So you’ve been waitlisted…now what?

A tactical guide on how MBA applicants can move from the waitlist to the admitted list (from a former waitlisted applicant)

My name is Joseph (JC) Chang, and I am a current second-year MBA student at Chicago Booth. I was previously waitlisted in Round 1 of 2015. This guide to moving off the waitlist is based on my personal experience and research alone.

The gothic architecture of Chicago Booth’s Winter Garden

Each year, the Admissions Committees of each business school will place a number of its applicants into the dreaded “waitlist”. If you are one such candidate, who found yourself on the waitlist, you may find yourself asking such questions as:

  • What could I have done differently?
  • Was it something I said during my interview?
  • Why did the school admit my colleague with similar scores and experiences and put me on the waitlist?
  • What can I do?

…only to find each school explicitly state they cannot and will not provide feedback specific to an individual.

So what can you do?

First, we should acknowledge: it’s possible. Each year, a small number of waitlisted candidates make the move to the admitted students list.

According to GMAT Club’s user data for the Class of 2018, roughly 1% to 10% of applicants were waitlisted by school and of those waitlisted, up to 21% (i.e., MIT Sloan) were ultimately admitted from the waitlist.

Take this data with a grain of salt as a large number of users do not report final outcomes, so this may cloud actual waitlist figures. For instance, in 2012, HBS was reported to take ~20% of its waitlisted candidates. Additionally, I know one person personally who got off the Stanford waitlist this past year. Main takeaway: a small number of waitlisted candidates will be admitted, but it’s possible.

Moreover, many of the top business schools (e.g., Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, Stanford GSB, etc.) will provide waitlisted candidates the opportunity to provide additional materials for any material developments (e.g., recent accomplishments, promotions, etc.) from the time of application to now. For those schools, there are things you can do today to improve your chances of getting off the waitlist.

As an initial step, identify whether the school you are waitlisted for allows supplemental materials to be submitted. If the school specifically asks you not to provide additional materials, you may want to heed their advice.

Otherwise, this tactical guide was written to help waitlisted candidates sift through the noise and provide candidates with tangible tactics to improve their chances of moving from the waitlist to the admitted students list.

This guide is divided into two parts. The first part is intended to stimulate reflection and put the waitlist into perspective, while the second part will take a detailed dive into each component of the supplemental materials.

Part One: Getting into the right mindset

Before diving into the tactics, it’s important to lay down the foundations to having the right mindset to tackle the waitlist process.

You are (still) a superstar candidate

First off, let’s acknowledge that being on the waitlist — this vortex of ambiguity and doubt — is by no means a negative reflection of you and your potential. There should be no doubt that you are a superstar candidate and getting waitlisted is a reflection of that. In fact, Eileen Chang, an associate director in admissions for HBS, was once quoted in Poets&Quants saying “there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the applicant. Rather, it is more a matter of selection vs. qualification.” Moreover, year over year the candidate pool gets more and more competitive (7 of the top 10 business schools had lower acceptance rates and higher GMAT scores from 2014 to 2015; source: Poets&Quants), and the number of spots available per school remains fixed.

This is an opportunity to shine — not a check the box activity

Second, begin to think of this opportunity as a way to improve your candidacy and show even more of your stellar-ness rather than treating this as a check the box activity. Once you begin to frame it along those lines, the rest will come more naturally.

Take some time off and reflect

Third, take some time off to enjoy the holidays and reflect. Externally, be sure to thank your recommenders and supporters and update them on your waitlist status. Internally, take a critical eye on the application you submitted and begin to identify where you may have had gaps relative to the evaluation criteria disclosed by the school. Afterward, take an inventory of what you’ve done since the application and identify what can be used to either shore up some of the perceived weaknesses in your application or alternatively, used to further exemplify your strengths.

Connect your ambition to the school’s DNA

Fourth, get prepared to dive even deeper to know the school’s DNA and connect your ambitions to that DNA. In order to do this effectively, you will have to be introspective and get even more specific on how your target school will get you there.

For example, for Booth, I was interested in its entrepreneurship program. By asking more specific questions to alums and attending entrepreneurship-specific events held by Booth, I was able to change my narrative from something generic (i.e., “Booth has a great entrepreneurship program that I want to be a part of”) to something far more specific (i.e., “based on the Entrepreneurship Symposium, I know Professor Waverly Deutsch’s Building the New Venture class will help me develop an idea and potentially, bring that idea to market through the New Venture Challenge while I am at Booth”).

I did end up taking Professor Deutsch’s award-winning Building the New Venture course. Hands down, the best course I’ve taken so far. This course helped me and my friend nurture a business idea and position ourselves to apply for Booth’s New Venture Challenge in Winter 2017. Fingers crossed.

Part Two: Tactics

As previously mentioned, a number of schools allow candidates to provide additional materials to explain any new material developments. From my perspective, I defined “material” as a new experience of significance like doing pro-bono international consulting work or volunteering to be a mentor to diversity candidates for the year. Normal course of business like another consulting project where I ran point on the analytics was kept out.

In my specific waitlist case, Booth allowed supplemental materials (e.g., updated resume, letter, etc.) as well as providing a unique opportunity to send an optional 90-second video.

(Disclaimer: waitlist guidance for each school can vary from year to year, so make sure anything shared here is still permitted by and relevant to the program you are waitlisted for)

Overall, I believe there are three guiding principles to anchor your approach to: 1. address any perceived “weaknesses” by showing concentrated effort to improve on those weaknesses, 2. double down on any particular characteristics that made you a great applicant to begin with, and 3. further establish your personal case for “Why that specific school?”.

What this looked like in practice for me

After I spent several weeks reflecting on my ambitions, analyzing my initial application, and researching even further into Chicago Booth. I designed an approach anchored on these guiding principles to hone in on three primary areas of my original application:

My original application submitted to Chicago Booth, used Instagram as a storytelling medium. At the time of application, I thought it was creative to create an Instagram layout completely in PowerPoint. In hindsight, I may have compromised on story depth in order to fit within the Instagram format, but I have no regrets!
  1. Address potential “immaturity” and perceived lack of focus: in my original application, I opted to go for creative flair and a less direct explanation of my career aspirations (i.e., I tried to indirectly express my affinity for new innovative technologies by using an Instagram format created in PowerPoint as my primary storytelling medium). At the time of application, I thought this was my magnum opus. When I revisited it, I realized the character limit per post limited my ability to fully articulate my story and potentially, left gaps in my narrative. I knew in my supplemental materials, I had to be more direct of what my career aspirations were and demonstrate I could put together a more standard professional essay (via the letter).
  2. Double down on enthusiasm to be active contributor in the Booth community: what my application may have lacked in directly articulating my personal passions and professional ambitions, I knew between my application, interview, and random encounters with admissions staff at events, I had consistently expressed my enthusiasm to be active in the student community. I used the supplemental materials to re-assert that enthusiasm and made sure that tone carried consistently across my materials.
  3. Solidify “Why Booth?”: I remember even when I was writing the original application for my prompt, I found it extremely challenging to make a compelling case for “Why Booth?” without sounding overly scripted or dropping buzzwords. Based on the waitlist format, I felt it afforded far fewer constraints and enabled me to take a direct approach in the letter as well as a more abstract answer in my video to the question of “Why Booth?”.

If you’re having trouble pinpointing specific areas of weakness, I would highly encourage you to either have a trusted friend or mentor read your application with fresh eyes and offer their perspectives. Alternatively, I have had classmates who have explored admissions consultants for their specific waitlist guidance at a material price (anecdotally, I had a friend who spent ~$900 for 3 hours and got in as well).

How each piece of the puzzle fits

Now that I had defined my overall strategy and anchored the direction of my supplemental materials on these three key areas, I rolled up my sleeves and got specific on how individual components of the supplemental materials could communicate my story.

In terms of timing, this period of reflection and analysis occurred over the holidays from the time of my waitlist notification in mid-December to the first week of January. This timing may conflict with Round 2 deadlines for many schools, so use your discretion on how you allocate your time.

The next section is organized by each supplemental material I prepared with why I did it, how I did it, and when.

(Note: not all supplemental materials listed below will be relevant to the program you are waitlisted for. Use your judgement on what applied to you and will be consistent with the story you are telling)

Letter to the Admissions Committee

Why: Provide context on what I was including in my supplemental materials and why. Additionally, I used this letter to get hyper-specific on how my recent experiences directly applied to Booth. Big picture, I viewed this letter as my take on writing a professional document (as opposed to Instagram), while simultaneously laying out the groundwork for what supplemental materials I was providing and why.

How: Articulated exactly what was included in my supplemental materials and why I was sharing those materials. I, then, selected two to three new accomplishments and specified what my role and responsibility was and how that connected to a particular course, student group, and/or activity at Booth in order to demonstrate “Why Booth?” and a personal connection to the school.

When: This was the last thing I put together after I had assembled all other materials (first week of February). In total, roughly two hours.

Excerpts from my letter to the Admissions Committee

Updated resume

Why: Inform the Admissions Committee of most recent work accomplishments (e.g., pro bono consulting project work for a start-up in Guatemala) and current consulting project from when I submitted my application (October) to the submission deadline (first week of February). Big picture, I viewed the updated resume as a broad overview of some new themes expounded upon in the remainder of the supplemental materials. Provide an updated resume if and only if you have material developments.

How: Edited my original resume and added new bullet points explaining the new accomplishments, while simultaneously removing bullet points that were less impactful. The most challenging part of this exercise was to use judgement in what constituted a major achievement as opposed to normal course of business. For me, I wanted to show more analytical chops and managerial responsibilities, so I made sure to incorporate experiences that touched on those that happened between September 2015 and February 2016.

When: I finalized the updated resume by the middle of January. In total, roughly two to three hours.

90-second waitlist video (unique to Booth)

Why: Creatively express to the Admissions Committee that I understood Booth’s DNA (e.g., Booth prides itself in its flexibility, allowing students to pursue whatever courses we want whenever we want). Moreover, I wanted to solidify how my personal experience directly applied to Booth. Shortly after I applied to Booth, I decided to pursue my yoga teacher training certification. By the end of December, I was a certified yoga instructor. In my video, I wanted to abstractly explore the parallels of flexibility in my yoga practice and how I understood Booth’s approach towards flexibility.

How: I wanted to double down on the creativity I exhibited in my original application and layer on how I understood how critical flexibility (a key selling point to Booth) is to personal growth. After brainstorming with past mentors, I decided to create a 90-second video that paralleled the flexibility exhibited in my yoga practice with the flexibility offered in Booth’s program as a catalyst for personal growth. I was living in Chicago at the time and was blessed to have April Wang, a great friend and colleague, willing to film me doing yoga in the snow by Lake Michigan in sub-20 degree weather. I later used iMovie to record a voiceover narrative. Throughout the process, I had sent the video out to various friends for feedback to make sure it carried an energetic yet professional tone and conveyed the intended message.

When: I ideated on this from the beginning of January to the end of January. I filmed and finalized the clip the first week of February. In total, ideation took nearly six hours spread across two weeks. Writing the script took two hours, filming took another two hours, and finalizing took an additional six hours.

Supplemental letters of recommendations

Why: Fill in gaps to my original application that I either thought were ignored altogether (i.e., my first job out of college) or superficially explained (i.e., my professional ambitions).

How: I identified three people in my personal network (granted, in hindsight, three was likely overkill), who could fill gaps in my original story. For example, I reached out to a former mentor and role model of mine, when I worked at a boutique consulting firm for a year. I did not spend much time in my original application detailing what I had done there, so that recommendation provided greater depth into my professional beginnings.

Two others were recent Booth alums — one, who I worked with, who could attest how involved I was with our local office culture and another, who was in tech, who could express how I would use the opportunities at Booth to intelligently pursue my professional ambitions. To my pleasant surprise, the latter had a pseudo-interview with me to gauge my seriousness and fit for the program.

I received guidance that these letters should be emailed directly from my recommenders to Kristen Robinson, who managed Booth’s waitlist at the time of my application.

Alternatively, I know of other waitlisted candidates who were able to secure recommendation writers, who had specific connections to schools and sent their letters of recommendation directly to school administrators on their behalf.

Whichever path you choose, the important thing is that the recommendation writer is able to provide new, meaningful insight into your candidacy.

When: Similar to the initial application, I would give recommendation writers at least three weeks to write and work my way backwards from the submission deadline. I spent roughly one hour per recommendation writer in sharing my predicament and checking in periodically.

Updated GMAT/GRE score

(note: though I did not do this, I know others, who have successfully navigated the waitlist process, that have taken this approach)

Why: if you feel like you can materially improve your GMAT/GRE scores in a short period of time (~2 months), it will improve your overall candidacy.

How: Take a practice test to see if you can materially lift your GMAT/GRE score with preparation in a short period of time, commit to preparing if deemed necessary and attainable, and re-take the exam.

When: Due to the tight timeline, there may not be much time to prepare, but if this is a key weakness from your personal analysis, I would prioritize studying (again) for the GMAT over the month of January. Timing will vary.

Aside from these materials, other invaluable things were my faith and the support of my friends and family (oldest brother, Ho-Jae, in particular, who prayed with me every night over the phone), which not only helped me get through the initial disappointment of not getting accepted but also helped me find the motivation to prepare these materials and persist through the long wait.

Closing remarks

Once you have submitted these materials, there may be some acknowledgement from the admissions offices. However, by in large, you will hear the outcome in the subsequent round of decisions. In my case, I was waitlisted in Round 1 and was officially admitted in Round 2 at the same time Round 2 admits were notified.

By the time Round 2 decisions came, I was at peace with whatever the outcome would be, because I knew that I had done everything I possibly could have to improve my chances.

That said, the admit call from admissions is amazing. Absolutely amazing.

Lastly, I want to assure you that any and all effort you put into these materials is well worth it. My experience at Booth has been by far the most professionally challenging and personally fulfilling learning experience I have had. I am continuously impressed by the passion and sheer intellectual ability of my peers and professors, and I feel my time at Booth thus far has been truly transformational.

A group picture upon the completion of the LEAD program for the Phoenix cohort, which was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had at Booth. The LEAD program allows a group of second years (me included) to teach a leadership effectiveness and development course to ~120 first-year MBA students.

I strongly encourage you to take on this challenge and go for it — it is 100%, completely worth it.

Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any subsequent comments or questions! I would love to hear your story.