How To Get Into Business School

The MBA Admissions Edge

It’s not just the triumvirate of Harvard, Stanford and Wharton whose admissions offices are awash with applications from former East Coast bankers, fretting Midwest auto industry managers and disenfranchised West Coast software experts. With the number of people taking the GMAT admissions text expected to reach a record level by the end of 2009, the competition for places in the world’s top business school classrooms is fierce.

The numbers look intimidating. There are 9,093 candidates for the 942 places at Harvard Business School (at least they’ve added 40 more places), and 17 candidates for every one opening at Stanford. U.S. applicants to the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School have increased 16% in each of the last three years. And if you think business schools in Europe are any more accessible, you’re wrong. Places at top schools like Insead and HEC Paris are in record demand, while applicant numbers at Esade in Spain are up 56% over last year.

So how can you get in? There is good news amid the raw data. Pete Johnson, the admissions director at Haas, explains that the sheer number of applicants does not determine your chance of success. “Regardless of the volume, the most important factor is always the quality of the application,” he says. “The applications that stand out are those from people who have strong academic preparation, good work experience and letters of recommendation and a clear understanding of what they will gain from their M.B.A. experience.”

Quantity doesn’t mean quality. You can take great comfort from that. Plenty of other candidates will fall by the wayside from lack of self-awareness and introspection, limited knowledge of a school, or the inability to stay organized and on top of the admissions process. Those are all matters you have in your control, as long as you keep a focus on your individual performance as an applicant.

In fact, don’t even think about the thousands of others competing for a place. An M.B.A. admissions office doesn’t work in thousands; it looks only at individuals. It aims to select a well-rounded class that reflects the talent, leadership, internationalism and diversity to which the school aspires. Because there is no one definition of business talent, each school assembles its class one person at a time. An officer returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan is unlikely to be competing for a place with a private equity analyst. An information technology consultant at a software services company in Bangalore is typically not up against a marketing executive at a luxury goods business. Each of those people has a unique story to tell, whether of personal integrity, razor-sharp quantitative skills, ethical accountability or community engagement.

So go ahead and tell your story–and not the one you think the school wants to hear, a common complaint from any admissions officer. Take the time to think through your different personal strengths, enlisting the help of a thoughtful friend or mentor and identifying weaknesses as well. Make note of your various cultural, academic and professional experiences, and think carefully about what they say about you. Identify characteristics that are perhaps not associated with your profession. If you’ve had a career in investment banking, the schools will anticipate that you have analytical skills; they will be pleased to discover your commitment to a social cause, or your strong ethical compass, as described by your recommender. Be specific. Telling of a particular situation where you took a successful initiative, identified a business opportunity or made a distinct difference in a project is infinitely more powerful and memorable than simply stating, “People say I’m creative,” or “I like to get the job done.”

There is no magic formula for getting into a school, thankfully (unless your family can pay for the new east wing of the business school library–that never seems to hurt). There are lots of great ingredients of course, and the top schools will have the pick of applicants with stellar grades, GMAT scores in the 90th percentile, and scads of corporate achievements and community awards. But there is still the room to make a real connection through the disarming authenticity of your personal essays.

“Know yourself” would be the bullet point on the next slide. You cannot overrate the importance of self-awareness and personal insight. Effectively conveying what you have done, where you are headed and what you can bring to the M.B.A. program will help to distinguish your from the other high achievers. We all face points of inflection in our lives, and you need to show the admissions office that you have identified yours.

Next, know the school. Articulate why you want this particular M.B.A. Schools can tell when you’ve used “find and replace” on your word processor, and if you not only mispronounced but also mistyped “Fuqua” when you inserted Duke’s business school in place of Cornell of Michigan–well, you know the importance of first impressions. Those first impressions count. In 40 lines, or maybe 300 words, you will have to show that you have done your homework about a school and can convey a sense of thoughtfulness and motivation about why you and the school will make a great match.

There are plenty of places where you can begin your research, beginning with each school’s Web site and dedicated online M.B.A. resources such as this one. Take the time to look beyond the broader statements about the school and try to identify student testimonials that speak to your own objectives. Look through the school’s executive education overview and its faculty bios to get a better sense of the depth of teaching in any particular area of business interest. And carefully study the school’s career statistics and recruiter data to make sure that not only are future employers actively recruiting there but they are recruiting for your areas of competence. Google might be present as a recruiter but only for positions in finance, not marketing.

Rose Martinelli, associate dean for admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School, says, “Do your research on schools. Know why a particular program fits your educational and personal needs. Though there is only one M.B.A. degree, no two M.B.A. programs are the same.” An increasing number of schools have a member of the career management center involved in the admissions process to assess each applicant’s employability beyond business school. So it is essential that you articulate a coherent career plan that fits not only with your background and skills but also with the culture and opportunities the school provides.

Furthermore, although the schools all recognize the realities of the current job market, and won’t penalize you for the mistakes of your former employer, you must make sure they understand where you want to head next and why. “If you’re just hiding out from the dismal job market, you won’t get in,” Martinelli says. “If you can’t articulate why you want the degree, you’re wasting our time and your own time and money.”

Finally, you’ve got to determine the ideal moment for you to apply to a business school. Despite the claims from certain schools that there is no best time to apply, the majority of schools admit that timing can play an important role. Most of them go through rounds of applications, typically in October, January and March for a September class start. At each of these points, they collect all the interesting files they’ve received and decide whether candidates are in, out or placed on a waiting list. Before decisions are made, the applications are all checked to make sure they’re complete. If any elements of your file are missing, you can expect that file to sit on a desk and collect dust. Being organized is crucial. Make sure that both you and your recommenders have provided everything the schools will need to make a decision.

Which deadline should you aim for? The bottom line is that you should apply to a school when you have a great dossier ready. Quality is more important than timing. If meeting the October deadline means a poorly prepared GMAT test and hurried essays that lack definition and impact, wait for the next round. If, however, you’re preparing well ahead of the game and feel that your dossier is as strong as it ever could be, apply early.

Why? Look at the numbers. A top school may receive more than 4,000 applications a year for 500 places in its M.B.A. program. For the first round deadline in October, all 500 places are typically available (perhaps a small handful of places have already been filled by students with deferrals or exceptional circumstances). The Admissions Committee then starts to offer admission to the best candidates, and by the time you reach the round two deadline in January (my dates and figures are purely illustrative), there may be 250 or so places left. That’s half of them already gone. Continue to the third round deadline in March, and you may be left with only 40 to 60 places still to be filled. Not that long ago, one of the top schools admitted to having only three openings left in its final round, for which it had 2,000 applications. You don’t need an 800 GMAT to crunch those numbers.

Finally, applying in round one gives you more time to make your final decision, with up to three full months to settle on your final choice, versus five or six weeks after round two.

So, more of the admissions process than you’d expect is in your control. Only you can dictate the quality of your application. That brings all the numbers down to one: you.

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