Waitlist Strategies for the Etiquette Impaired

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on May 18, 2009

By Anne VanderMey

It’s too early to say whether it will be a good or a bad year for waitlisted MBA applicants, though it’s probably safe to conclude that it won’t be particularly great or horrible. Most top schools (with a few exceptions) are reporting that they’ll look to their lists about as much as they have in the past. (Check out our story on waitlisted applicants that will be going up on the Business School channel tonight.)

One thing that is sure, though, is that more qualified applicants are finding themselves waiting than ever have before, with record high application levels ratcheting up the competition for admission. Some schools are putting more people on hold, but even for those that aren’t enlarging their lists, it’s going to be a particularly tough year to get off of them.

Which means it’s more important than ever to get your waitlist etiquette right this year. After the jump find some waitlist tips from the admissions experts.

The first and most fundamental piece of the waitlistee’s admissions battle is a letter stating the applicant’s desire to remain on the list. If it’s a school that accepts additional information, the note can also update admissions officers about recent activities or honors. It sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly easy to complicate. Some candidates spend hundreds of dollars on consulting services to hone and perfect what’s often a short e-mail.

Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com—which hosts a wealth of MBA waitlist information—can attest to its importance. Abraham literally wrote the book (well, the e-book) on getting off the MBA waitlist, and she lays out a few basic steps. First, she says, address weaknesses. Not such a strong quantitative GMAT score? Retake the GMAT and talk about your improved score. Take a statistics class and mention your A+.

This has the added advantage of showing continued dedication. “I want to know that someone I’m going to let off the waitlist is really sincere in their commitment to Darden,” says Sara Neher, director of MBA admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile).

Don’t, however, highlight the weakness by pointing out that you’re taking the stats class to make up for being bad at math. Better to talk about how you’re further developing your skills. “Don’t apologize,” Abraham says. The schools will recognize your flaws without you pointing them out. Fix the problem and “just be quiet,” she says.

The next important step for Abraham is to “boost strength.” Write about your promotion or recent accomplishments. The key is to add something new and avoid rehashing material the school already knows about. If applicants don’t have any big news to report? “Then they’re probably in trouble,” Abraham says. Don’t admit to having an average few months after you turn in your application. “The average person is not going to get into the top school.”

Finally, just as important, is what not to do. Nearly every admissions director has horror stories about candidates who go over the top in their quest to get noticed. It’s “really, really important to follow that particular school's instructions to a tee,” says Rosemaria Martinelli, director of admissions at Chicago Booth School of Business (Chicago Booth Full-Time MBA Profile).

Being noticed can be a very bad thing. For example, some candidates show up at the admissions office and demand an interview. Mae Jennifer Shores, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management (UCLA Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile), says she’ll speak with people who try to storm the castle, but considers it a sign of bad judgment.

Admissions officers also tell applicants not succumb to the temptation to e-mail every other day—usually once a month, or after major developments, will suffice. Other candidates overdo letters of recommendation. “I think a common mistake is to engage in an e-mail campaign with everybody that you knew ever attended Columbia Business School and having them write on your behalf,” says Linda Meehan, assistant dean of MBA admissions at the Columbia Business School (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile). “Overkill is not a good thing.”

Maintaining the right amount of contact is a balancing act, though, and some MBA hopefuls end up leaning the other way. “They don’t want to annoy us,” Neher says. “But really, the more information we have the better.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the waitlist is that, in the end, the applicant has very little control, even with the perfect e-mail “A cleverly worded letter is not going to make the difference,” says Peter Johnson, director of admissions for the full-time MBA program at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile), or flawless professional communication savvy. The waitlist depends on available spaces and is often the admissions officer’s way to shape the class profile in terms of vocation, background, gender, and nationality.

“You can do everything right on the waitlist, but if you don’t add to the diversity of the class,” Abraham says, “you’re not getting in.”

At top-ranked Chicago, Martinelli says she understands the plight of her highly qualified waitlisters and encourages them to “hang on.” “All is not lost,” she says, adding that if you’re on the list right now, “you’re still very much alive.” And unfortunately, sometimes hanging on is all a candidate can do.

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