment to the school (i.e. prove to them that you are guaranteed to accept their admissions offer and boost their all-important yield).

Some waitlisted applicants are hesitant to send updates because they think it requires judgement and writing talent, which it does. Clearly more of the same from your original application will not help push you over the top. The key is having an advisor who is a good writer, has navigate the process already, and can effectively “sell” you to the Adcom.

Story continued in Part 2