BY Sydney LakeDecember 09, 2021, 2:02 PM
A student walks between dormitory buildings on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., as seen in October 2021. (Photographer: Bing Guan—Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Every year, MBA hopefuls flood top business schools with tens of thousands of applications. And, simply put, the majority of candidates are rejected. Take Harvard Business School for example: It typically receives around 10,000 applications each year, and about 10% to 11% of applicants are admitted. Some top business schools no longer disclose their acceptance rates, but among the top 10 schools, as deemed by Fortune, the percent of applicants who are accepted range from just 8.9% to 34.5%.
Applicants come armed with what they feel is a strong case for their candidacy, but business schools have to dwindle down the application pool significantly. While it’s unusual for a business school to tell a candidate why they got rejected, MBA admissions consultants—many of whom have previously served on admissions committees—know what the common reasons are for being declined.
Low test scores, applicant age and experience, and underwhelming essays and recommendation letters are some specific reasons why candidates may be rejected by a top MBA program. The crux of the issue, however, is that many business school candidates simply don’t spend enough time working on their application, says Kaneisha Grayson, who owns The Art of Applying, an MBA admissions consultancy.
“The candidate has spent so much time grappling with the GMAT or the GRE that they have invested not enough time and energy into writing really strong, compelling, consistent essays and showing that applicant’s personal brand that permeates their entire application,” she explains to Fortune.
Fortune spoke with several MBA admissions consultants to understand why applicants are rejected from top business schools. While not all-encompassing, below are some of the trends consultants see in unsuccessful MBA applications.
As business schools become more competitive, average GMAT scores among applicants continue inching higher, Mark Lellouch, an Admissionado consultant and Stanford University Graduate School of Business grad, tells Fortune. Test scores are just one element of an application, but they serve as a way for admissions committees to evaluate your academic preparedness for the program, he adds.
If you’re looking to reapply to top programs, take a look again at your test scores and undergraduate GPA. A low test score and/or undergraduate GPA could be the reason why you were rejected the first time around. However, low stats shouldn’t discourage you from applying again, consultants say.
Candidates with below-average stats could have been rejected if they didn’t provide an explanation for why their grades and test scores were out of the school’s range, explains Shaifali Aggarwal, an HBS alum and founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe. Many business school applications include optional writing space for candidates to add context to their candidacy.
“While getting a strong score on the GMAT or the GRE is helpful to demonstrating the strength of their candidacy, they have a lot more control over their story,” adds Grayson, an HBS and Harvard Kennedy School alum. She suggests that applicants use the optional essay space on the application to focus more on their story instead of numbers and explain how they’ve improved.
Another way to demonstrate quant preparedness is to take supplemental coursework such as statistics, microeconomics, introductory accounting, and corporate finance at another school before applying. This could include a community college or an online business school, Grayson says, but make sure it’s a school that will give you an actual grade instead of a completion certificate.
You didn’t start your application early enough
Many candidates start their applications months—and maybe even a year—in advance to send in their most polished portfolio. One reason MBA applicants to top schools may get rejected has to do with limited preparation or poor time management.
For example, Grayson says spending too much time improving your test scores can be detrimental to the rest of your application. Instead, it’s more beneficial to spend time on what you can control: your essays and interviews. It’s key for each MBA application to cater directly to the school, citing reasons why the candidate makes the perfect fit or how they will be involved once a student or alum.
“It’s just a matter of allocating time to get to know the school in advance,” Aggarwal says. This includes spending time attending admissions events, talking to current students, and researching the school. “That all takes time,” Aggarwal adds.
Another way to allocate enough time is to reconsider the list of schools to which you’re applying. When Grayson works with reapplicants, she helps candidates determine which schools are worth keeping, deleting, or adding to their list. Her clients have had the most success getting into a top business school when applying to seven in one cycle. She still always encourages candidates to apply to one or two dream or “reach” schools.
“Sometimes applicants are attached to the name of a school, but they don’t actually know a lot about the school, or it’s not even a strong match for their career goals,” she says. “Sometimes it’s about letting go of a school or two to make time and space for a school that might be a better fit for them.”
You’re just seemingly not that special
Let’s face it: Many MBA applicants look nearly identical on paper. Most of them are in their mid-twenties to early thirties and have worked in consulting, finance, or tech for a few years. What admissions consultants want applicants to know, though, is that every applicant has a distinct story—if they take the time to tell it.
“There’s no real theme. You’re doing good work, but again there are hundreds of other applicants in your same situation doing good work getting good reviews,” Lellouch says. “It’s hard to distinguish oneself with a common background.”
When working with reapplicants, Lellouch likes candidates to focus on showing—not telling—the admissions committee (commonly referred to as the adcom) about their traits, skills, qualities, and values. He calls this an “exercise in branding,” which can help applicants show their own personal highlights instead of falling flat with a generic essay.
“One of the challenges of a B-school application is that folks on the adcom read so many applications in a day—they may read something like 50 [applications],” he says. “But if you’re No. 48 that day, you need to stand out in some way. You can’t just say what the previous five folks have said in their application.”
If you’re a reapplicant, it’s also imperative to illustrate what you’ve done to improve yourself since the last cycle. Lellouch uses a dating analogy with his candidates, challenging them to ask themselves this question from an admissions official’s point of view: “If I told you no last time, why should I say yes this time around?”
“Schools look favorably on reapplicants because people are demonstrating that commitment to wanting to go to their program,” Aggarwal says. But “it usually is a good idea to assess areas that you can grow.”
Getting a rejection from a top business school the first time you apply doesn’t mean you’ll never belong there, Grayson adds.
“Being rejected from a top business school or your dream graduate school is not an assessment nor a commentary on your worth as a person, on your potential to be extraordinarily successful—personally or professionally,” she adds.
See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.