Your Past Doesn’t Define You [Episode 209]

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Today’s one of those shows where I’m going to be the sole presenter.

I actually started preparing this show during the World Series way back in October. Yes, folks, after 108 years of losing, the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series.

At the same time, we were working (and have worked in the past) with amazing applicants who overcame hurdles – sometimes large and sometimes small – to get accepted either first time or via reapplication.

To me, these events had much in common. The applicants and the Cubs didn’t let their past define them. They looked to the future. And that’s what applicants need to do as they approach the admissions process – both first-time applicants and reapplicants.

While you can’t and shouldn’t ignore your background and previous experiences – both good and bad – I find that applicants tend to focus inordinately on the past and way too little on the future.

Focus on The Future

Let’s start with first-time applicants, because what I say here really applies to both first-time and re-applicants.

I sometimes get inquiries from applicants that start with what they’ve done in the past. And certainly, past achievements and blemishes are critical to this arduous process that you’re going through. They have to be dealt with, but the starting place for your application has to be your goals: What do you want to do when you finish your education? The answer to that question determines what degree you seek. The future you see for yourself is really the starting point of your application.

What Role Does Your Past Play?

Once you have that first ingredient of a successful application, you need to season it and perhaps temper it with your past. Your past will show if you are competitive in ways other than your goal. Look to see that you meet the requirements of your target programs (appropriate degree, required classes, test scores, relevant experience if required). Then evaluate your competitiveness by comparing your profile with the class profiles and other qualitative information available from your target programs and perhaps its students and recent alumni. You should be competitive at most of the programs you are applying to.

If not, you have to either improve your qualifications or change your target schools. Realize that for the overwhelming majority of you, there are multiple paths to achieving your goal. You don’t all have to go to Harvard or Top Choice Grad School to be the doctor, lawyer, business person, academician or whatever that you want to be. If Top Choice U (and its close cousins that are probably out of reach) didn’t exist, what you would you do? What would be your plan then? Would it be Second-Tier U that still has excellent placement in the kinds of firms you want to work for or the specialties you’d love to match at? Would it be a different career path?

Or, you can choose to improve your qualifications to become competitive at Top Choice U. We have lots of information on the site,, about overcoming all kinds of weaknesses.

How to Change your Chances

But if you don’t want to change your goal, or change the schools you want to target, then you may need to change YOU to compete effectively in an intensely competitive process.

This is where not letting your past define you really comes into play. If you have poor study skills, take advantage of courses and resources to improve those skills – either at your undergraduate institution or through extension courses. If you had poor undergraduate grades, check out our podcast episode on how to mitigate them.

If your test score is keeping you up at night, consider changing your method of study and retaking the exam. If you did self-study to this point, try a course – online or offline, whichever works for you. If you tried a course previously, try tutoring now. But you must change something if you want to expect a different outcome.

If you come from a disadvantaged background or had a few bumps in the road of life, listen to the stories of people who have refused to let the bumps in their lives deter them from achieving their goals. I highly recommend “The Unbelievable Story of an Orthopedic Surgeon” or “Wharton MBA Student, Single Mom, Entrepreneur.” Or check out the story of Elad Shoushan, an MIT MBA who created a highly successful test prep app after struggling with the GMAT.

Tips for Reapplicants

Now let’s look at reapplicants, where I think the maxim’s applicability may be more obvious.

Yes, you’ve been rejected (or think you will shortly be rejected) from your target schools. You’re disappointed. Frustrated. Maybe a little embarrassed. But this is a setback. It doesn’t automatically need to be the end of your dreams, unless you decide the dream no longer appeals or simply isn’t feasible for you.

If that dream no longer attracts you or isn’t worth the effort necessary to make it feasible, that’s OK. Research other paths and goals and dreams, and go after them. The fact that this application or dream didn’t work, doesn’t mean you won’t succeed at others. Furthermore, you may look back and say that you are glad things worked out as they did, because in the future you may realize your new path really was best for you.

This has happened several times in my life, and if you keep perspective, it may be happening in yours.

Alternatively, you may decide that this dream, this goal, still is what you want to pursue. It animates and motivates you. You want it. You need to try again.

Great. The first step to a successful re-application is an evaluation of your last attempt so that you can improve. Again, the past doesn’t have to define or limit you.

Reapplying Strategically

Realize that rejection is caused by one of the following four reasons in broad strokes:

1. You simply weren’t competitive.

2. You were competitive at your target programs, but failed to effectively present your qualifications.

3. You did a good job on 1 &2, but were a victim of the numbers and intense competition at your target schools. (Don’t assume this was the sole reason.)

4. A combination of the above.

It’s easiest to point to a sub-standard GPA, test score, or some other quantitative element that isn’t up to snuff because numbers are so concrete. However, an unappealing presentation of your qualifications (for example, sloppiness in your application or failing to show fit) is just as dangerous, especially at highly competitive programs, be they MD, MBA, JD or whatever. Being a victim of numbers and competition, almost always implies weakness in presentation, which means that that combo comes into play a lot.

To make sure that you have a different outcome next time around, you must improve whatever you feel is weak. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but that’s your mission as you reapply. Furthermore, even if you feel that you presented yourself well via your essay and that your academic stats were the issue, you still need to show commitment to the process and growth from your last application; I strongly discourage submitting the same personal statement or application essay as you sent in last year. Doing will so will damage your chances of acceptance.

For advice on mitigating less-than-stellar grades, please see our podcast episode, What to do About a Low GPA. Low test scores? Well, the best thing to do is prepare again and raise them. I know that’s much easier said than done, but that’s the reality of the situation.

We have tons of advice on the site related to writing your essays and resumes/CVs and presenting your story to schools. Just go to and click on the area that you are pursuing to access these resources. I’d like to highlight one podcast, Focus on Fit. I devoted the entire podcast to demonstrating fit and outlined four key elements necessary to do so.

Finally, if you really don’t feel you can improve those stats or the presentation of your qualifications, then you may have to change the way you achieve your goals. If you are pre-med, you may need to apply to lower ranked MD programs or osteopathic programs and not exclusively to top ranked allopathic programs. If you want to get an MBA to begin your career as a strategy consultant and can’t get into the top M/B/B feeder schools, consider achieving your goal in stages. Start at a program that sends grads into second-tier consulting firms, and plan to work your way over to the elite strategy firms or climb at these companies so that you get the best assignments. You’ll still be doing the work you want to do.

Click here to listen to the show!

Related Links:

Resources for MBA Applicants
Resources for Medical School Applicants
Resources for Law School Applicants
Resources for Grad School Applicants

Related Shows:

• The Unbelievable Story of an Orthopedic Surgeon
• What to do About a Low GPA
• Wharton MBA Student, Single Mom, Entrepreneur
• Individual Mobile Test Prep and the MIT Sloan MBA Who Created It


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The post Your Past Doesn’t Define You [Episode 209] appeared first on Accepted Admissions Blog.

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