Business Administration

What Makes a Strong MBA Application?

What Makes a Strong MBA Application?
The key elements of an MBA application rarely change. Applications cover standardized test scores, personal essays, letters of recommendation, undergraduate transcripts, resumes, and sometimes in-person interviews. Image from Unsplash
Abigail Cahill profile
Abigail Cahill January 30, 2021

Your MBA application should tell a compelling story with a happy ending: your acceptance to the school of your choice. Here's how to improve your chances.

MBA/Business Programs You Should Consider

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If ever there was a year to make sure your MBA application is strong, 2021 is it. After five years of double-digit declines in MBA applications, business schools saw double-digit increases in MBA applications this past fall. Thanks to COVID-19, there is also a glut of already-admitted MBA students claiming spots previously deferred. Grad school application rates typically rise during a recession, and brother, are we in one. The pandemic has a chokehold on the global economy.

An MBA most directly impacts earning potential. Many MBA graduates also cite their degree skills’ transferability across industries and disciplines as a primary benefit. They value their sharpened strategic judgment and ability to propel real-time action, especially when data are incomplete and circumstances less than ideal. Regardless of whether you plan to earn your MBA online or on campus, competition is fierce.

Business schools seek candidates who excel personally and lead others to shared success while building positive relationships. They look for diverse experiences and backgrounds to ensure lively collaborative learning and foster strong networks across industries down the line. Lastly, they look to future-proof their reputations and prize candidates with qualities necessary to succeed post-MBA.

So, __what makes a strong MBA application? To answer this, we’ll walk through the application process and MBA requirements. In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • MBA admissions process
  • What makes a strong MBA application?
  • Prepare for good news and bad news

MBA admissions process

The key elements of an MBA application rarely change. Applications cover standardized test scores, personal essays, letters of recommendation, undergraduate transcripts, resumes, and sometimes in-person interviews. Apply as early as possible, and make sure every element of your application tells a compelling, unified story.

When do MBA applications open?

Most on-campus MBA programs have several rounds of admissions. Each program opens the rounds according to its own admissions process, so it is imperative to research the dates individually. That said, the first round of admissions generally begins in September and runs through October. Some programs begin Round 2 in October, but most Round 2 dates land around the new year. Round 3 dates vary greatly and stretch from January to April. Schools offering a Round 4 tend to have earlier Round 3 dates.

Check your desired programs’ dates carefully, and back your application process out from the earliest one.

On-campus MBA programs typically launch once a year, in the fall. In contrast, online MBA programs can have two, three, or four launches per year, with an admissions round for each. If you’re anxious to start your MBA and don’t want to wait until next fall, an online MBA program can offer you the opportunity to begin sooner.

When are MBA applications due?

The date an admissions round “opens” is, in fact, the application deadline; from then on, the school has opened its deliberations for that round, and no further applications are accepted.


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What makes a strong MBA application?

Undergraduate GPA

Admissions teams expect a solid academic foundation; no program wants to see students struggle to complete the coursework, drop out, or fail to hire well at the end of the degree—all of which tarnish a school’s reputation and rank. Students invest a staggering amount of time and money in an MBA program, but the program is also betting on them.

If your undergraduate GPA is lower than your desired school’s average, consider addressing your academic record head-on elsewhere in the application. Perhaps you focused on a leadership role in an extracurricular activity, dealt with a severe illness, or stepped in to run the family business on short notice. None of those reasons are evident in your official transcripts, and ultimately they may be striking enough to strengthen your chances of acceptance.

Even if you don’t have a compelling narrative around a low GPA, focusing on boosting all the other elements of your application, particularly your GMAT scores, can diminish the importance of undergraduate academic performance. An impressive post-undergraduate professional career, demonstrated through your resume, can be particularly effective in offsetting subpar college grades.

A strong GMAT showing can balance a low GPA, but the reverse simply isn’t true. Concentrate your efforts on what you can impact now (hint: it’s not your bachelor’s degree).

GMAT scores

While your GPA is an unchangeable historical snapshot and a reasonably broad metric to boot, your GMAT score gives schools an immediate and specific window into your current quantitative skills and ability to keep pace academically.

It’s within your power to improve your official score, so test early in the application process if you suspect your score might warrant a re-do. You can take the GMAT up to five times in a calendar year.

Top-tier schools look for 720 or above, whereas top 50 programs consider scores in the 600s. Bear in mind that MBA programs pay particular attention to the diversity of their class compositions; they aim to foster a vibrant exchange of ideas and create opportunities for students to network with peers they might never otherwise meet. For that reason, if you’re in an over-represented group, your score should be significantly higher than the program’s average. Conversely, if you bring rare industry or cultural experience to the table, you may do well despite a lower-than-average score.

Some business schools are temporarily waiving the GMAT/GRE requirement due to Covid. Even before the pandemic, there has been a shift toward more schools selectively waiving GMAT requirements or making test scores optional. If you’re mulling a waiver or opting not to include your scores when other applicants will, consider the strength of the rest of your application. Suppose you have demonstrable experience in a quantitative field coupled with a high GPA in a similarly challenging subject matter (particularly economics, analytics, or STEM undergraduate degrees), and you simply haven’t had time to take the test. In that case, it may behoove you to skip the test to apply in an earlier round. Beware, though, that accepting a waiver can disqualify you for scholarship funds.

MBA resume

A successful MBA application resume covers skills, work experience, and achievements, but it must do so in a way that communicates growth to date and future potential.

When in doubt, highlight progression and accomplishments over individual job titles and lists of responsibilities. Achievements demonstrate personal growth, leadership, and initiative. Demonstrable momentum gives the admission team confidence they’re making a good bet.

Essentially the resume is the scannable supporting document for your essay. Make sure everything on it supports the story your MBA essay tells. Personal interest and hobbies add meaningful color, but they must ladder up to the desirable character traits demonstrated in the essay.

MBA essay

What will an MBA allow you to achieve, and why is this program the best place to prepare for that future growth?

Your essay must address the central questions of why you want the degree, why now, and why this program is the best fit. For maximum impact, take a holistic approach. The key to boosting your candidacy lies in linking those three elements together in one cohesive narrative. When your career goals require skills and experiences that only this program offers, and your essay demonstrates your strengths and dedication, you’ve made it easy for the admissions team to get to yes.

Consistency and clarity of purpose are critical in the entire admissions process, but particularly in the essay. Highlight your wide-ranging experience and openness to innovative problem-solving, but be sure every example and anecdote supports a consistent and dedicated path toward your current career goal.

The essay is a great place to put your personal story and interests to work. If you lived abroad as a kid because your parents were in the military, tell a story that demonstrates how those experiences widened your sense of the world. If you failed spectacularly in a transformational way (remember that discussion of low GPAs above?), now is the time to show your capacity for self-reflection and growth. If determination and grit are essential character traits in your application, absolutely discuss how you put yourself through undergrad on a fencing scholarship.

Including work material is a good idea, but make it compelling and personal. Avoid lengthy descriptions of common business projects; the admissions team can infer that from your resume. But the story of how you won over a cranky teammate could seal the deal.

When done, it’s wise to get at least two sets of eyes on your MBA essay: someone who knows you well and someone who doesn’t. The former can evaluate whether you’re missing key character traits, and the latter can tell you what’s coming through to a party unbiased by a previous relationship. Consider giving them the essay without the school’s prompt, and see if they can guess what question you’re answering.

Whatever story you choose to tell, make sure only you could tell it.

Letters of recommendation

Specificity and enthusiasm make successful letters of recommendation, not the recommender’s status or connection to the school. A generic letter of recommendation harms your application, even if the recommender is renowned. It signals that those close to your work either won’t speak meaningfully about it or that you value stature over proximity. Additionally, it could indicate you’re the pestering type, which does not bode well for future networking.

If your recommender asks you to draft the letter, that’s a red flag: they are either too busy or simply don’t know you well enough. Instead, ask someone who can speak effusively about your character and the quality of your work.

MBA interviews

If the admissions team finds your application compelling, they may invite you to interview.

Interviewers look to evaluate the authenticity of your application. Do the career goals and character traits outlined on paper shine through in person? Does your demeanor predict you’ll perform well in future hiring interviews?

They also want to suss out how enthused you are about the program, showing the depth and breadth of your research. Be sure to mention any connections you’ve fostered with faculty, alumni, or current students. It demonstrates your commitment and likelihood to accept a spot.

Your interview could be with admissions team members, current students, or alumni. Tailor your prep accordingly. You’ll want to demonstrate warmth, collegiality, and a strong sense of purpose with a current student. A representative from the admissions office will know your application in detail, so give additional information to fill in gaps and answer for weaknesses. Alumni interviewers could be managing directors at major banks, intrepid entrepreneurs, or passionate non-profit founders. Research their careers in advance to predict and prepare for their interview style.

Prepare for good news and bad news

The hustle is over, momentarily. Your online applications are in. You’ve secured the highest GMAT possible, solicited recommendation letters from trusted mentors, nailed the interview, and even paid off the non-refundable application fees on your credit card. After all that effort, investment, and self-reflection, how long do you have to wait to hear from the admissions committee?

Decision dates vary as widely as round opening dates. Some full-time MBA programs inform Round 1 applicants of their admission status as early as mid-October. Most, though, extend Round 1 admissions and rejections to December.

In the best-case scenario, you’ll face a difficult decision between two top choices.

If one admissions committee offers a more attractive financial package, take the long-term view of return on investment (ROI). Spending more now to attend a school with access to stellar faculty, peer networks, and future opportunities can significantly increase your post-MBA earning potential.

Assuming both programs offer similar financial packages and are equally prestigious, pick the business school focused on your career goals. While it may seem alluring to be the financial whiz at a program focused on marketing, you’ll benefit more by learning with peers with similar career goals.

What if you’re rejected even from your safety school? Don’t despair. It’s possible to re-apply successfully after you take a hard look at your application’s weaknesses.

A re-applicant should first examine whether they’ve targeted the right schools and optimize fit. If your standardized test score can improve, take the exam a second time. Then, consider whether a weak recommendation letter may have dinged your candidacy. A recommender who knows you better can make all the difference.

Some admissions teams will, upon request, offer useful feedback on your application after deadlines close for the year. If you come back stronger the second time, they may credit your tenacity, ability to act on constructive criticism and dedication to the program.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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