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What If You Don’t Get Into Any MBA Program This Year?

You’ve put in countless hours studying for the GMAT, researching schools, writing essays, preparing for interviews—and now, as decisions trickle out, you’re left wondering if you might not get into any school this year. If this is the spot where you find yourself, take solace in knowing that you are not alone.

In fact, someone in precisely this position posted to Clear Admit’s MBA LiveWire two seasons ago, and we were delighted to see the compassion and wisdom reflected in the responses the post drew.

This was the original post:

mba livewire

“I Know Exactly How You Feel”

The most prominent theme among the responses was commiseration. “Same feeling man,” wrote one applicant, who applied to four schools, got rejected at two, waitlisted at one and is awaiting response from the single school who invited him/her to interview. “Still waiting for result but they are already finding my replacement at work and I have not been accepted yet…I’m in panic,” the responder wrote.

“Totally can relate with this!” read another response. “Way too ambitious as well…got dinged without interview for two. The last one I’m waiting now is also GSB … lol.”

Continuing the theme was this post: “Relating hard core! Got rejected from my safety school of top 30-40s. Think the fact is that B schools are getting more and more competitive as the job market (in most industries) is stagnant. Seems like most people on this thread were trying to get out of their current jobs, as am I.”

And this one: “I get it! I was overly ambitious and applied to some highly selective schools. Now I’m already at two out of five dings, one interview and two unknown (most likely dings). And that one interview was actually my safety school, which I’ll now take in a heartbeat. :-/ renewed perspective! Don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t make it to that one. It’s a crippling thought.”

And this one: “Preach. Rejected from four out of five, interviewed at one and waiting for decision. It’s my last shot. My ego has taken a huge hit and I feel lost and overwhelmed by the thought of taking a new direction.

And that’s just a few. There were several others sharing similar experiences.

Too Ambitious?

A few applicants shared feeling, in retrospect, like they were too ambitious in terms of the schools they chose to target. This raises the question of whether it’s important to include a reasonable “safety” school as you complete your applications. On this, we checked in with Graham Richmond, one of Clear Admit’s co-founders and a former member of the admissions staff at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“The importance of safety schools really depends on how gung ho the applicant is to go to business school in the fall. If the candidate is absolutely set on getting an MBA now, then it is important to apply to a range of programs to ensure that you don’t end up without an offer,” Richmond says.

“With that said, we should remind readers of the old admissions adage: ‘Don’t apply to any school that you wouldn’t be perfectly happy to attend,’” he continues. While it may sound simple, Richmond has seen more than his fair share of applicants who get into their safety school but have no intention of matriculating there. Which begs the question of why they bothered applying.

Of course, there are applicants who only target dream or reach schools, going in with the plan that they will reapply in the following year if they don’t get an offer. “That’s fine, if you can afford to have that level of flexibility,” Richmond says.

Tales of Reapplicant Success

Many responders to the original post shared that after they found themselves without a single offer, they regrouped, reapplied and were successful. One worked with a consultant the prior year, committed significant time and money to the application process and included a school the consultant thought was a sure thing—but still got rejected everywhere. Making matters worse, he got fired because his consulting firm employer wanted someone to stay long term, and his wife—who had also put in her notice—had to beg for her job back.

After a few dark months, he retook the GMAT, got a new job and started the application process over again. This year, he applied to three top-20 schools and one top-25 school, snagging interviews at all four. “I was admitted in my highest ranking one so far and waiting to hear from my first choice,” he wrote. “Conclusion: If at first you don’t succeed stay in bed, feel sorry for yourself, gain a bunch of weight and then try again.”

Another reapplicant chose to view rejections as necessary encouragement to strengthen his or her application. “Sometimes things happen for a reason!” he or she wrote. After applying to five top 10 schools with a GRE score, the applicant took the GMAT, applied again, and now is five for five so far—with an acceptance at Columbia Business School and interviews at Stanford, Harvard Business School, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and MIT Sloan School of Management. “My GRE equivalent was 720, so I really think the difference was a lot of self-reflection, refining my goals, spending more time honing my brand,” the respondent wrote.

To Choose Safety or Reapply?

“The safety school versus reapplication dilemma is real…even for those who only applied to programs they would be happy to attend (per my advice above),” Richmond says. For many, coming close to a top-10 MBA—whether it’s getting an interview invitation, being placed on the waitlist, etc.—can make you feel like you definitely have a shot of getting in if you can just strengthen your candidacy a little bit, he says. “Then again, the only reason to reapply is if you think you can make tangible changes to your candidacy that might address whatever weaknesses may have kept you out the first time around,” he continues. In the end, it’s up to the applicant to take careful stock of his or her options. “You really want to explore your safety school and whether it can help you reach your career goals and then weigh that against taking the risk of reapplication and producing a more compelling set of application materials the second time around.”

Amazing Round 3 Salvation

Easily the most incredible experience shared by respondents to the original post was from someone calling him or herself “Reformed Dingaholic.” Applying to five schools in the 2014-15 season yielded not even a single interview. “That was quite a punch to the gut for sure,” RD wrote. So the next year RD went all in, including taking the GMAT four more times and the GRE three more times and spending approximately $6,000 to work with consultants. The results? Again, not even a single interview invite, even despite the assurance of an ex-adcom admissions consultant that he or she would certainly get at least one interview.

“I got ZERO. I was crushed. ‘Three years waisted in the process,’ I thought. So much investment of time and energy, all down the drain? Just like that? After six GMATs and four GREs (not practice tests—the real thing), after nine applications and hundreds of essay drafts, after traveling across the country multiple times to visit schools firsthand before applying, and after spending every waking moment reading these forums, studying for tests, and researching business schools and the admissions process, did I really just waste all of that effort/time/energy/money on nothing?”

But then RD had another thought: “These are really just paper losses until you sell your position.” So after licking his or her wounds and coming very close to giving up, RD decided the only choice was to keep going. “I knew I couldn’t just quit and realize my losses.”

By this time, Round 3 had concluded, but RD didn’t let that serve as a deterrent. “I hustled and got in touch with other top schools to see if they’d accept an application after the last round deadline had passed. Many schools said no, but then, to my surprise, one school said yes … but only if they received my completed app by Friday of that week.” So RD pulled out all the stops and completed and submitted a 10th application.

Soon after, RD finally got an interview invitation—for an on-site interview three days later on the other side of the country. Dropping everything, RD flew out as quickly as possible and interviewed the next day. “To my great surprise, while walking out of the interview room, I was admitted on the spot. I did NOT expect that!” RD wrote. The school asked RD to stay an additional day to attend an admitted students’ weekend. “I went for an interview. I left with an admit and plans to attend an admitted students’ weekend the very next day. Was this real? Or did I take the red pill by accident?” Not only that, RD received an email a few hours later detailing a scholarship award.

“After so many dings in a row over two admissions cycles, I had never felt like more of a failure,” RD wrote, but adds he or she was so glad to have had a little fight left. “Had I given up on business school after my last ding, I would never have had the breakthrough I’d been waiting for all along,” RD wrote. “And it was just around the corner. Be proud of those DINGS. You put yourself out there. And NEVER give up!”

It’s an amazing story of perseverance with a happy ending—but Richmond reminds us that applying to top MBA programs in the late admissions round is always an uphill battle. “It’s one that is worth fighting in many instances though,” he continued. For example, if your candidacy can fit a niche the school needs to fill, your odds might be much better than you expect. “Perhaps you are a female entrepreneur, or an astrophysicist, or a 4.0/780 type,” Richmond suggests.

He also points out that applicants who don’t make the cut with a late-round application could also view the exercise as laying the groundwork for an early application the following year. “It allows you to forge connections, get some feedback and come out strong the second time around.”

“It Could Happen to Any of Us”

Some respondents pointed out that in the capricious world of MBA admissions, finding yourself without a single offer is sadly a very real possibility. One applicant got interviews at three schools but was denied without interview at two others. “I figure with three interviews the odds are pretty good that I get in somewhere, but I know that there’s a non-zero chance that I get rejected everywhere,” he or she wrote. “Mentally I’ve prepared myself for this possibility and have already started thinking about my game plan in case I don’t get in.”

“Yep, it could really happen to any of us,” read another response. “Top MBA admissions are a bit unpredictable and at times seem random. Like you, I’ll just be happy if I get one acceptance.”

“I’m with you,” wrote a third. “Got interviews from two out of three. Have 770 (GMAT) and 3.5 (GPA).”

Another applicant took a slightly different view. “I think the hardest part is seeing all the people who DO get in….and knowing you are just as good if not better. Not saying those people don’t deserve it. Just in an alternate universe, you know that could have been you!”

Word to the Wise: Never Assume Acceptance Somewhere Is a Given

Let the experiences of numerous fellow applicants underscore the very real possibility of finding yourself without a single acceptance and plan accordingly. “Yes, it’s never prudent to assume that acceptance to a top-MBA program is going to be a given,” says Richmond. “In short, don’t shout your MBA plans from the rooftops or quit your job until you are holding an acceptance letter in hand,” he advises. “Given the way that the MBA process works (in terms of speed/timing), in most cases you will have plenty of time to quit your job, travel, pursue a pre-MBA internship and gloat about your acceptance(s) AFTER you have gained admission.”