Playing the Wait-List Game

With so many people applying to B-schools, many are ending up in admissions purgatory. Here are some ways to make your name stand out

What happens when your dream business school says, "Hold on a minute," and sticks you in a pile of wait-listed applicants? Well, for one thing, you'll have plenty of company this year.

With B-school applications at record levels -- University of Chicago Graduate School of Business MBA Admissions Director Don Martin says he has seen a 70% increase -- many admissions directors have more talented would-be MBAs than they know what to do with. Lots of applicants are ending up on waiting lists -- grouped with those not denied admission, but also not given permission to pass go. Many applicants end up in limbo for months -- in some cases until just days before school starts.

This year's logjam is about to break. Soon, admitted students will have to choose which school to attend. Jett Pihakis, co-director of MBA admissions at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School, says student commitments to Harvard and Stanford set off a chain reaction, opening up spots across the country. Around mid-June, admissions directors fill their gaps from wait-lists.


  So, how do you get rescued from purgatory? The first step is to enthusiastically stay on the wait-list. Most schools notify applicants of their status by e-mail and simply require an e-mail affirmation. A few require written letters. Beyond that, the decision process gets murky.

Often, your character traits offer a ticket off the list. Admissions directors at top schools fine-tune the diversity and balance of incoming classes. So, when one student declines an offer, the MBA gatekeeper grabs the closest match off the wait-list. Should a Peace Corps volunteer who wants to do nonprofit work after getting her MBA say "No thanks," the admissions director is unlikely to replace her with the first investment banking hopeful on the list.

"Squishy things matter," says Derrick Bolton, MBA admissions director at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. Like most admissions directors, Bolton says he doesn't rank people on his wait-list.


  That's not to say wait-listed candidates have to rely on fate alone. "There are lots of things about people on the wait-list we don't know," says Linda Meehan, Columbia University's associate dean for admissions. "This gives applicants an opportunity to fill in the blanks."

Bearing in mind that no one thing will make or break an application, here are seven ways for wait-listed candidates to make themselves stand out:

• If you haven't done so, interview in person with the admissions office. You can charm the admissions officers, and they'll put a face to your name. Interviewing on campus also demonstrates interest in the school (and if you find you hate it, you can take your name off the list).

• Retake the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) if your score isn't at least at the class average. A better score isn't a make-or-break factor, but it gives the school a reason to take a second look.

• Compensate for your academic weaknesses by taking classes. Extra coursework can round out a one-dimensional candidate.

• Update the school on your credentials. Just got a promotion? Started a community improvement project? However, make sure such info is truly new -- and keep it pertinent.

• To provide a more complete picture of yourself, submit additional letters of recommendation. Be judicious, though, since, as Columbia's Meehan warns: "Overkill can backfire."

• Don't pester admissions committee members, no matter what. Remember that until you hear a "No," you're still in the game. "If students are checking in more than once a month, typically that's not helpful," says Haas' Pihakis.

• Call the B-school and ask what to do. Some schools, like Chicago, offer wait-listed candidates feedback about gaps in their applications.

Even if you follow this plan, you could end up with the dreaded thin envelope (see BW Online, 5/20/02, "B-School: Don't Take 'No' for an Answer"). One frustrated fellow, laid off in November from his investment bank and then wait-listed at the University of Virginia's Darden School and New York University's Stern School, refused to let it get that far. After a rejection from Darden, "I got fed up with waiting, so I got myself another job," says the 26-year-old, who now works for the Bank of New York.

That's one sure way to get off the wait-list. Otherwise, exasperating as it sounds, you'll just have to wait and see.

By Brian Hindo in New York

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