Mastering MBA Admissions: From Waitlist to Acceptance

Discover expert insights and proven tactics to navigate MBA acceptances, waitlist notifications, and rejections

For aspiring MBA candidates, the path to acceptance into a top-tier business school can be both exhilarating and daunting. Acceptance rates are notoriously low. So, prospective students need to navigate MBA acceptances, waitlist notifications, and rejections with grace, resilience, and a strategic approach.

Rachel Hain exemplifies the approach. She applied for the MBA program at University of Michigan Ross School of Business in the 2021/22 admissions cycle and was placed on the waitlist -- the admissions committee reviewed her materials and qualifications but had not made a final decision.

She held out hope until late August 2022, when Ross gave her a rejection letter. “This rejection felt like a huge, but momentary, blow,” says Hain. But she did not give up. “I made revisiting my application and reapplying in the 2022/23 cycle my main goal. I spent September through December of 2022 connecting with current Ross MBA students, attending virtual and in-person events, strengthening my application, and studying and sitting for the GRE.”

To her extreme delight, she received a call on a seemingly random day in early May with an acceptance to Ross. When faced with a rejection from an MBA program, she says there are constructive steps that other applicants can take to regroup and plan their next course of action.

“I think applicants can truly benefit from taking a deep look at whether the program really aligns with their career objectives, is a good community fit, and will ultimately grant them a worthwhile return on investment,” Hain says.

“If the MBA program hits most or all of these boxes, then candidates should prioritize reviewing their previous application, look for areas to improve, and connect with admissions, current students and alums through one-on-one chats or admissions events.”

How to get off the dreaded waitlist 

That advice can help when an applicant is put on the waitlist, meaning that the school is interested in their candidacy but needs more time to make a final decision. 

“Reasons can range from limited seats to not having a well-defined career objective despite possessing substantial work experience, or having a score slightly below the usual acceptance level but expressing intentions to retake the GMAT or GRE,” says Steven Ji, assistant director of the MBA marketing, admissions and financial aid department at CEIBS in Shanghai.

“Don’t view this as a setback; instead, see it as an opportunity to shine even brighter,” he adds. “Ace that test or use this time to clarify your career goals. Plus, if you’ve been promoted or have earned new qualifications since applying, be sure to update us. Meeting the qualifications can lead to admission, marking a significant step forward in your journey.”

But if you look at the numbers of admits, they are exceedingly small. So candidates may need to cope with rejections. “Most business schools don’t provide individual feedback on rejections, so it can be challenging to work out why you weren’t accepted,” says Charlotte Russell-Green, head of MBA recruitment and admissions at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“One thing you can do is ask someone that you know who is impartial and good at constructive feedback to take a look at your application and give you their honest opinion. If that’s not an option, admissions consultants are a fantastic resource for candidates who are unsuccessful and want to regroup.”

Dealing with being dinged 

How do MBA programs view reapplicants who were previously rejected, and how can these individuals enhance their application in subsequent cycles? “We get a handful of students every year who are reapplicants, so you can absolutely apply again if you have been unsuccessful previously,” says Russell-Green.

“We have a question in the application that asks about this where we would like you to talk about how your profile/situation is different from last time. Hence why it is so important to regroup and critically evaluate your application with someone impartial, like a colleague or admissions consultant.”

Stacy Blackman, a US-based admissions consultant, says it’s important to remember that your results for a certain school are only the results for that school. “They have absolutely no bearing on what you’ll hear from other programs. So, there’s no need to panic or to question your approach after a single ding. You should remain hopeful that positive news from another school may be right around the corner,” she adds.

Before seeking feedback from others, Blackman says it’s important to do your own soul-searching. Ask yourself whether you could have improved any aspect of the process, including school selection, volunteering, academics and recommendations.

Once you have identified a few areas of improvement for next year on your own, it’s important to seek feedback from a variety of sources. However, exercise restraint in communications with the business school, she warns.

“But also convey your enthusiasm whenever possible, as they want to be sure you’ll say yes if admitted. An information overload will negatively impact your candidacy, so use your good judgment here.”

How to respond to an admission offer 

Business schools typically communicate acceptances either through telephone calls or via their application portals. Applicants will receive an email notification indicating a change in the status of their applications. Once they sign in, they will find a formal message, usually in the form of a letter, detailing the outcome of their application (acceptance, waitlist, or ding).

“Once an applicant receives ideally multiple acceptances, the first step is choosing the right school to attend,” says Rose Ngo, at the admissions consulting firm, Admissionado. “We recommend isolating the schools from your highest tier of acceptances, and eliminating the rest. Choose from there based on gut and personal preference.”

Then, she recommends that you study that school’s requirements carefully and respond before the deadline that admits are usually given to communicate their decision. 

Ultimately, the MBA application process can be challenging, but with the right mindset and strategies, you can turn every setback into an opportunity for growth and success.

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