When it comes to business school admissions, there is no perfect MBA candidate. Because admissions committees are looking for well-rounded and diverse cohorts, there is no one resume or set of work experiences that can guarantee you’ll get into the graduate school of your choice.
Fortunately, while the MBA admissions process is competitive, it is also holistic. Most schools emphasize getting to know you as a person and a future professional. In particular, the essay portion of your application allows you to elevate your story, share your most interesting qualities, and contextualize or mitigate any weaknesses. Your mission is to charmingly persuade business schools that you have the right stuff.
To state the obvious, admissions standards vary among programs. Your chances at an elite MBA institution, like Harvard Business School (HBS) or Stanford University School of Business, are different than at a lower-ranked school. But easier admissions does not necessarily mean that your education will be subpar at a lower-ranked school — it just means that you are competing against fewer qualified candidates for slots. To ensure high curriculum standards, make sure that any business program you seek is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
Although admissions requirements may vary, most schools rely on the following criteria: GMAT score, college GPA, work experience, your MBA essays, letters of recommendation (academic and/or professional), an interview with an admissions officer, and your extracurricular activities. The first four metrics—GMAT, GPA, professional experience, and essays—are typically the most heavily weighted. The more selective the school, the less room there is for a weakness in any one area. Any component of your application that is out of sync, such as weak quantitative scores, could damage your chances of admission to a top school.
All of the pieces of your application should come together to form one cohesive whole. While some factors are emphasized over others, it is the entire package that determines whether you win admission.
Here are some key tips on how to set yourself up for MBA admissions success:
The application process is time-consuming. Business school applicants are often overwhelmed by how much they have to do to complete not only one but several applications. Since there are so many moving parts, smart management of the process is critical.
If you plan to apply to MBA programs, you will need to leave adequate time to prep for the GMAT, actually take the test, and receive your score report. Additionally, you will need to secure your recommenders with plenty of notice, making sure recommendations are submitted on time and offering any necessary support or guidance. You must have your college transcript sent, schedule and complete your interview, and write all those killer essays. This is a tough process for anyone, but especially difficult if you are working full-time. MBA applicants who end up cramming for the GMAT and squeezing their essay writing into a few all-nighters or one weekend seriously shortchange themselves. We can’t say it enough: anticipate and organize.
People who have trouble in these areas may want to consider hiring an MBA admissions consultant. These admissions professionals not only help you organize your time and prioritize tasks but also polish your application to highlight strengths and downplay weaknesses. They aren't necessary, and they can be expensive, but know that at least some of the candidates you are competing against have employed them and may thereby gain a competitive advantage.
There are many common and embarrassing mistakes made by business school applicants—especially easy to make when they are overwhelmed. These include recommenders missing deadlines (because they weren’t given enough notice), applications submitted with typos and grammatical errors, and essays written for the wrong school, or uploaded with the name of a different school on them. It’s acceptable to reuse essays from one school to the next, but don’t forget to edit them and personalize them for each school.
Take a breath and proofread. If you feel overwhelmed, enlist a second pair of eyes to read over your materials before you hit 'submit.'
We have some solid advice for you: plan early. Also, plan early. You'll diminish the likelihood of a missed application deadline or mistake and increase the likelihood of acceptance, especially when there are more spots open for early admissions.
Even the highly esteemed Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania stresses to its MBA candidates: timing matters! At Wharton, there are several rounds in which to apply. While the school notes that there is not much difference between round 1 and 2, the very last round is insanely competitive—only golden candidates win admission. Think an Olympic medalist or the inventor of a life-saving device.
Early does not mean that you need to be the very first one in. Many admissions officers report that the very first batch of MBA applicants come from candidates who are super-qualified. Aim to be close to the front, but certainly not in the lost heap of last-minute hopefuls.
The GMAT and GPA are used in two primary ways. First, these numbers are used as success indicators. They should signal that you have the brain-crunch power to make it through a rigorous curriculum. Second, they’re used as benchmarks against other applicants in the business school pool. This is why you will see a school post their average GMAT admit numbers. This is the hidden competition, and should help you assess your chances of acceptance.
Top MBA programs expect exceptional GMAT scores. The median GMAT score for the Yale University School of Management Class of 2021 was 720; only the bottom 20 percent of admitted students scored below 680. The numbers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management are even more daunting: 724 median score, 690 cutoff for the bottom 20 percent.
Demonstrating strong quantitative aptitude is essential. A high test score on the math section of the GMAT will help you do this. If you need to boost your score, consider taking a class at a reputable test prep company.
Increasingly, business schools are admitting students who come from a variety of backgrounds. But if finance, statistics, or accounting is not in your background or work experience, you may find the business school curriculum daunting. A strong math GMAT score will compensate for this and show the school that you can handle their numbers-driven curriculum.
Your college transcript and grades can be a major factor in your candidacy. Some schools prefer MBA candidates coming from the sciences and math. Again, this is because they are looking for quantitative strength. However, most schools focus on the overall GPA.
A warning: ho-hum grades and a high GMAT score may present a problem. It can convey to the school that you are highly intelligent, but low-ambition when it comes to academics. That can make you a risky admit.
If this will be the case for you, make sure you address it in the written portion of your application. The essay can be the place to share how you have matured and state that you would now approach school work with a renewed commitment.
Finally, note that some programs—not many, and none of the top business schools, but some—will accept GRE scores in place of GMAT scores. If you simply cannot manage a good GMAT performance, you might want to consider the GRE. The math questions are easier, so if math is what's tripping you up, this might be the better option for you. Then get a math tutor, because you will need to sharpen your quant skills to survive an MBA program.
Business schools don’t like long meandering paths. Although many MBA hopefuls use the degree to switch careers or industries, schools appreciate applicants who follow one solid track. Here is an example of an ideal applicant: a candidate who started in marketing straight out of college, is getting an MBA to advance to a higher managerial position, and will return to the same profession post-MBA.
Understandably, your narrative may have more dangly threads. Do your best to tell the story as simply as possible. Make it cohesive. Weave your past experiences into why you need an MBA, and share where the degree will take you.
Business schools care about how well their students do after graduation. They want their grads getting jobs, and great ones at that. So the story you tell should assure schools that you are on track for success.
An MBA requires a big investment of time and money. It’s not a cakewalk. So you can’t present half-baked reasons for wanting it. If you do, you will be seen as a risky admit who will squander opportunities while at school, or, worse, struggle with the coursework.
You need to present solid career objectives with a well-defined career path. It may be helpful to break them down into short- and long-term career goals. Develop a realistic plan. The more specific you can be, the better.
Business schools seek out applicants who have worked full-time for several years. There are three main reasons for this:
Business school is designed for students to learn from their classmates. So your individual contribution is important. If you work for too many years, however, you might be too advanced to benefit from a traditional two-year MBA. An Executive MBA degree may be more appropriate.
Sure, you need to show admissions committees that you have solid skills and are an excellent candidate. But many applicants mistake solidness with being boring. Yawn. Others go into overdrive about their accomplishments. You need to present a well-rounded and interesting image of yourself.
One of the most important things you can do to rise above your peers is to be distinctive. A little different. We can’t tell you what that means. For each person it is unique.
Perhaps you have a social service bent to your experiences and passions. Maybe you enter cooking contests in your spare time, or have become a hot sauce aficionado. Whatever it is that makes you interesting, bring it. This includes illustrating soft skills like character and leadership.
Round out your application with something fun or interesting about yourself. The admissions committee is not seeking automatons in power suits. They want to build a dynamic, diverse, well-rounded class of MBA students. Show them that you belong in that group.
Managers who know you well can recommend you on both a professional and personal level. They can provide specific examples of your accomplishments, skills, and, importantly, character. They can speak to your maturity, especially if you are a younger candidate. Additionally, they can elevate your candidacy and convey a high level of confidence in you.
You will likely need to prep them on what to write. Left to their own devices, recommenders may leave out your best features or forget about some of your greatest accomplishments. Remind them of those activities and projects in which you achieved success. You should also discuss the total picture you are trying to create. Your recommendation letters should reinforce what you are saying about yourself in your essays. They can address weaknesses — for example a mediocre math GMAT score — by playing up the financial skills required for the work you do.
You will likely need to write one essay about why you want to attend a specific school. Think of this as a love letter to the program. You will want to describe their glowing features, how they make you feel ,and how much you want to be part of their MBA student body.
Make that MBA essay swoon-worthy by demonstrating that you really get the school and all of their offerings. Try to uncover the qualities they value in their candidates, and emphasize the ways in which you possess those qualities.
The best way to do this is to research the program thoroughly. You can go beyond the brochure by attending campus events, speaking to staff and department heads, sitting in on classes, and asking to connect with some current students.
Write a love letter. Make it authentic. And make it clear that this is a match.