Applying to business school is time-consuming, stressful, exhausting, and not for the faint-hearted. If you applied but failed to receive an offer of admission at one of your top choice schools this year, you’ll want to take some time to disconnect from the process and mentally regroup—especially if you plan to try again next season.
Competition at the most elite MBA programs is brutal, so chances are those initial rejections weren’t caused by some epic fail on your part. Everyone has room for improvement, however, and we recommend going through the following steps if you want to see more positive results the next go-around.
Tip 1: Assess What Worked, and What Didn’t, the First Time
Once you’ve accepted the fact that you won’t be going to business school in the fall after all, it’s time to cast a critical eye to your initial application to find out why it was rejected. Go through every component to suss out any weak elements.
Do you have limited work experience? Did you use the essays to paint a clear picture of why business school makes sense at this point in your career? Have you shown why you “fit” with a particular school, and what you would contribute to the class? Are your test scores significantly below average?
Feedback directly from the school can be difficult to come by, given the sheer volume of applicants. However, if you do have the chance to speak with a member of the admissions committee, ask for details about each area of your application to determine your weak spots. Make sure you walk away from any feedback session with action items for next year.
Tip 2: Mitigate Red Flags
Though it’s rarely one single thing that generates a ding, frequent red flags include less than stellar recommendations and low GMAT test scores or undergraduate grade point averages.
With Round 1 deadlines coming in September at many schools, this doesn’t leave a lot of time to tackle your weak spots. You can’t do anything about your GPA, but you can retake the GMAT if you scored below average. Or, consider enrolling in a college-level statistics or calculus course that demonstrates you possess the required quant chops.
Many times, a lukewarm recommendation is what torpedoes a candidate’s chances. Make sure your recommenders are enthusiastic about your MBA plans. Since you usually won’t see the finished letter, it’s important to guide your recommenders by reminding them of concrete examples of your leadership skills and accomplishments.
We suggest saying something like, “I want you to feel comfortable, but I also want to make it as easy as possible for you, so I put together this list of accomplishments.” If you have doubts about whether your supervisors would be willing to write you an outstanding letter of recommendation, then you may need to postpone applying to business school until you do feel confident of their support.
Tip 3: Boost Extracurricular Activities
In our experience, even less than a year before your application you can still address a shortcoming in your involvement outside of work. Extracurriculars are worth incorporating into your application for several reasons.
First, they show admissions officials that you are multi-dimensional. Extracurriculars also indicate how you might contribute to the vitality of a class and alumni network. When thinking about ways to become involved, don’t get hung up on traditional volunteer work.
There are many ways to show your diversity, and a good place to start is with your interests and passions. Think hard about what excites you and how you can leverage those interests for a greater good.
Consider roles that will allow you to take a leadership position and create real impact before September. Offering to organize an event is a great activity that will allow you to work in a team, have an impact, and show results in a low-risk, high-responsibility situation.
Tip 4: Match Your Profile with the Right Schools
Some people apply to places that are clearly wrong for them. If your scores don’t come close to those of an average student at the school, it’s not likely you’ll get in next time unless you make tremendous strides on your GMAT and have other, extremely impressive qualifications too.
If you’re reapplying for a second or third time, you should consider adding a few less competitive programs to your list in addition to your top one or two dream schools. It’s more important to be pragmatic and align your expectations with the MBA programs that match your particular profile. Unless you’re going into finance or consulting, you have greater flexibility in finding a niche program that’s the right fit for you.
Admissions committees know there’s no such thing as a “perfect” candidate, and one of the best ways to show how self-aware you are is by acknowledging your shortcomings. Put your energies toward boosting your candidacy in the areas of your application you can control, namely the essays, extracurriculars and, to some extent, the recommendation letters.
If you can demonstrate real growth and commitment to strengthening your candidacy, you can turn those initial dings into the prologue of your business school success story.