MBA Applications: What to do When You Are Waitlisted

Being placed on a waitlist is stressful, but there are things to do to boost your chances of admission

The competition for places makes applying to business school a stressful process, but one element of MBA admissions that is universally dreaded by applicants is: waitlisting. 

Being placed on the waitlist means you are in limbo between being admitted and rejection. It means the admissions team likes your application, but not enough to offer you a place — yet. 

Business schools use waitlisting to hedge their bets while they wait to see who applies in later selection rounds, according to Chioma Isiadinso, founder of the Expartus admissions consulting firm and former admissions board member at Harvard Business School (HBS).

Since not everyone who is admitted to a school will accept the offer, admissions teams can replace them with a waitlisted candidate, which is good for a school’s “yield”, she says. The benchmark for showing which proportion of students accept an admissions offer, yield is important because it serves as a popularity index for prospective students. 

Because there is limited space in each MBA class, admissions teams also use waitlisting to balance out their incoming cohort by nationality, gender, career aspirations et al. “If a candidate is placed on the waitlist, probably it’s because there is another admitted candidate with a similar background already,” says Anna Farrus, MBA admissions director at IMD in Switzerland. 

“Every year we have candidates who are unable to join our program due to significant changes in their personal circumstances, and at this point we will find the person in the waitlist with a similar background to fill that place,” she says. 

Has your MBA application been waitlisted? You’re still ‘in the game’

While challenging, being on the waitlist is a dynamic process, and plenty of waitlisted candidates are admitted to schools, often in every selection round. 

Being waitlisted is not always a judgement on the quality of your application, or lack thereof, says Shari Hubert, associate dean for admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “It can depend on the strength of the applicant pool, which is outside of your scope of control,” she says. 

Duke Fuqua may waitlist candidates because they want more information on them. “There may be an area of your application that isn’t as strong as the rest, or an area where you weren’t able to fully tell your story within the space provided,” says Hubert. 

Indeed, waitlisted applicants “are still in the game”, says Esther Magna, principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting (SBC), which advises MBA applicants. 

There are steps waitlisted candidates can take to boost their chances of being accepted. Most schools publish guidelines on what new information they will accept from waitlisted applicants, and this is a good place to start — Duke Fuqua hosts webinars for waitlisted candidates.

Magna advises applicants to discover the weakness of their application, such as a low GMAT score or essays that fail to demonstrate leadership, that could make the admissions team hesitant to offer them a place. “Identify them and take action on them,” she says. “A promotion, raise, or an award is almost always a useful piece of information to share.”

Demonstrating a commitment to the school can also help. One of SBC’s clients, who applied to Duke Fuqua, turned a waitlist decision into an admissions offer by sending the admissions team a photo of his child wearing a Fuqua shirt. “Some programs are ‘suckers’ for kids,” Magna says, though she warns that this won’t work for all schools. 

Hubert encourages the sharing of updates with the admissions team about interactions with the business school’s community. “This could include insights gained through a campus visit, connections an applicant has made with current students or alumni, or events they have attended,” she says. “Waitlisted candidates can demonstrate their interest and sincere desire to attend,” she adds. “It can make a difference.” 

Isiadinso, at Expartus, says that student and alumni recommendations can be helpful, but they need to know you well and offer new and compelling information. “It is important that the candidate knows the school really well and highlights how they can fit and contribute,” she says. “Leveraging students can go a long way.” 

One of her firm’s clients was waitlisted by HBS because she was young and did not have a great deal of work experience. A letter from a recommender to the admissions team, that reiterated the work impact and achievements the client had, helped her secure a place on the MBA. 

But don’t make yourself a nuisance by harassing the waitlist manager, Isiadinso says. “An email confirming your acceptance and then a detailed and strategic email after you’ve identified what is missing in your application makes sense,” she says. “Checking in every week will only annoy the waitlist manager and land your application in the reject bin.” 

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