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"What went wrong?”

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Inevitably this time of year, MBA applicants all over the world are asking this question. On Poets and Quants, you can read about a candidate with a 750+ GMAT, top-tier consulting or banking/private equity experience, volunteer work, great grades. And…he or she only got into their safety school.

In articles that outline shocking results (or in conversations with individuals who are seeking detailed feedback through a ding report), there is often a lot of analysis or commentary about wholesale changes a candidate should consider, tweaks they could make to their existing profile, and/or some commiseration about the competitiveness of the pool, etc.

While some disappointment is natural (even Olympic athletes feel the need to defend the value of a silver medal), the focus on the disappointment has the potential to derail a candidate’s opportunity at a great school. Many successful business school applicants still spend a good deal of time wondering why exactly they didn’t get into their top choice. It’s even tougher when you have elite qualifications, from amazing work experience to an exceptional 750+ GMAT score.

There’s a lot of logic that can go into the analysis: for example, while a 750-760 GMAT score puts you in elite company, there are still over 2000 people per year who score at or above that level, more than the annual intake at HBS and Stanford combined (and many of their slots go to candidates with scores below 750). Top-tier consulting or banking still carry weight with MBA programs, but candidates who were accepted to HBS and Stanford this year often added important "ands" to that experience. Banking AND Private Equity. Consulting AND success at a startup. Leadership outside of one's normal work responsibilities was a particularly critical "and" for top programs this year.

Given that there’s rarely a single answer for a disappointing result, detailed digging into the reasons for the outcome can distract from the most important question:

How do I make the most out of the experience AHEAD of me?

When a client faced a disappointing result from a top-three school last year, what got us back on track (we use "us" deliberately since we focus on building relationships with clients that last well after admission) was an honest assessment of how to set MBA-related goals and what represented success. After fully exploring a program they DID get into, the candidate realized just how much they could take advantage of through classes and student groups at their chosen program. That candidate is now thriving, pursuing opportunities that wouldn’t have been available at any other school.

These past few weeks, our firm has led seminars across the US advising current and future MBA applicants, including 1:1 meetings. The anxiety is palpable. People are finding it hard to strategize about their careers given the day-to-day demands of their jobs. However, we have reminded applicants about setting goals that fit your needs, not someone else's. Yes, HBS and Stanford are great schools, and give every admit an opportunity to change the world. However for many, Booth will be a better choice, or Wharton, Kellogg, Sloan, Haas, Tuck, or even no MBA at all. Different people have different priorities (i.e. industry focus, geography), which is often why rankings often differ from source to source. If you dig deep, you might even discover the quality of programs among the schools you are targeting is pretty similar (this ranking indexes the #2 through #15 school within 10 points of each other; is that extra 10-20% school ranking really going to make or break you?). Another consideration is whether you would rather be a top 10% student at a slightly lower-ranked school, or average at a top-ranked one? Malcolm Gladwell has presented compelling evidence the former may boost your success and happiness.

So, what does that mean for you now? If you're thinking of applying this year, or even 2-3 years in the future, bolster your story now. Think about what differentiates you, and be prepared to highlight that in your application package. If you're committed to pursuing a specific program, consider every aspect of your application that is within your control, from leadership experiences to extra classes. Pursue new responsibilities at work that challenge you. Ask for candidate feedback about your profile. While we always encourage you to reach for the stars, this is also a great time to begin exploring a range of programs, allowing for the chance that you’ll find success through several different avenues. In exploring other schools, spend an extra few hours to really dig into their offerings and reach out to them. We can help you get started. We’ve never had a client claim they spent too much time researching schools. On the other hand, several have suggested after the process that they would have liked to have spent even more time exploring.

If you have earned admission somewhere for the Class of 2019, congratulations! Consider declaring victory and getting prepared to make the most of your opportunity. Begin by setting 2-3 core goals you want to accomplish with your MBA, and find 2-3 resources at school that will help you accomplish each one. If you get that funny feeling that where you got in isn't the right school for you, that's ok too. Take a step back, talk through your concerns with trusted advisors, and think of a roadmap that will help you achieve your goals (and not someone else's). Still stuck? Give us a call.

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