By Dr. Don Martin, Former Dean of Admissions at Chicago Booth
Hello again! This third blog addresses many of the questions I have been asked most often over the years by those thinking about, applying for and pursuing graduate study. I have organized the questions as follows: Inquiry Questions, Application Questions, Admit Questions, and Student Questions. For this blog we are doing to take a look at 10 key applicant questions.
Question 1: Does what I do during the application process really make that much of a difference? Is not the decision-making process based more on quotas and “who you know” than on genuinely admitting the best applicants?
Dr. Don’s Response: The answer to both questions is yes. Most institutions are committed to achieving certain enrollment goals – quality, diversity and a strong acceptance percentage, to name a few. Within the bounds of the law they try very hard to achieve these goals. There are times when who an applicant knows at a certain institution could have an impact on the application decision. However, it has been my experience time and time again that the manner with which applicants represent themselves can and does make a difference. Well written essays, a strong cover letter and a solid interview do help to narrow the competition. Always look to put your best foot forward. Do your best, relax, and remember that things do work out the way they are meant to.
Question 2: What if I discover an error in my application after I have already submitted it?
Dr. Don’s Response: Do not panic. Contact the admissions office and calmly explain what happened. Do not ask the admissions office to make any corrections or changes. Rather, ask if you can send updated/corrected information online or via overnight mail. If the admissions office offers to make changes or corrections, and that can readily be done, accept the offer with your thanks. Then send a thank you note to the person who helped you. Before ending the conversation, be sure you have done the following: 1) Know exactly how/when the corrections/changes will be made; 2) Thank the admissions staff for their patience and assistance; 3) Ask if you should call to confirm that the corrections/changes have been made; 4) Get the name of the person who is assisting you.
If you are sending corrected/updated information via overnight mail, make sure to enclose a note indicating with whom you spoke, and once again, thank the admissions staff for their patience and assistance. Do not be overly apologetic or dramatic. We all make mistakes. If you handle things calmly and do not over-react, you may help yourself by demonstrating to the admissions committee how you handle a difficult and potentially embarrassing situation.
Question 3: What if I have a bad experience with the admissions staff while on a campus visit or during an interview?
Dr. Don’s Response: As I suggested (if this happens before applying), wait 24 hours before doing anything. Then, if you believe you were the offending party, apologize in person or on the phone and follow up with a written apology. This time, however, copy the director of admissions on your letter. That way what you said in the letter will directly reach the director, and not be communicated second hand. If you believe you have been mistreated, contact the director of admissions only, and do so in writing. Send your letter via overnight mail (not via email), and indicate that the contents of the letter are confidential. Inform the director of your complaint, provide your contact information and ask to speak with her/him about this matter as soon as possible. If you have not heard from anyone within three days and you know that your letter did reach its destination, call and ask to speak with the director. The response you receive to your complaint will tell you something about the institution to which you have applied. In most cases a bad experience does not have a huge impact on the final decision provided you have handled yourself honestly, calmly and professionally. A situation like this, as difficult as it may be, provides insight into who you are and how you behave in situations that are not optimal.
Question 4: What if I decide that, for whatever reason, I am no longer interested in an institution I have applied to before they have notified me of a decision?
Dr. Don’s Response: You have been doing your homework and have one less option on the list. Send a letter or email message to the admissions director, asking that your application be withdrawn. Or you might decide to wait and see what the decision is on your application. After all, you did do all the work and the application fee is non-refundable.
Question 5: What if several days have gone by since the notification deadline and I have not heard anything?
Dr. Don’s Response: My best advice is to wait at least one week after the notification deadline. If you have not heard anything, call the admissions office to request an update.
Question 6: What if I discover that another applicant falsified his/her application in some way?
Dr. Don’s Response: This is a tough one. You have two choices: Leave it alone or report the applicant to the admissions director. In the end, this is a personal choice. There is not a right or wrong way to respond. Some may believe they have a moral obligation to report the applicant; others may believe they should not do so. If you do choose to report, I suggest you do so in writing, have absolute proof of your claim and that you identify yourself. Claims made anonymously are generally considered less credible. Obviously, if you have reason to believe that the applicant you want to report could learn it was you who reported them and could retaliate in some way, do not identify yourself. However, explain why you are not doing so.
Question 7: What if I learn one of my recommenders did not speak well of me?
Dr. Don’s Response: If your information is absolutely true, you may have a problem. It is generally assumed that applicants ask individuals to recommend them because they are confident that the recommendation will be positive. A negative recommendation is usually a red flag. My suggestion is that you ask another person if they would be willing to provide a positive recommendation for you and then ask the admissions director if it is possible to add this recommendation to your file before a final decision is made. While the negative recommendation is a concern, the way you handle the situation will provide the admissions director and the admissions committee with additional information about you. In some cases applicants who initially receive a negative recommendation, but who handle the situation well, are admitted.
Some applicants have asked whether it would be useful to provide a letter to the admission director addressing the negative recommendation. While such a letter will offer background information and the context that will help provide some explanation for what happened, I do not recommend doing this. If the applicant can provide an explanation of why they think the recommendation was negative, the major question on the mind of the admissions committee would be, “Then why did you ask this person to recommend you in the first place?” The only time a letter like this would be useful is if the applicant learned something after the fact that he/she did not know when first asking the person for a recommendation. In that case, I would suggest sending an explanation letter immediately, along with another recommendation that is sure to be positive. If you have an idea of what was communicated of a negative nature, ask the new recommender to address that very issue, providing a more positive evaluation of you in that area.
Question 8: What if, after I have applied and before a decision is made, something major happens in my life that I believe could help my chances of being admitted?
Dr. Don’s Response: It is important to recognize what you are defining as “major.” A promotion, job change, special award or recognition, etc., are major events that an admissions committee will want to know about. By all means communicate this to the committee. Do so in writing and alert the admissions office that you are sending updated information. Send it via overnight mail. Let the admissions committee know you believe this new information supports your belief that you are a viable applicant for the program. Offer to provide additional information or answer any additional questions. Be confident but not arrogant.
Question 9: At what point does my genuine interest in an institution move from being reasonable to being unreasonable or appearing desperate?
Dr. Don’s Response: Responding to questions that are asked of you by the admissions office, updating your application with important, major information, correcting a mistake, or responding to a bad recommendation are reasonable and acceptable forms of contact. Calling every week, asking several others to call or write on your behalf, sending several email messages, notes/letters, or trying to be overly funny or unique, is overkill. If you have communicated effectively in your application, and have had contact when necessary, you have done your job well. More than this is too much and will most likely backfire.
Question 10: What if I end up being admitted to an institution that offers me a substantial financial incentive to enroll, and my first choice institution, to which I have also been admitted, offers little to no financial assistance?
Dr. Don’s Response: You have a very interesting decision to make. Bottom line: Finances are important, but should not be the primary influencer of your enrollment decision. In the end, you should enroll where you believe there is the best fit for you. Financial planning early on will allow you some flexibility in this regard. But at the same time, if you believe the program offering you the most in financial assistance will give you what you are looking for, consider that program seriously. One other idea: You may want to contact your first choice institution, asking if additional funding has become available. Some believe it is acceptable to let the institution know what you were offered elsewhere. I do not support that strategy. It can easily be perceived that you are only concerned about the financial implications of graduate study. Some institutions could make a note of that and you could be passed over for additional funding down the road. However, asking if any other funding has become available is not considered an inappropriate question. The only time I would suggest you share what you have been offered elsewhere is if you are specifically asked to do so. Then you are simply responding to a question versus appearing to be concerned only about the money.
Do you have questions about what you’ve just read? Please feel to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And stay tuned for my next MBA Tour blog in October: “Seven Ways to be Positively Noticed as an MBA Applicant”
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