If you are reading this, you are most likely considering applying or in the midst of applying to business school. Your goal is to be admitted, of course, and eliminate any obvious reasons to be rejected. What follows are several of the common reasons people are not offered admission:
1. Low Undergrad GPA
The bad news is there is no way to hide this. You have to submit your transcript, and it will be scrutinized by the admissions office. If you haven’t taken the time to write the optional essay and explain why your GPA is low, and/or you have nothing that shows your academic ability is sufficient to handle the rigor of the MBA curriculum to come (through a high GMAT score or some additional quantitative coursework with strong grades – an algebra or stats course, for example, at a local community college), then you can pretty much guarantee you won’t get an interview, much less be offered admission.
2. Low GMAT Score
Every school has a range for the GMAT, and while the score is taken in combination with the other merits of the application, you must be cognizant that you need to strive to be in the range for your demographic. If you have a relatively low score and there is no evidence of an attempted retake, that shows lack of commitment. If you took it several times and the results stayed low, you should have managed your expectations for admission, and taken advantage of the optional essay to own up to the low score and show other evidence as to why you would still be an excellent candidate and can handle the work.
3. Weak or Insufficient Work Experience
With the average of only three-six years of work experience at the time of matriculation for the bulk of applicants, it is impossible to judge future potential or lack thereof with absolute certainty. While there is no expectation for a candidate to be in a true leadership role, there should at least be some signals of leadership potential, either coming from the employer via promotions or through initiative shown by the applicant when he/she works in teams, starts new projects, or takes responsibility for events and results.
There are also some obvious signs that a candidate is struggling. If you have bounced around to many jobs in a short period of time, that could be perceived as instability/incompetence, especially if the admissions reader is left with no context (hint: use the optional essay). If you have not had any promotions, or been given a significant uptick in responsibilities over time at a company, that also could be a potential red flag.
At the end of the day these schools want to get you hired into good jobs, and you will directly reflect on the school with your performance. If you haven’t had sufficient experience to judge, or the experience does not reflect that you are “going places,” that’s an easy reason to ding.
4. Poor Writing
There are a lot of reasons that essays could be perceived as bad. The most obvious: the use of poor grammar, misspelling, and failure to answer the questions asked. If you haven’t had anyone review your essays prior to admission (preferably someone you trust to be thorough with macro feedback and micro editing), you are relying on yourself to be omniscient. Trust me – no one is (I review and edit resumes and essays all day long, and I did not post this without someone else reviewing and providing feedback first!). By the way, poor writing as a reason for rejection does not just relate to the essays – if the resume and/or short answer questions are written badly, that sloppiness will hurt you as well.
5. Failure to Show Fit
Essays are critical in showing fit, but not exclusively to blame when you don’t. If your essays don’t express true interest in the school being applied to and instead say something along the lines of, “I want to go to [this top MBA program] because of the award-winning faculty and huge network,” you can count on being rejected. Schools want to admit people who are likely to accept their offer, and if you haven’t done your research on which specifics about the program attract you beyond reputation, your superficial thinking will be very obvious, off-putting, and possibly perceived as arrogance.
6. Vague or Unrealistic Goals
If you can’t express your goals in such a way that indicates how an MBA will help you to achieve them, and in particular from the school you are applying to, this omission is another surefire way to get dinged. If you want an MBA just for the prestige, or come across as a serial degree-seeker, you have a problem.
7. Shallow, Generic Responses
If the essays read like you think you are telling the admissions committee what they want to hear, this can also cause rejection. Many schools have open-ended questions, such as, “What are you most passionate about?” I have run into so many clients that in their first drafts have technically answered the question, but only in a business context. These types of questions are intentionally broad to give you the opportunity to really show your uniqueness, which almost universally goes beyond who you are as an employee of a company.
One of my clients in recent years came to me with a draft of an essay answering the question, “Describe a time when you faced a challenge and how you responded.” The draft discussed my client’s role in the development of the first ever app at her company – completely reasonable; total snooze fest. I took the time to brainstorm with her on other challenging situations in her life, and what she ended up writing about was a remote hiking trip where she broke her ankle, with no support for miles around. The story was gripping, and she was admitted!
Think about this kind of question from the perspective of the admissions committee – they read hundreds if not thousands of essays each year. Do you want to put them to sleep with what you write, or have them leap out of their chair to say, “I want to talk to THIS one!!!”
8. Not Answering the Question
I can’t tell you how many essays I have read over the years that fail to answer the question(s). A client has seen “what are your goals” and doesn’t read any more, thinking they’ve got the gist. Every school’s goals essay is worded a little bit differently, so don’t think you can just recycle your essay from one school and use it as is for another school. Many schools also ask multi-part essay questions. A common mistake I see with these types of questions is a failure to distribute the content on a more equal basis – for example, a three-part question which should be about 1/3 for each of the sections is more like 2/3 for one and 1/3 for the other two combined.
If you are in the midst of writing your essays and don’t have the essay question itself at the top of your draft, put it there immediately and refer back to it OFTEN. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get off topic.
9. Bad Letters of Recommendation or Poor Judgment on Selection of Recommenders
In my time serving on the Cornell Executive MBA admissions committee, I never saw a letter of recommendation that completely badmouthed a candidate, but I certainly read several tepid letters. If you can’t find people who will sing your praises, or you think they will sing your praises and in fact they don’t, you‘re in trouble.
Closely related to, and perhaps the cause of tepid recommendations is poor judgment in choice of recommenders – for example:
• Your recommendation comes from someone high up in the organization, and she barely knows you.
• You submit a recommendation from a college professor who hasn’t seen you in four years and can’t speak to your ability as a working professional.
Neither recommender will have much of substance to say. In this case, it’s less about their opinion of you than your judgement that puts you in a bad light. There is a plethora of information on Accepted about how to go about selecting recommenders. Ignoring this important decision imperils your admission.
10. Bad Interview
Nothing can sink your chances for admission faster than a poor interview. If you have made it to the interview round, that means the admissions committee believes your candidacy warrants a second look, and you have 30-45 minutes to prove it. If you can’t answer the most basic questions effectively, can’t convince the interviewer the school is your top choice (even if it isn’t), or come across as too nervous (or possibly even worse, too cocky), you’re not going to get in.
Background checks are becoming mainstream at top business schools, and while sometimes they don’t happen until after an offer of admission has been made, you can count on the fact that those checks will be able to discover discrepancies in your application. Don’t lie!
12. Social Media Profiles
If you haven’t had the presence of mind to review your social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat for sure), that could be an issue. In addition to traditional background checks, schools are also increasingly reviewing social media accounts to ensure applicants are not posting or responding to defamatory content.
13. Not Differentiated
Some applicants face stiffer competition for admission than others (looking at you, Indian IT males!). Regardless of your profile, if you haven’t taken the time to really consider your uniqueness and how it will truly benefit your classmates as well as the school, there is little chance of being offered admission. While the temptation may be to just consider your uniqueness from a work/business perspective, the more meaningful way to differentiate yourself is on a personal level. Failure to share anything about yourself beyond your work experience reflects poorly on you.
14. Discrepancies in Writing Quality
If a candidate’s essays are pristine but elements of the online application are barely readable, that looks fishy and raises questions about how much of the essays are the applicant’s writing or about attention to detail. It is understandably tempting to breeze through the online portions of the application without much of a second thought. However, if you haven’t taken sufficient care with that aspect of the application, you could have created a real obstacle to acceptance.
15. No Extracurricular or Community Involvement
If a candidate has no activities other than work, an application reader will wonder how much the person will actively participate in the school community, as well as how that lack of participation might reflect on the school in the future. Understandably, schools want people who are connected to each other and the community at large. At the same time, if an applicant stacks his or her resume with activities just prior to applying, that looks disingenuous and comes across as trying to create a false impression.
In most cases it is not just one thing that sinks an application, but a combination. That said, any one of the reasons I have listed could be the deciding factor against admission. The good news is, most of these reasons for rejection are completely within your control. Make sure none of the above cause you to be dinged!
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