The rest of the story how I got rejected at Wharton Business School and how I got Wharton to reverse their decision two days later

Before asking a higher level for help, you must first “make your own luck” by doing everything you possibly can on your own.

In order to get someone to reverse a rejection, the rejecter must have a way to “save face” for themselves and/or their organization.

Last week I wrote “Reveling in Rejection” explaining how I was rejected from the MBA program at Wharton Business School on April 8, 1974, and how I got them to reverse their decision and accept me on April 10, 1974.

Although I didn’t realize it back then, it was a pivotal event in my life. It taught me that any decision made by human beings can be reversed, and started me learning the process of how to get people to reverse their own decisions.

This past week I heard from readers asking for more information, and from college friends who thought I should have told more details of the story. One college friend felt someone reading “Reveling in Rejection” could get the wrong impression that I was “just lucky” because the Director of Admissions was a fan of the artist Joan Miro.

Here’s the rest of the story.

After I got rejected on April 8th, the Admissions Office told me that no one had the authority to reverse the committee’s decision except the Director of Admissions. And the Director of Admissions did not take calls or meetings with individual applicants.

My father taught me to always “do the math” when faced with a decision–logically figure out the consequences from each possible action. Here was the math:
–To get accepted I had to meet with the Director of Admissions;
–The Director didn’t take meetings with applicants for admission; and
–Therefore I had everything to gain and nothing to lose if I got to meet with the Director under false pretenses.

This last point was key–I had nothing to lose. This led me, after trying in nicer ways, to get the meeting with the Director by implying something was wrong in his Admissions Office. The Director, probably a career college administrator, would only lose a few minutes of his time by taking such a meeting with me, and he would have everything to gain if he could avoid my bringing his name before the Board of Trustees.

After I got the meeting set up with the Director of Admissions for Wednesday, April 10th, I did everything I could in the next 24 hours to further my application.

I contacted the people who wrote the three letters of recommendation I had submitted with my application and told them I had a “final meeting” tomorrow at Wharton–asking them to phone or fax any additional information they could to the Director of Admissions.

I similarly contacted my key professors and gave them the contact info for the Director of Admissions.

I assembled my friends to help me role play different scenarios of what might occur at my upcoming meeting with the Director.

Although I had never met the President of my undergraduate school, I walked to the President’s House on campus and explained to his secretary that there was a “final meeting” tomorrow on my application to Wharton Graduate Business School. The secretary asked me to write out my credentials. I drafted for her the text of a letter as if it was written by the President about “outstanding Lehigh student Paul Zane Pilzer.”

Each time I completed one of these tasks I stopped and said aloud to myself: “What else can I do to be better prepared for my meeting with the Director of Admissions?”

On the drive down to Philadelphia the next morning, I felt confident that I had done everything humanly possible to prepare for this meeting. This confidence helped me succeed on April 10, 1974.

I thought about my father’s story of Joseph, a poor, pious man who prayed every night that God should let him win the lottery. Finally, after a lifetime of poverty, God appeared to Joseph in a dream saying: “Joseph! Give me a chance! Buy a lottery ticket!”

I felt confident that I had bought all my “lottery tickets” in preparing for this meeting. On a spiritual level, I knew I was ready to ask for God’s help because I had demonstrated that I deserved His help by having first done everything I could on my own.

During my meeting with the Director of Admissions, I mentioned items about my application that he could later use to “save face” if he reversed the decision of his committee. When he asked my ATGSB scores, I told him that I had taken the test without any preparation and I could easily bring my math score up to the level of my verbal score. When he asked why I was not first getting my undergraduate degree, I told him that I could easily obtain my BA that year before beginning my graduate studies at Wharton.

The letter of acceptance I received on April 10, 1974 did tell me to disregard their letter of April 8, 1974 and offered me admission to the Wharton MBA program. But the letter also stated that I needed to bring my math ATGSB score up to the level of my verbal score, and obtain my bachelor’s degree from Lehigh, before beginning my studies at Wharton. The Director did this to save face and have an empirical explanation for why he was reversing the decision.

When I drove back to Lehigh that afternoon, I was already thinking about my next task. I now had to convince the Lehigh University Faculty Committee to grant me my bachelor’s degree without my meeting the school’s foreign language distribution requirements. And I would have to re-take the ATGSB exam.

Later than month, I submitted a brief to the Lehigh University Faculty Committee arguing that computer programming languages (e.g. BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL) were “the new foreign languages” and I attached my April 10th letter of conditional acceptance from Wharton. In effect, I told my teachers that if they denied my request to modify my foreign language requirement they would also be denying me the opportunity of a lifetime to attend Wharton Graduate Business School. The faculty granted my request for a bachelor’s degree subject to my taking one more course in French and one more programming language course.

In May, I re-took the ATGSB exam after studying day and night. I was able to bring my math score up to the level of my verbal score as required by my Wharton acceptance letter–which was very challenging for me because I already had a high verbal score.

I enrolled in summer school courses at Hunter College in French and COBOL to meet the Lehigh University foreign language distribution requirement.

So, in conclusion, I didn’t just “get accepted” into Wharton on April 10, 1974 from a single meeting with the Director of Admissions.

One year later, in 1975, I ran into the Director of Admissions on campus at Wharton. He told me how he was intimidated during our first meeting on April 10, 1974. The President of Lehigh University, a former senior official with NASA, had phoned him that morning to talk about my application. While the Director had enjoyed our conversation about Joan Miro, he had already decided to admit me after his call with the President. I remember the Director telling me: “It’s not every day the President of a major university, who had managed the Apollo Space Program, calls you asking to admit a candidate.”

The Director also told me that there was no need for him to require me to raise my ATGSB math score, but that I was so cocky about my ability to do so that he wanted to see me do it–and he would have waived this requirement if I had been unsuccessful. He added that he had no doubt he would have heard from me again (and again) if I had been unable to increase my ATGSB math score.

One reader of “Reveling in Rejection” asked me how I managed to have enough credits at Lehigh to earn a BA in less than 3 years. That story, and how I went from flunking my first semester to graduating early with honors, is the subject of a future blog entry.

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Reveling in Rejection

By Paul Zane Pilzer on Wednesday, October 7th, 2009 · Comments (0)

How I got rejected at Wharton and learned one of life’s most important lessons

Rejection by a qualified prospect means that you, personally, have failed to accurately communicate the potential of the product or service you are trying to sell.

In the fall of my third year of college I decided to pursue an MBA at the Wharton Graduate School of Business. Although I was only 19 and a junior at Lehigh University, I told my friends that I was going to Wharton “next year.” Then I applied for admission.

On Monday, April 8, 1974, at 9:00 a.m., I got rejected. I had called the Wharton admissions office to inquire about the status of my application. The receptionist retrieved my file and read my rejection letter to me. The letter thanked me for applying, and suggested that I finish college, get two years of work experience, and reapply.

I hung up the phone, then called back, again and again, trying in vain to schedule an appointment with the Director of Admissions to appeal the decision. Finally, realizing that I had nothing to lose, I left an obnoxious message explaining that I needed to speak with the Director of Admissions “before I report what happened to the Board of Trustees.” A short while later the admissions office called back and gave me an appointment to see the Director at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 10, 1974.

On Wednesday morning, I attended my 8:00 a.m. Art History class at Lehigh. The class was a one hour lecture about the Spanish artist Joan Miro, whom I had never heard about before this class.

When the class ended, I drove to Philadelphia for my meeting at Wharton. On the drive down, I realized that I still didn’t know what I was going to tell the Director of Admissions.

When I walked into the Admissions office, the Director was on the telephone with the university bookstore. He had just purchased a signed lithograph by the artist Joan Miro, and was promising to come right over with a $1,500 check to pay for it. When he put down the phone, I repeated to him everything I had just learned about Miro, exploiting his fascination with the artist and his need for reassurance that the lithograph was a good purchase. Then I asked him if I could see the print. He jumped up and we walked to the university bookstore, continuing to talk about Miro on the way. When we saw the print, I congratulated him on his purchase and he invited me to lunch.

At lunch, I told him that I wanted to get my MBA from Wharton. He asked about my ATGSB (now called GMAT) score and grades, and told me that, with my interest in things like modern art, I was exactly the kind of well-rounded applicant they were looking for.

After lunch we went back to his office and he checked his appointment book. It was then he realized that I was the person who had left the obnoxious phone message. I protested how I had tried “nicely” to see him but that his office had left me no choice—leaving that message was the only way I could get to see him. He then dictated to his secretary a new letter granting me acceptance subject to my taking two summer school courses and getting my bachelor’s degree from Lehigh.

I began my studies as a Wharton MBA student later that year at age 20.

I was terrified my first day at Wharton. The majority of my classmates were graduates of Ivy League schools; Harvard and Yale led the list. I wrote my mother a letter expressing my concern that while my classmates had been accepted based on their experience, grades and intelligence, I had manipulated my way into the school. Despite these feelings of inferiority, I graduated from Wharton near the top of my class—finishing the two-year MBA program in only 15 months at the age of 22—and landed a prestigious job with Citibank.

Looking back, I succeeded at Wharton, in part, because of the inferiority complex that I developed from my initial rejection. At the time, I didn’t realize that I would soon experience initial rejection in everything of value that I was to accomplish — starting each of several businesses, teaching at New York University, working at the White House, and getting my books published.

I realize now that in each case I was rejected precisely because I had sought out a higher level of success than my peers. After each rejection and successful re-application, I moved up a step on the ladder of success. While others around me rested on their laurels, waiting patiently for what they “deserved,” I was using each success to shoot for a higher objective, pushing the envelope. With this tactic, it was inevitable that I would be “rejected” with each new challenge.

It wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I learned to enjoy, and even revel in, the application, rejection, and re-application process. Now, when I experience rejection, I smile, for it reassures me that I’m on the right track in seeking a higher level. I’ve also learned to take personal responsibility for rejection rather than blame my prospect—rejection by a qualified prospect means that you, personally, have failed to accurately communicate the potential of the product or service you are trying to sell.

Looking back, I have only one regret. I wish I had learned to enjoy rejection earlier in my career, as I might have taken more time to enjoy the application, rejection, and re-application process that was unfolding.

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Why Things Work OVER Time but not EVERY Time

By Paul Zane Pilzer on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 · Comments (0)

One major frustration facing new entrepreneurs and managers, particularly in sales, is why a particular process that works most of the time does not work every time.

When it comes to predicting the weather (70% chance of rain today), illness (15% chance of getting the flu), or business success (50% of new businesses fail), our lives seem ruled by statistics. But statistics are only relevant after you have tried a process a significant number of times, what mathematicians call having enough “frequency.”

You may have a sales process that succeeds with more than 50% of your qualified prospects, yet a new salesperson may fail again and again only to give up in frustration. Here’s an exercise I use to teach frequency to new employees and students.

I ask the person to flip a coin 10 times and record the result. Most people think it’s going to be an even 5-5 split between heads and tails. It’s not—it’s often 7, 8, or even 9 heads. Then I ask them to continue flipping the coin 90 more times (100 total)—and it’s almost always 51 to 49 heads or tails. This is a great exercise to teach that you need to try something more than 10 times to figure out if it works.

This exercise also teaches why you must have enough frequency before scaling your business. You might develop a strategy that fails with the first 8 or 9 of your 10 initial qualified prospects, but then succeeds with 50 percent overall. Conversely, you might experience success on the first few sales calls and then expand too fast with a non-sustainable model.

As a teacher and as a parent, I am often asked by young people “how come” a particular effort didn’t lead to the expected reward. While I’ve tried to console my students, I, too, have been frustrated that although God made a world with rules and order, God also made a world in which those rules don’t generally work until you have enough frequency.

Some people think God did this because He didn’t want people to become too cocky by having things work out for them every time.

Some people think God did this because He wanted to give a chance to those who didn’t have all the qualifications that others dictated they needed to succeed.

And some people think that God did this because He wanted a world that would constantly challenge, and thus strengthen, our faith. A world where everything doesn’t work out every time, but a world where everything does work out over time—especially for those of us, like Job in the Bible, with enough faith to follow our plan regardless of how much adversity we experience.

What do you think? Why did God create a world where every thing doesn’t work every time?

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The Class of 2009 – The Best and Worst of Times

By Paul Zane Pilzer on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 · Comments (0)

The bifurcation among new college graduates, and among existing workers, is creating a new opportunity in our economy that could eventually become a major industry: The “business” of “business opportunity”–creating new functions in our economy for people displaced from traditional jobs.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all doing direct the other way.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities , 1859

It’s amazing that something written 150 years ago so accurately describes the world economy and our own economic situation over the past 12 months.

We have certainly seen the worst economic times in our lifetime during the past year. On March 9, 2009, the Dow bottomed out at 6,547, less than half its value only a year earlier. Think about it–the entire net worth of American industry shrunk by half in less than 12 months.

Yet since March 9, 2009, we have seen some of the best of times on Wall Street as the Dow rose a meteoric 50% in value in less than 6 months.

But more importantly, most of us live on Main Street, not Wall Street. What does all this mean for us as parents, businesspeople and entrepreneurs?

One thing I’m seeing today is the bifurcation occurring among young people just entering the workplace. Looking back already at the Class of 2009, I see that most of the new college graduates I know, and know of, did not find the job of their dreams (or anything close to it).

But those students who did graduate at the very top of their class, from the most prestigious schools, with the best summer internships on their resumes, got exceptional jobs as if there were no recession. Moreover, these jobs paid very high wages for 22-year-old undergraduates (annual salaries of $60,000 – $110,000). Several of these students have already contacted me about starting their own business.

Why is this? Why hasn’t the recession affected the very top students?

Our top students have not been affected because they have extremely well-honed skills which in today’s world are enhanced by technology. In the past, a Fortune 500 company might have needed 1,000 newly minted college graduates each year to fill entry-level positions in sales or customer service. But today, thanks to the Internet, SMS texting, and automated call centers, this same company might only need 105 newly-minted college graduates for such positions: 100 “normal” graduates for traditional positions plus 5 superstar top graduates to design the systems and write the text for the websites, and the SMS texting programs, and the scripts for the call centers.

I’m seeing this bifurcation in the workplace at all levels–where one worker is permanently laid off, and his co-worker (who better uses technology) receives a 20% raise and a new PC to do both his and the laid-off worker’s job.

At all levels in industry I see another quotation from England in the 19th century coming true. In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli, the future prime minister of England, warned of the danger of his country disintegrating into “two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy … as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets.”

These bifurcations among new college graduates, and among existing workers, are creating a new opportunity in our economy that could eventually become a major industry: The “business” of “business opportunity”–creating new functions in our economy for people displaced from traditional jobs. I plan to examine this bifurcation in the workplace phenomenon further as we see the effects of the recession, and great technological change, unfold before us.

While the recession may have technically begun on September 15, 2008 with the fall of Lehman Brothers, the effects of the recession will just begin for most of us on September 15, 2009–due to 1-year unemployment benefits and several other programs that have delayed the effects of the Great Crash of 2008-2009 from reaching Main Street.

Stay tuned–and please chime in now with your first-hand experience with the Great Crash of 2008-2009.

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