“What are my chances?” Is a question I hear often. Unfortunately, I do not have a crystal ball. It is difficult to answer these kinds of questions, especially for US colleges and MBA programs, because so much goes into the admissions process on the part of the applicant and on the part of the evaluators. I hate to discredit any of the applicant’s hard work, nor does anyone ever really know exactly what a particular admissions committee wants at any given college, in any given year. With Indian applicants who are used to a ‘cut off’ system of college placement, the idea that you could get perfect scores and still not be admitted is confusing.
It is even more confusing when students are rejected at colleges they thought were ‘safetys’ and admitted to their dream schools. We never know exactly why this happens – what did the top tier school see that the second tier school did not?
But nobody likes the “Who knows?” answer the to question about chances. There are some basic guidelines that can help you consider your chances in different programs. For undergraduates, exam scores, and marks or school grades, along with SAT scores make up the foundation of the application. If those components are not in order, the rest of the application will falter on a weak academic record. And neither is it true that a stellar SAT score will make up for poor or inconsistent marks. For US colleges the academic record from 9th to 12th is the primary basis on which academic skills are evaluated. If you have low marks and a high SAT score, it may actually be a red flag – why can’t you do well in school, yet you can ace a test taken in a single sitting?
A successful application also needs strong teacher recommendations and a thorough and supportive counselor recommendation. One student I knew was actually contacted after applying because her application was great, but her recommendations were pathetic – i.e. the teachers wrote one line “Student attended my class from x date to y date”. The college asked her to provide supplemental recommendations from a tuitions instructor, coach or extra-curricular supervisor. In this case, the student was lucky that the college contacted her, but there are likely many other cases where a weak recommendation is as good a reason as any to deny admission.
For MBA applicants, the recommendations are also of utmost importance when looking at an applicant’s chances. Does the applicant have strong recommendations from a senior member of his organization? Did the recommender go to business school? Is he/she an alumni of the program to which the applicant is applying? Strong recommendations that show a deep interaction, support and strong endorsement are key to a successful MBA application. But they are not the only criteria. MBA applications depend on three critical elements: reputation of undergraduate institution, work experience, and GMAT scores. Other factors such as gender, industry and extra curricular activities can also come into play, but the main three seem to determine the results. In my experience applicants who went to a brand name undergraduate college (e.g. any IIT), have 4 years of blue chip work experience (e.g. top 3 consulting brands, global banks or investment firms) and have GMAT scores above 750 have a strong foundation for their application. But STILL many of them do not get admitted. In the past year, applicants with experience in the government sector and meaningful roles in global NGO’s, on top of the blue chip experience seemed to get a leg up.
Keep these guidelines in mind and you will have a solid base from which to build your application. But ultimately, as many applicants have described it over the years, the application process is a “black box”. There are so many unknown variables that one applicants “chances” are almost as good as another similar looking applicant’s, but it is unlikely both will get in. So do your best, select realistic back-up options and always remember that regret letters are not a reflection of your worth or an evaluation of your hard work, they often simply reflect the college’s institutional needs, which are beyond your control.