Rejected from Business School? The Five Stages of “MBA Ding” Grief

Back in the day, it used to be waiting for a letter. Today, it’s an email.

The forums are abuzz with some folks hearing back, and even more anxiety-inducing, some of those folks crowing about getting ACCEPTED. So you doom-click waiting for your acceptance notice. And things end up going the other way, you get rejected. Dinged. Shown the hand. Etc. Now what? Don’t worry, we’ll tell you exactly what to do if you get rejected.

Stage 1 –  Let Yourself Feel Bad

You’re human. (I mean, we hope you’re human. And if you’re not, well, you may not need to look very far for ‘why you just rejected from a program where likability counts for a lot!’) It’s going to sting. Let it sting. Your ego will take a hit. Others hold you to a high standard, YOU hold yourself to a high standard, you’re going to have to tell people because they’ll ask “so did you hear back?!” It won’t be joyous. 

Here’s the thing: It’s natural to feel bad.. for an appropriate amount of time. That second part is key. If you wallow in circular thoughts and find convenient scapegoats to blame, that’s not helpful. But done in an appropriate way and for the right amount of time, it’s actually kind of badass to feel bad for a little bit. Especially if that’s the beginning of a future redemption story… 

[Spoiler Alert: the folks who end up ‘having redemption stories to tell’? Allowed themselves to feel bad for a bit.]

Turn on some Sarah McLaughlin. Or rain sounds. Or if you’re the type to take your frustration out by having a go at the heavy bag, do that. Get pissed. Feel the hurt. Know that this feeling will give way eventually, and then don’t fight it, lean into that sucker. You tried a thing, you hoped for a positive outcome––expected it, even––and it didn’t work out. F*$k! Yah, scream a bit. Brood. Pout. Shed a tear.

… But just for a little bit. For ‘the right amount of time.’ 

Because once you’ve given yourself room to feel a little bad, there will come a time when your next move is to pick yourself up off the mat, and channel your energy toward something productive, and positive.

Stage 2 –  Set a New Goal

Depending on the individual, this can be one of many things. For our purposes here, let’s assume your plan is to remain determined to get into a great business school, and to re-apply. Awesome. Naming that goal? Making it real? It will force your reflection and analysis to take on a brand new dimension: utility. But we’ll get to that in a second. First, be clear about what your goal is, get a rough timeline in mind, and––honestly––that’s it. 

If you establish a goal in theory, but you’re still wallowing (i.e., stuck in Stage 1), your analysis will suffer. So make sure to set a new goal with the right mindset, the positive one, the clear-headed one, the cool one. Got it? Meet us at the next phase.

Stage 3 –  Conduct an MBA Ding Analysis

Now this can be tricky business–––stay with us for a second, this preamble is important.
If you’re trying to figure out what might have led to your ding for you to make sense of how it could be that YOU didn’t get into School X, whereas all these other fools did, I’m better than half of these boneheads damnit––––––stop right there. We’re heading down the wrong path. The key to the whole thing is to remember what the goal is: learning how to improve your MBA application and getting accepted as a reapplicant when you try again. Your goal is to assess what could have gone wrong, not so that you can feel better about all of it, but because you will need to exploit those insights to your advantage when you make a future, better case. This is an opportunity! Go ‘full’ detachment mode, and do your own Ding Analysis as though you were an admissions consultant with years of experience assessing what might have gone wrong (or we can do it for you). The better you can explain what might have been the cause, the more likely your next attempt won’t suffer from the same ailments.

Why do people get rejected by MBA programs? Well, it could be a million things, here are the most common reasons people get rejected from top business schools:

  • Your GMAT/GRE was just too damn low, and your case wasn’t compelling enough to overwhelm that fact (you can still crack top schools, but your story has to be super clear, super compelling, etc.)
  • It wasn’t clear why you needed an MBA. If you had the markers of success, but the whole thing seemed like an afterthought or vanity project, that’s a risk for a business school. They want the next guy over with the same credentials who’s hungry, and has demonstrated a clear need for the MBA.
  • Your past experience had nothing to do with your future goals. Your goals may have been amazing. But if your background made us scratch our heads and wonder “well how the hell are YOU going to achieve that?” …that’s a killer.
  • You’re in a ‘bucket’ where the competition offered sharper differentiators. Suppose you’re an Indian IT guy, or a future Wall Street finance bro/bro-ette (?). Remember, you’re competing with like-kind applicants. Perhaps your competition had all the same ‘wins’ as you did, except they showcased more dimensions and seemed like more interesting people. It could just be that you were indeed qualified, but got outshone, son! (This is winnable on the second go, but consider this as a real possibility, and talk to someone who knows what your competition looks like so they can help you find your angle.)
  • Your expectations are unrealistic. Yes, it is possible to parlay an admit to Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, or Wharton from a low 600 GMAT. That doesn’t mean you should expect this outcome if you have a low 600. “Someone won the lottery. I shall also play the lottery and be very disappointed if I don’t win!” See the fallacy here?
  • You have a killer case, but you didn’t take the time to articulate it thoughtfully, and cohere your entire application around a pulsating, resonant theme. This happens a lot. I mean, we know because this is where fools like us make ourselves useful––to help folks who should be getting in, not fumble the ball. Well, now you have time, so make use of it, do the work, and get it right on the second go.

But okay, you get the idea, get a nice objective sense for what went wrong within the context of how those insights might help you advance your candidacy on a second attempt. (That second piece is crucial!)

Stage 4 –  Start Improving and Creating Distance from the Rejected You

When you reapply, the animating force behind that application is to ‘disappear’ that first guy (still talking about you here) who applied a year ago and was RIGHTFULLY rejected. Compared to the 2.0 version of you (the reapplicant you), it should seem like night and day. Cool, so from Stage 3 you have a clear sense of the 1.0 Version, Donald Ding, Roy Rejected, Nuh-Unh Nelly (we can do this all day long. Please Stop? Fine.) 

The rejected version of you is on the left. Develop a persona for the reapplicant version of you on the right with all the features that will render a win. How much time do you have between now and clicking submit on that reapplication? Good, we have our window now. The next step is to become a project manager, and get yourself from A to B, and C to D, and E to F along all the dimensions that were lacking to the ones that will succeed. The quantifiable ones are easy (”raise score 40+ points”). But you can even ‘quantify’ the unquantifiable. Develop stronger leadership stories that showcase traits A, B,  and C to shore up potential weaknesses X, Y, and Z. We can translate that into concrete plans and set out to achieve all of ‘em. Map it out. Get the plan right. Understand why you’re setting out to do what you need to do, then make a plan, and then go full Nike and JUST DO IT!

Stage 5 –  Get Tactical About Target Schools 

By now, you will have embarked on Operation: Improve Mah OWN Self. That comes first, and should 100% precede locking your target school list. Who cares about the schools, care first about making yourself rejection-proof and then apply… anywhere you want! Be mindful about your outcomes the first time, and hedge a little to ensure that you are left with options at the end of the day on the reapplication effort. You can and should apply to as many top tier schools that may be long shots, but do yourself a favor and also include a few schools that may be a touch safer than you once realized. You can get admitted and then choose not to go, but manufacture that option and choose it, rather than be forced to not go because you didn’t apply to a smart range of programs. You can still do the “Harvard, Stanford, Wharton or bust” thing, but at least apply to a few others even if you have no intention to attend. Things shift, you may shift, a lot may change, you never know, and the cost to hedge isn’t that high, all things considered.

There’s usually an opportunity on the other end of an unwanted situation. You just have to engage with reality in a thoughtful, but still human way, and the ability to turn lemons into lemonade should eventually come into focus.