male child in a suit writing a letter, the table next to him covered in crumpled papers

So You’ve Landed on the Waitlist – Now What?

Hello to all those waitlisted! I realize this wait is agonizing and putting your life on hold. My hope is that you do what you can to put forth a great update letter and then let it all go.


I really like how Cornell-Johnson has outlined the potential weaknesses and recommended strategies in their waitlist information letter. I want to give you a bit of insight behind each item.

  • GMAT/GRE or TOEFL/IELTS score below the median: Retake the exam and send an updated score report
  • Limited exposure to quantitative coursework or tasks / Low GMAT/GRE quantitative score (below 65%): Improve your GMAT quantitative score and/or complete quantitative coursework such as a course at your local university or online courses through Coursera. Additionally, you may consider supplementing with
  • Communication skills: Join Toastmasters or a similar public speaking group. For non-native English speakers: read English literature, watch English television shows and interact with native English speakers as much as possible
  • Planning a significant career transition without prior preparation: Network with individuals in your desired industry and consider refining your goals; read The Two-Hour Job Search; consider a viable Plan B
  • Limited career experience: Demonstrate significant achievements and leadership successes by sending updates and/or obtaining an additional recommendation - this can include activities/experiences outside of the workplace
  • Fit and commitment to Johnson: Contact current students, faculty, staff, and/or alumni to learn about Johnson and how you could contribute. Provide an updated statement about why Johnson is the best MBA program for you



This is published and becomes a factor in rankings: competitiveness signals the “cachet” factor and therefore the value of the education they are offering. This goes for both student and employers recruiting there. So, if they have to take a hit to their average GMAT in order to bring you into the fam, something has to offset that. This is usually some aspect of diversity (ethnicity, sexual orientation, industry, life experiences) that will add something unique to the class.


The GRE is less often published and thus, a bit of a back door in some circumstances. If you are overrepresented but have an interesting application, it might be a good idea to go this route.


If you end up applying this upcoming year and there is a test waiver option, apply for it if your score is below the posted average.


Quant Woes

The quant score is also frequently published in the class profile and signals the same perception of value to employers. Johnson states 65%+ and INSEAD asks for 70%+; I would say 47 seems to be the minimum for M7 if you have other mathy data points (but – GRE, less published and a wider range).


But the main thing here is, they do not want you to flunk out because 1) it looks bad for them, 2) opportunity cost of the lost tuition, and 3) bad juju for the school. While this rarely happens, they guard against it vigilantly. I generally recommend MBA Math because its online and self-paced; it has a long-standing reputation.


If you submit an update letter, it’s not a bad idea to consider other ways of proving numeracy. Call out the B or better grades you got in quant subjects. CFA is another really good way to do this. I have had a lot of success getting CFA students into schools when their test score did not work out. Rotman accepts the CFA in lieu of the GMAT.


Communication Skills

To be very straight with you, I think the Toastmasters recommendation is unlikely to work out as your lone strategy for getting off the waitlist, but it is good to mention as a bonus. I believe retaking the TOEFL or upping your verbal would carry more weight. If you are applying this coming year then yes, Toastmasters is not a bad idea, but with COVID times it will take on a bit of a different form.


Job Change

“Planning a significant career transition without prior preparation” is likely to be a big pain in the butt for the people in the career management center. I ask all my clients who are changing function or industry to do a substantial amount of outreach – meaning, writing something compelling to people doing what you want to be doing and cold emailing. A lot. Big numbers. There is an art to this to get a good response, but you will get responses.


Here is why. The school wants to know that you have a realistic plan and you have thought this out, NOT that you dream to be XYZ, plan to drop that in their lap, and then pitch it over the fence to the CMC. I know this because I was one of those people – wanting to go from finance to advertising of all things with zero groundwork laid. While I lucked out and it was all self-initiated, I think they felt some anxiety towards the end. I had to report to the principal’s office a couple times.


TLDR; they safeguard that “employed within 3 months” number like Gollum safeguards The Precious and they really do not want you to muck it up. If you have no background in the post-MBA job, you have less value to that prospective employer, and it might be hard for them to get you off their hands.


Do the research and outreach to show you know you have what it takes to get the job you want, and speak to that in your update letter.


Or better yet, get some data points moving in that direction. Line up a pre-MBA internship, volunteer…do whatever it takes…for free…to get a foot in the door and show you are serious. I have never read The Two-Hour Job Search, as Cornell suggests, but I can deduce they are signaling for you to create a firm plan to get the job you want. So that is something to work on and stick in your update letter.


Low Work Experience

If you haven’t already, scan your background for times you made a positive impact. I really encourage community service because often, this gives you the ability to take initiative and show leadership abilities before you are entrusted with anything important at a F500 firm.


As noted below – update them on career achievements that show you can get things done and make an impact. Getting a promotion is ideal. Additional recommendations if allowed; letters of support from alumni that illustrate your ability to make a positive impact are often welcome if you cannot submit another recommendation.


If you need to apply for the upcoming year, get a jump on this. Pick a hobby or something you know a lot about and try to get on a committee or a board; even virtually is fine. Or something related to your post-MBA goal to both show impact and lay groundwork for a career shift.


Fit and Commitment

Schools want to know if they pick you, you will pick them back (yield), which is not a hugely important issue for HBS and GSB but super important for schools that are often a back-up. They need to feel there is a good value proposition for you at their school, you know what you are getting into, and you will be a satisfied customer.


If you failed to network with students and alums prior to submitting your essays, and the essays require a “why this school” question, do that research now and be on the lookout on how you can contribute there. And put this in your update letter.


Do not take the lazy way out and say you will start a bunch of clubs. Understand what they have going on and how you can support what already exists. Almost no one actually starts a club in MBA programs, let’s be serious.


Also articulate that you would immediately put down a deposit if you received an offer, and that this school is your top choice.


Good luck and I hope you get off the waitlist!



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