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What B-school rejection feels like: When Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, Tuck, and Yale all say no

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(Poets&Quants) — It was as if he’d climbed up on a high diving board, shouted down to everyone on the pool deck to watch him perform a triple back flip with four twists, bounced a few times to prepare for launch, bounced a few more times to make sure everyone was looking, propelled himself into the air … and missed the pool completely.


Poor Grant. He wasn’t attempting the world’s most difficult dive, but its academic equivalent instead: applying to an ultra-elite MBA program. And while he wasn’t wearing a Speedo on a high board over a pool, he was even more exposed—Grant was standing in the middle of the Internet for all to see.

You may have read his blog, Grant Me Admission, in which he chronicles his quest for a top-tier MBA. It’s received nearly 100,000 page views. And it’s pretty good: enthusiastic, lively, clearly written, full of tips and ideas and lessons learned. Read it, and you’re right there with Grant as he studies for and takes the GMAT, researches schools, visits campuses, analyzes sample essays, and gets interviews. It’s incredibly detailed.

Which is part of the reason Grant went splat. He wasn’t just applying to top B-schools. He was also working full time, and doing a lot of nonprofit work, plus putting in hours and hours on his blog.

His story holds a valuable lesson for anyone applying to top MBA programs. Grant failed to focus on Goal No. 1, getting admitted to business school, and he paid a painful price.

As he writes on a recent post, below a photo of a bleak Martian landscape:

Harvard: Dinged without an interview

Wharton: Dinged without an interview

Yale: Dinged without an interview

Kellogg: Dinged

Tuck: Dinged

I’m not going to lie; it is incredibly hard for me to share these results.

Of course, as anyone who plays this game knows, rejection is a person’s worst nightmare—but it is also the norm. Last year, the five schools on Grant’s target list received more than 25,400 applications for less than 3,000 available spots. With acceptance rates that range from a low of 12% for Harvard to a high of 24% for Yale, the odds of getting into one of these schools are against you. Overall, not much more than 18% of the applicants to these five MBA programs was accepted last year.

One unfortunate fumble leads to another, and another

For a 5’11”, 175-pound, 27-year-old man who enjoys Olympic-style weightlifting and superhero movies, not getting into an elite business school may very well be his first significant failure yet. Grant works in corporate finance, and is now in the process of switching homes and jobs—from the East Coast, working for a Fortune 50 aerospace company, to Los Angeles, where he’ll be working for an entertainment company not far outside the Fortune 50.

He had suffered a lesser defeat before receiving the five rejections. The year before, Grant had applied to Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business alone, but didn’t get in. He’d at least been wait-listed.

And that’s another reason why Grant went splat.

After applying to Tuck in October 2013, and languishing on the wait list from December until his August rejection, Grant got a little obsessive, worrying over his prospects of getting in, trying to put numbers to his chances. The fact that a friend with a lower GMAT score had gotten into Tuck the year before after being wait-listed gave Grant hope, which turned out to be false.

“It was probably borderline unhealthy,” he recalls. “I was like an addict. I was constantly looking on forums, and playing the percentage game.”

So the next time, after he applied to Harvard, Wharton, Yale, Kellogg, and Tuck, he wasn’t going to make the same mistake and drive himself nuts by fixating on his odds of getting in.

Instead, he made a bigger mistake. The previous year, while anxiously awaiting an answer from Tuck, he’d remained diligent: he followed up his interview by getting in touch with the interviewers, emailing them once a month—demonstrating his strong interest and perseverance, and keeping himself on their radar. He should’ve done the same this time after interviews with Kellogg and Tuck, but he was trying to prevent the waiting game from consuming him as it had the time before, he says.

“This year I didn’t follow up on those interviews,” he says. “I didn’t email the interviewers. That was really stupid and lazy of me. I just kept putting it off. Really dumb.”

Not for lack of enthusiasm

Generally speaking, Grant (who asked that his last name not be revealed because he hasn’t told his employer he’s planning to go to an MBA program), is not a poor candidate. Although he went to a middling California state university for college, he was a full-ride President’s Scholar, led his school’s team in the International Collegiate Business Strategy Competition, earned a 3.7 GPA, and graduated Cum Laude with a BS in accounting.

For years, Grant had dreamed of earning an MBA. “It was even before I went to college, to my undergrad,” he says. “That’s always been there.”

Before college, he hadn’t refined his B-school ambitions to a particular tier. But after graduation, he arrived at the conclusion that he wanted to get his MBA from a top-10 school, “but if that’s outside the realm of possibility, then top-20,” he says. “If you’re not in the top 20, I can’t even look at you because I’m not going to invest that kind of money without any kind of demonstrated value from the degree.”

Applying to Tuck, and only Tuck, two years ago was “kind of like my trial thing,” Grant says.

He had put a lot of effort into the application. He spent almost 200 hours studying for the GMAT and scored 710. To prepare for writing his application and the interview, he met with five Tuck students and interviewed another eight by phone. He reckons he spent 50 hours studying Tuck’s programs, facilities, and professors, reading books, and speaking with MBA program experts. He organized the fruits of all that research into a “crazy document on Tuck,” containing facts, school intricacies, details of programs that interested him, and information gathered from Poets&Quants, Internet forums, articles, and interviews. He visited the school twice, and doesn’t include in the 50-hour total the time spent on those trips.”I really knew the school and what the story was all about,” Grant says.

Going over Grant’s enthusiastic posts written during his application process is like reading a diary entry by Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic, rhapsodizing over the lovely weather and smooth sailing that came before the unfortunate incident with the iceberg.

After his interview with Tuck—when he had applied there and at the four other schools—he came to a conclusion while driving home from Hanover, N.H.: “I have fallen in love with Tuck again,” he writes. “I was scared this was going to happen again. The first time I applied, I KNEW that Tuck was the place for me… And here we are again.”

Then Kellogg usurped Tuck, after Grant visited the school in Evanston, Ill., and had his interview.

“Kellogg is amazing and totally synonymous with who I am and where I want to end up in my career,” Grant gushes, going on to use the word “amazing” three more times in his post about his visit and interview.

Add in the two “fantastics” he used, and you know that when that Kellogg ding came, it stung. But it turned out to be less painful than the one from Tuck. After all, he’d made the wait list when he’d applied there the year before, and a school official had later told him they hadn’t let in anyone from the list. For his second chance at Tuck, Grant felt he was an even better candidate. And the school had become his last hope.

Harvard had been the first to turn him away, without an interview, but that didn’t concern Grant too much. “It’s Harvard Business School, the best business school in the world—denied, big deal.”

“When I didn’t get an interview at HBS, I was not surprised. When I didn’t get an interview at Wharton, I was a little scared.”

Running on empty

With every rejection, he’d beat himself up a little more over the mistakes he’d made during the process of preparing for the GMAT and applying to schools.

He’d been determined to far surpass his first GMAT score of 710, writing on his blog that he “most likely will be taking it again for a ~750.” But when it came to studying for the test his second time around, the rest of his life got in the way.

“I got promoted, and then I got an additional leadership responsibility. Another opportunity came up at work for a special project to lead. I started blogging. I’m really heavily involved in non-profits,” he says.

Grant would wake up at 4:30 a.m., start studying at 5, keep it up for an hour or two, go to work, then go to his non-profit assignment. Each night, he’d resume studying at 8, and put in another couple hours. If he wasn’t doing volunteer work on the weekend, he’d work through his Saturdays and Sundays.

“I was operating on four hours of sleep for six months.”

All told, he put in 150 GMAT-prep hours over eight weeks. “It wasn’t good quality studying time,” he says. “My mind was racing on a million different things and the GMAT was just one of them.” Not only was he “completely stressed out,” he hadn’t even come close to hitting his 200-hour goal, or even matching the 190 hours he’d put in when he studied for the GMAT the first time.

While he’d spent 50 hours preparing for his first Tuck application and interview, he fell far short of that when applying to the five schools, not even hitting the same number for all the schools combined. “This is so embarrassing,” he says. “I think I spent maybe 60 hours. Maybe. That’s being pretty generous with myself. It might’ve been less, it might’ve been closer to 40. It was really bad,” he says, before muttering to himself: “Damn it.”

He’d hired a consultant, but hadn’t done any practice informational interviews, he says. He visited all the schools, except for Yale.

After he didn’t receive interviews at Harvard and Wharton, Yale was the next school to reject him. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, I might not even get in (to B-school) this year,’” Grant says.

The fear grew worse as the rejections added up. “When I got dinged from Kellogg, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m really in trouble.’”

Meanwhile, Grant’s career was shifting. He was anticipating disruption at his aerospace industry job. Staff were going to be cut, and those who remained would face additional work burdens. “I basically started hedging my bets. I had started looking at other opportunities.”

Swimming in a sea of self doubt

The string of B-school rejections had seeded Grant with self doubt, not a feeling he was used to. “Am I really a top performer?” he asked himself. “Am I capable of doing anything on my own?

“That’s why it was so important that I applied for another job.”

By the time Kellogg rejected his application, he had already had a phone interview with the L.A. entertainment firm.

Grant is not giving up on his MBA dreams. He’s going to apply again to top 10 schools, but probably only three or four, and will likely not apply to Harvard, he says. He plans to spend 30 hours of prep time specific to each school he’ll apply for, and he is shooting for 300 hours of GMAT studying time. “I’m really hoping to get a 760,” Grant says. “That will help.”

Grant created his blog because he wanted to help other people on the same path, he says. That fits with his interest non-profit and volunteer work. “That’s my life’s mission,” he says. “I want others to succeed, that’s how I get my happiness.

“That’s what hurt the most. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to lead the charge, and everyone follow me,’ and then I, like, tripped.”

On his blog, beneath the photo of the Martian landscape that tops his revelation about his five rejections, Grant addresses his readers, “I feel that I have let you down,” he writes. “It is incredibly difficult to fail publicly and own up to it. I am deeply sorry.”

Nevertheless, Grant is clearly well positioned for another attempt at getting into a top program, particularly at Tuck and Kellogg, which had already rated him high enough for an interview. His history working in finance for the aerospace industry makes him attractive to admissions committees, and his new job is impressive. He appears to have learned a great deal about what he did wrong in his first two attempts, and if he applies those lessons, he’s bound to make a better impression in applications and interviews. A higher GMAT score would give him an additional boost.

It turns out that the stark Martian scene, he says, does not represent a barren wasteland of the soul. It shows, he says, a new frontier. “It’s a whole new world out there.”

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