Do you want to know why you were really rejected from a top MBA program, despite having great grades from an elite college, strong test scores and impressive employment? As a former Tuck admissions officer and an experienced admissions consultant, I can tell you that you were probably dinged because of a combination of these factors.

  • Weak Goals.

How did you come up with your goals? Do they really reflect what you want to do, or was this just something that you thought the committee would buy? Do you even know what you want to do? Admissions officers are very good at their jobs, and they can tell if you are faking your way through the goal section. They need you to articulate something plausible, and to highlight transferrable skills that will allow you to get there. They can’t admit you otherwise – you are simply too much of a risk, since schools don’t want students who will be hard to place when they graduate.

Other common mistakes include underdeveloped goals like “I want to help people and drive social change” and goals that are too specific, indicating that you have unrealistic aspirations and will flip out if you don’t get this one job, like “I want to work in the Dallas branch of Bain helping Latin American entrepreneurs with micro-finance initiatives.”

You also need to substantiate your ability to accomplish goals that are a big stretch, given your current position. So, if you are a barista at Starbucks and you want to go into private equity you need to explain why this will work. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t tell them what you really want to do, but please demonstrate self-awareness and have a good plan.

Finally, do you have a mission driven goal? Do you want to work in education reform, or international social impact consulting? Those are excellent reasons to go to business school, but unless you tell the committee WHY this is important to you they won’t believe it. At the very least they won’t remember you as a candidate – which also leads to a rejection.

  • Following Bad Advice.

When I talk to re-applicants they are often shocked that they didn’t get in, and many of them tell me that their brother/friend/co-worker who went to Harvard read their essays and gave them advice. Almost invariably this turns out to have been bad advice. The mentors are well intentioned, and since they went to your target school it’s really tempting to listen to their guidance. However, as I have said many times before, most people don’t know exactly why they got into business school. It might well have been DESPITE their essays, not because of them! Please take all peer guidance with a huge grain of salt. Outside input can be extremely useful, and I encourage my clients to seek it at various points in the process. But when it comes to assessing your candidacy holistically and formulating a customized strategy there is no substitute for working with an experienced admissions professional.

  • No real passion for the school.

Were your school specific essays too generic? Here’s a hint: did you apply to ALL of the top schools, even though they are very different? And if I were to remove the word “Yale” from your essay and substitute Wharton, Harvard or Stanford would the essay still read coherently? If so, you did not sell your fit for or interest in the school. You need to point to specific courses, clubs and opportunities – by name – that are leading you to apply. It’s also important to articulate tangible ways that you will contribute, like by leading the Women in Business Conference.

When I was interviewing for Tuck I would invariably have people tell me that they were applying because it was a top school. I really hated this answer, although I think that they were often using that phrase as a proxy for things that do matter and are good reasons, like the quality of the students and the professors, great job placement, etc. However, without clarification the “top school” answer just sounds shallow. Also, if you are just looking for prestige above all else why should I admit you, personally? There are plenty of candidates who are equally well qualified and truly passionate about contributing to this particular school.

  • No personality – or an abrasive one.

Another common mistake is completely sanitizing your application. If you don’t tell the committee what you really think they can’t get to know you – and you risk falling into the dreaded “NGB” pile. (“NGB” stands for nice girl or guy but – someone who just doesn’t stand out in the pool.) Needless to say, NGB’s don’t usually get the spot, even if they have super high numbers. So, if you race pigeons on weekends or had a tough time assimilating to the United States when you moved here at age 12 please tell them! The committee won’t connect if you don’t let your personality shine through.

On the other hand, I often read essays that make me wince because they are overly negative or arrogant. Saying that you don’t have any examples of failure because you never fail doesn’t make you look awesome – you seem out of touch with reality. Likewise comments about being the smartest person in the room. This does not bode well for your ability to take feedback and learn from your peers, which are crucial traits for successful MBA students.

  • Ignoring Blemishes.

You really don’t need to be “perfect” on paper to get into a top school. I have helped clients with low GPA’s and test scores, non-traditional work experience – even criminal records get into the best schools in the world. However, this won’t happen if you don’t address your issues head on. Tell the school why you have 6 F’s, 11 jobs since graduating in 2013, etc. Also tell them why you can succeed in their program, despite the red flag. It’s really your only option, it’s not like the committee isn’t going to notice that you have a 12% quant on your GMAT. They may well respect your honesty and be reassured by your self-awareness and proactive approach. Of course, there are more and less strategic ways to address these blemishes, and this is another area where it can really helpful to get professional guidance.

  • Overconfidence.

There are lots of ways that overconfidence can sabotage your candidacy. Maybe you started too late and underestimated the importance of the essays. Maybe you decided not to go to an open interview, but to wait and let the school invite you. Choosing the wrong recommender can also be a really big problem, and can happen when you think that everyone loves you without listening to clues about their willingness to advocate for you on a personal level. I have also seen candidates telegraph their feelings that a top 10 school is a safety, given their conviction that they will be admitted to a top 5 program.

All of these errors arise when you fail to understand just how competitive the MBA admissions process really is. Most candidates are super well qualified, and it really is about way more than superficial markers of success. In order to get in you need to be accomplished AND introspective. You also need to take the time to craft a story that positions you, individually, in the best light.

What’s the good news? We can fix it! Every year I have tremendous success working with re-applicants who have been rejected everywhere the previous year. These clients are now at Wharton, Booth, Kellogg, Tuck, Sloan, Ross, Yale, Darden, Duke and more, many with substantial scholarships. If you are willing to hear some tough feedback and revamp your approach I can help you optimize your chances of admission to one of your dream schools.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than $70 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 98% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.
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