By betsy On Tuesday, March 20 th, 2012 · no Comments · In ,

Waiting to get admitted is enough to drive a person mad. So mad, that it’s a wonder that the admissions process didn’t grab the name “March Madness” before college basketball did. The expression goes back to 1939, but it has only been used in relation to the NCAA basketball tournament since 1982. (North Carolina over Georgetown by a point).

As an admissions professional, I see many similarities between the two–not just the anticipation, operatic emotions, and decisions rendered in March and April. They are both magnificent, if not dangerous, obsessions. I’ve listed five major similarities below, and a bonus of one big difference. Disclosure: my experience is mostly with the competitive world of MBA and professional graduate programs, but with a little imagination, we can all stretch it to college admissions, job hunting, and anything else with beautifully unpredictable results.

1. Competitive strategy
Like the NCAA basketball tournament, you have to compete to get into the school of your choice. There are more contenders than spots.  Not all talented entrants even qualify.  That’s because the league they come from might be semi-professional, like the ACC or the Big East.   It’s kind of like being a mediocre analyst at McKinsey – you know you are playing with the big boys, but you might not get invited to the Big Dance.

2.  First-round washouts
These days, most selective MBA programs require an invitation-only interview. That means that you might know pretty early on that you’ve been disqualified.   Some highly-seeded teams fall out early – Duke surprised everyone this year.  Still, I’ve seen people who have been dinged without interview from Harvard but got into Stanford.  It’s never rational.

3. The Gamble
Face it. You’ve got some money and pride riding on the outcome: You spend months of time and energy studying for the GMAT or GRE, you have to beg your boss for a recommendation, and if it all works you get bragging rights for a lifetime.  Well, at least until September.  The good news is that you are vindicated, even if everyone else thought you were crazy.

4. Being an expert makes no difference
You can parse the rankings all you want, argue that Kellogg is more prestigious than MIT Sloan or the other way around. That the Economist is crazy to rank Harvard behind … UVA?  No one is objective; not fans, not referees, not players.  Admissions committee members are similarly not entirely objective; they are human too! Like basketball, admissions is much more an art than a science.

5.  You’ll never know until you try
If you don’t play, you can’t win.  And if you lose, you can lick your wounds; but if you want it, you’ll keep trying. You may fire your coach and change your strategy, but you’ll get back on the court. You could be the next Cinderella team. Keep your eye on the ball and you could be in the Final Four before you know it.

Oh, there are some differences. In the case of admissions, you probably never take time away from work to work on an application or check its status, as you might for an exciting game. You probably never talk about it ad infinitum with friends and family, or go out for beers after its all over. And naturally, you don’t fork over $150,000 if you win. Last time I checked.

— Betsy Massar