Bouncing Back from Rejection

If you've been turned down by a top program, you're not alone. Here's how to cope, and how to reapply

After Conor Collins returned to the U.S. last year from Italy, where he owned an English-language school and played semiprofessional soccer, he was eager to start the next phase of his life—business school. He applied to Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, Virginia, and the University of Texas at Austin, but the acceptance letter never came.

It was a reality check for Collins, who was wait-listed at Texas and rejected by the other four schools. "I didn't think that after applying to five schools that I would not get into any of them," says Collins. He says it took him about three weeks to realize he shouldn't "wallow in self-pity" and should get more info on reapplying. He's enrolled in a Princeton Review course to pump up his GMAT from a 660 to "anything above 700" and is brainstorming about ways he can use his essays to "sell himself better." He even posted a business school forum thread—anonymously—titled "B-Schools Show Me No Love" as a way to seek honest feedback from his peers.

Collins' case isn't unusual. The acceptance rate at the top 10 business schools hovers around 18%, which means approximately five of six applicants to the top programs get rejected. (Chicago doesn't disclose its acceptance rate). And while for most applicants an acceptance from any of their school choices is enough to soften the blow, there are some who are rejected across the board. For them it's time for reassessment—both emotionally and logistically.

Before You Try Again

For many business-school applicants, the turndown is a new experience. After all, a lot of them have been successful in their early careers and are looking to take their earning power to the next level. "Many of these applicants have never really encountered a rejection or a failure before—I do a lot of counseling of tearful people," says Rosemaria Martinelli, Chicago's MBA admissions director. Martinelli adds that taking a few weeks off to regain confidence is important and helps students reevaluate their goals to increase the odds of being admitted the second time around. She also recommends that rejected applicants talk to those around them, including friends, peers, and supervisors, to get honest feedback before reapplying.

What are the chances of getting in after being rejected the first time? Better than you might think. Thomas Caleel, Wharton's admissions director, says the school's overall acceptance rate is about 18% but estimates that Wharton's reapplicant acceptance rate is perhaps 5 to 10 percentage points higher. Martinelli also says reapplicants in Chicago's MBA program are admitted at a higher rate because successful reapplicants have a greater understanding of their goals and have an easier time demonstrating determination. "A lot of times candidates come into the process with solid credentials but fail to know themselves and don't know what's next," says Martinelli. "Reapplying causes them to think through that and do the additional work that they didn't do the last time."

The key thing about reapplying, experts said, it that a second application shouldn't just be a rerun of the first. Here are some suggestions for putting together a winning application the second time around:

Start Fresh Wharton Admissions Director Thomas Caleel urges reapplicants to take the opportunity to start fresh wherever possible. He adds that a "virtually unchanged application" is the biggest reason for a second rejection. "We are giving you the chance to tear everything up and start from scratch, and you should," says Caleel. He adds that after taking a long break applicants often see the errors on the first application. When it comes to second applications, schools often keep the first application on file but generally don't use it.

Get Involved After getting rejected from MIT, Harvard, and Wharton, Javier Artola, who was born in Mexico, says he picked Wharton as his top choice when applying the second time around. Meanwhile, he became more involved to thoroughly understand the school. While reapplying he attended an outdoor barbecue organized by the Wharton Latin American Student Assn., sat in on B-school courses, and attended about a dozen other Wharton-sponsored events. Now that he's starting classes this August, Artola hopes that being through the admissions process an extra time will give him an advantage. "I'm better prepared for what the program is and am more knowledgeable than I would have been had I gotten in the first time."

Seek Feedback

Getting feedback from schools that offer the option, such as Wharton, is also a good resource, says Caleel. But he notes that because of the competition, incorporating the suggestions applicants receive from a member of the admissions committee doesn't automatically mean you'll be admitted the next year. Adds Caleel: "[Applicants] underestimate the strength of the other applicants; they are competing with the best and brightest people from all over the world."

Reevaluate Recommenders It's important for recommenders to give a positive and up-to-date portrayal of the applicant. Admissions consultant Shel Watts explains that this can sometimes end up being the deciding factor because many top MBA programs pay special attention to the quality of recommendations. "Even if you have one that's mediocre and you are applying to a top school, you will get rejected based on that one recommendation," says Watts. She tells clients to be extra diligent in picking recommenders who respect their work and can attest to career growth in their new application.

Expand Essays The first time Artola wrote his essays, he concentrated entirely on his engineering career. But after his over-the-phone feedback session with Wharton, Artola realized he needed to show more facets of himself. Artola kept the feedback in mind when he reapplied a few months ago and wrote about how his experience as the captain of the college tennis team demonstrated his leadership capabilities. "My essays were only showing one aspect of me," recalls Artola about his first application. "If you can use each essay to show a different aspect of yourself, that would be better."

Assess Goals When it comes to applying the second time around, Watts advises applicants to be careful of appearing drastically different from what was stated in their initial application. She explains that writing about a separate set of career goals in a second B-school application without allowing a sufficient explanation could result in another rejection. Changing goals works better if students take a year before reapplying, Watts says, because it shows the applicant has had sufficient time to grow and reassess.

Show Career Progression Before Scott Roberts reapplied to the University of Chicago, he was promoted from consultant to a senior consultant at Deloitte Consulting and used the new title as evidence of his success at work. "The early promote was one of the things I made really clear on my application," remembers Roberts, who had also been rejected from Northwestern, Harvard, and Stanford. However, Roberts, a first-year MBA who now helps the Chicago admissions committee by reading applications, adds that applicants can show career progression without a title change by simply explaining the additional responsibilities they have taken on since their first rejection.

Know Your Limits Applying to a school the second time may be your last chance of getting admitted to your top choice school. While Martinelli notes that third-time applicants can sometimes gain admittance, the chances are slim. "Basically, if you reapply [and don't make it], that should be it. Then you are beginning to just bang your head against the door."

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