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Dinged at HBS? It Could Be the Beginning of a Great Story

This is never a fun post to write. Each year, so many well-qualified students receive rejection letters from schools like Harvard Business School, which just released its Round Two decisions. It hurts and it’s hard to understand. But, though you may feel down at the moment, you are not out. It’s time to marshal your resources and develop a new plan.

Do me a favor for a moment. Think about your favorite sports team. Think about why you love them- their talent, their attitude, their determination. Now, think about a time when they have had to come from behind. Or, think about your favorite book. Many classic novels start with a character that needs to overcome a pretty major setback, from Oliver Twist, who escapes the workhouse to find eventual prosperity and happiness, to the Lord of the Rings, where a lowly hobbit manages to save an entire world.


So, all things considered, you’re not doing too badly. Hopefully, you are not in fear of being sent to a workhouse or under the spell of ancient ring. If you had the goods to apply to HBS at all, you have a lot going for you. And, you’re poised to embark on everyone’s favorite kind of story- a great comeback.

Ready to get started?

First, you need to take a look at your application and identify its weaknesses. Admissions committees are brutally honest, so you should be too. Here are a few of the most common reasons for rejection, and what you can do about them.

  • Your GPA or GMAT/GRE statistics were below those of the typical class. Even if you had pretty good stats, they might have fallen just outside the range of this year’s admits. Research the statistics of those who did get in and start studying— summer is a great time to retake the GMAT or supplement your transcript with a few more classes.
  • Insufficient work experience or leadership. Perhaps you have not worked for many years or taken on many roles with greater responsibilities. Use this extra year that you have just been given. Seek out more responsibility, ask your boss for new tasks, and don’t be afraid to look for your own projects at work and in your community. Seek cross-functional team roles that take you outside of your own narrow work experience.
  • Poor or irrelevant recommendations. In my time on admissions boards, I saw way too many candidates get rejected simply because they chose lukewarm or even hostile recommenders. If you think your recommendations could have been the problem, work on deepening relationships with your mentors and immediate managers so that you can provide stronger letters next year. Consider using a new recommender the next time around.
  • Failure to address weaknesses. If you have a problem or an indiscretion in your past, you should always address that upfront. (Don’t be like Mathew Martoma). This will allow you to tell the story in your own way, instead of simply letting the admissions committee discover it by chance. (And they will discover it).
  • Failure to demonstrate self-awareness. This is the biggest reason that otherwise well-qualified applicants end up with rejection letters. Schools want students who know themselves well. As my friend Ivan Kerbel of Practice MBA put it, B-School is not the place to discover yourself. Do that legwork beforehand, develop a compelling, authentic personal brand, and articulate it clearly.


If you are serious about making a comeback, check out our Comeback Kid service. Most good comeback stories include a support team, and my consulting team and I are happy to be that for you. So, put down the rejection letter, put it behind you, and refocus on what’s ahead. I already believe in your comeback story- do you?

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