The Complete MBA Admissions Process Explained
Applying to business school can be overwhelming. Most people are trying to excel at a full-time job, participate in extracurricular activities, score as high as possible on the GMAT, keep up their relationships with friends and family, and breathe all at the same time. The pressure can make the task at hand seem impossible. To keep your sanity -- and improve your chances of getting into your top-choice MBA program -- you need to take the application one step at a time. By breaking it down into small chunks, the admissions process seems conquerable. And it is. Really. Here's the entire MBA admissions process explained:
- The Standardized Test Scores
- The MBA Application Essays
- Application Timing
- Undergraduate GPA Requirements
- Pre-MBA Work Experience
- Letters of Recommendation
- The MBA Interviews
Should you take the GMAT or the GRE?
Truly, one could write an encyclopedia's worth of text on the raging debate about whether to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) when applying to business school. We'll spare you by offering the basics, so you can make an informed choice. Traditionally, business schools required the GMAT, and the GRE was for undergrads interested in going into other graduate programs right after graduation.
Then, a few years ago, ETS, makers of the GRE, campaigned to get business schools to accept both exams in their application. Having the option was appealing because it would attract younger applicants, those who wanted to pursue dual degrees, and anyone who was undecided about whether to go to b-school or another graduate program. Most schools, including the top ones, signed on and now accept either the GRE or the GMAT.
Which is better? The GMAT vs. the GRE
Essentially, the GRE and GMAT test the same things -- quantitative, verbal, and writing skills. But there are differences. Both are computer-adaptive tests, but the GRE is offered on paper in parts of the world where computers are unavailable, whereas the GMAT is not. Also, the GRE has test takers write two essays and complete two verbal sections, two quantitative sections, and an experimental section that can be either verbal or quantitative. The GMAT, on the other hand, has test takers write one essay and complete one each of verbal, quantitative, and integrated reasoning sections.
Some admissions and test prep consultants have suggested that the GRE has an easier quantitative section, so non-traditional b-school candidates, who might not be math whizzes, should do that one. But the admissions process is about finding the right fit. If you can't handle the rigor of the quant sections on either of the tests, you might want to reconsider earning an MBA. And schools will recognize your weaknesses when considering your scores with your grades, so don't even try to pull a fast one on them.
What you should do is determine which exams your target schools accept. Even then you should research how the admissions committee really feels. Some schools say they accept both but will ignore the GRE if a candidate provides a GMAT score, too. Others actually express a preference for the GMAT even if they accept the GRE. Paying attention to nuance -- and asking if you're in doubt -- are necessities. While the GRE is accepted at many schools, most applicants still take and submit a GMAT score instead.
Still, if you have taken the GRE and the schools to which you are applying accept it, then that should be enough. "If you are worried about how you look by taking one test vs. another, I say, 'don't worry unless the school really makes a point of it (like at UCLA Anderson School of Management, where the GRE is accepted but the GMAT is preferred),'" writes Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions in Berkeley, California, in the blog entry, "GMAT or GRE?"
How admissions committees interpret GMAT scores
Most admissions directors at business schools will tell you that the standardized test score is one component of the application and does not carry more weight than the others. That's true. But it is also one of the first parts they look at when considering your admission, so it is like your first impression.
To start with, you actually receive five scores. The GMAT will spit out the following results:
- Total score (ranging from 200 to 800)
- Math subscore (ranging from 0 to 60)
- Verbal subscore (ranging from 0 to 60)
- AWA (essay) score (ranging from 0 to 6)
- Integrated reasoning subscore (ranging from 1 to 8)
Then, you have the percentile rank, which represents the proportion of test takers who scored lower than you on the test. The higher the percentile, the better you did against other test takers. For example, if you received a score in the 61 percentile then you did better than 61 percent of test takers.
In addition, your score is used to determine whether you can handle the rigor of the MBA curriculum. Of course, your undergraduate GPA, and grades from any other courses you've taken, will also showcase your abilities. Again, however, the GMAT or GRE will begin this part of the conversation for the admissions committee. With stiffer competition all around, you want to start off on the right foot with a good score and an especially good showing in the quant parts of the exams.
So what GMAT score is considered "in the ballpark?"
Because the GRE is relatively new to b-school admissions and there's not much in the way of making comparisons yet, the rest of this section is going to focus on the GMAT. Clearly, the test is to be taken seriously. You should look at both the range of GMAT scores and the average and median scores of those admitted to your target schools in recent years. An online search will easily uncover these numbers. The next step is how to read them without getting totally intimidated.
Consider your score against how well other GMAT test takers scored across the nation in the graph below.
*Average GMAT score for Men and Women test takers in 2012, 2012 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).
Learning the median GMAT at a top business school is 730 might make you want to throw in the towel before you start. Take a deep breath and gain some perspective. That same school has a range of 550 to 780, which means someone with a score as low as 550 received an acceptance letter. That range is also confirmation that the GMAT score truly is a cog in the wheel that is your application.
Can I take the test 15 times and just report my highest score?
Sort of. Before the GMAT exam begins, they will ask you which schools you would like your scores forwarded to, this is called your "GMAT transcript". The fees required for sending test scores is already included in the cost of the test, but to forward your scores to other schools you may be charged a fee. You can also elect not to have your scores forwarded to any schools.
Your transcript will report only your three most recent scores. So if you took the test four times and scored 450 each time, but didn't have your scores forwarded, you could still pull off that miraculous 700 the fifth time and then send your scores. The admissions office would see only two 450's and a 700.
How to prepare for standardized exams
While many test prep instructors advise students to pursue their target school even if their GMAT score is a bit lower than the median, they want them to realize the score still has some heft to it. "Your score is the gateway piece of your application," says Arthur Ahn, director of pre-business and pre-graduate programs for Kaplan test prep in New York. "If admissions officers don't like what they see, they may not even get to the other pieces of the application, even if the rest of what you submit is outstanding."
The next step is to start taking practice tests. Two full-length tests with answers are available online as part of a free practice prep program from GMAC, the makers of the GMAT. But you can also purchase books or take tests provided by tutors or a test prep company should you decide to pay for such courses, which are offered both online or in person. "If test taking is not your forte, you really should take a GRE or GMAT course," adds Massar in her blog.
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How important is the MBA application essay?
Just about every business school application has students write essays or brief responses to questions. This is your chance to become something more than a number in the eyes of the admissions committee. It's an opportunity to tell your story, and persuade readers to let you into a particular program. In fact, most admissions directors will tell you that a good essay is more important than retaking your GMAT to push your score up a few points.
For starters, following directions is of the utmost importance. Read the question carefully, and make sure you are answering it. One of the biggest gripes admissions staff has is that applicants fail to answer the questions. Some consultants have suggested writing your answer and then having someone else read it and guess the question. If the guess is wrong, you have to start over. It's one way to stay on track and make sure you are addressing what the school is asking.
Remember all you learned in middle school when you first started writing papers. All that stuff will come in handy now. Your essay should have good structure with a beginning, middle, and end. The information should flow in a logical order. And you must proofread. Spelling and grammar mistakes will earn you a spot on the freeway to rejection. After all, the world's future business leaders cannot be careless. Still, an essay with perfect form is nothing if it's boring.
Think about it. Admissions committee members read hundreds of essays per year, and it can become monotonous. That doesn't mean you need to come up with a gimmick. Using lively language, anecdotes from your personal and work life, and examples from the research you've done on the school and your career goals are all wonderful ways to make the essay exciting. Make sure some of your colorful personality comes through.
What to write in the MBA application essay
Ultimately, schools are trying to find out what differentiates you from other candidates and if you will be a good fit in their program. Linda Abraham, president of the admissions consultancy Accepted.com in Los Angeles, offers this advice:
"Effective application essays relate something important to you and impressive about you. They are personally revealing and they ideally should demonstrate fit with the program, if not explicitly than implicitly.
When you write an application essay, realize that it's not mere padding for the stats and boxes. The purpose is best expressed with the acronym, PAD:
- Provide a window into the real you.
- Add value to the application.
- Demonstrate your writing ability."
While each school has its own specific questions, there are some universal truths about you that they are seeking to learn:
- Why you are pursuing an MBA
- Why you are targeting this particular school
- How this school can help you achieve your career goals
- What you will bring to the class discussion and campus
- Something unique about you
Let's look in depth at each of these points:
1. Why are you pursuing an MBA?
You need to explain what motivated you to earn an MBA and how this program and then degree fits into your long-term career plan. Too many candidates get thrust into the MBA application process by corporate culture. They are working in an investment bank or consulting firm and they reach the point in their career when it is expected they go back to business school. They don't give enough thought to how this degree fits into their personal plans. So, make sure you do that and find a way to express your reasons in the essay.
2. Why are you targeting this particular school?
Business schools are well aware of the fact that you are applying to a few of them. They want to know what it is that you like about their particular program. There's no room for generalizations here. When addressing this in essays, you have to be clear about what separates this business school from the others in your mind. To know exactly what to write, you need to do your homework. Visiting campus, reading about the school, and talking to students and alumni about the culture are great ways to arrive at this point. Don't ever just copy and paste essays from one application to another. The schools recognize this, and they don't want to be just any business school. They want to be the one.
3. How can this school help you achieve your career goals?
Once you've established what makes this school special, you can share how it fits into your career plan. For instance, if you eventually want to manage a hospital, then you can point out that the school's healthcare management degree and well-known research hospital make it fertile training ground for someone with your aspirations. This part of the essay writing requires serious self-analysis and reflection. The clearer your career plans, the better your application will be. Frankly, knowing what you want to do will give you a jumpstart on the career search when you enter business school, too.
4. What will you bring to the class discussion and campus?
One of the draws to business school is that students learn as much from each other as they do from professors. That's because most of them have been working in the real world for five or more years. Admissions wants to know what kind of work experience and background you have, so that it can put together a well-rounded, diverse class that will feed off each other, so to speak. Granted, there is some truth to the often spread rumors that you'll be competing against those in your industry and from your country (in the case of international applicants) for a limited number of spots in each category.
Most applicants come from investment banking and consulting, but schools don't want only those students to make up the class. So, there is some extra competition for them. Still, if you can show that you'll be an asset to the program, then you can increase your chances of getting in. First, make sure to include anecdotes from your professional life that depict you as a good leader, demonstrate how you've learned from mistakes or compensated for personal weaknesses, and show off skills you have acquired. Then, write about the more obvious contributions you can make. For instance, you might want to let the admission staff know if you worked on your school newspaper as an undergraduate and could translate those skills to contribute to the class blog. Just remember to walk the fine line between bragging and sharing your accomplishments. Schools want to accept people who will make good teammates both at school and in the workforce, so humility is a must.
5. Provide something unique about you
Some schools come right out and ask you to share an interesting personal fact about yourself. For others, it still might behoove you to get in a little something unexpected. But you have to be careful. You don't want to provide something that might be construed as inappropriate or irrelevant. Sharing information about singing lead vocals in a grunge rock band is good. It is both interesting and informative because it shows another example of your leadership. Telling the admissions committee how you partied hard after every show is bad. Other items might not be as black and white, so use your judgment.
Of course, you must write -- and rewrite -- your own essays. Having someone else write them for you is unethical, and schools that recognize your dishonesty will reject you right off the bat. But you can have friends, family, or even professional consultants read your essays and offer feedback. Take the constructive criticism and make edits. Try to give yourself enough time to leave the essays alone for a while and then return to them with fresh eyes to re-read and make any changes you feel are necessary.
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How important is the MBA GPA requirement?
Not very surprisingly, business schools want to see your undergraduate transcript. You'll have to get an official one from your alma mater and have it sent to the school. Admissions committee members will analyze it to see your GPA, but also to assess the types of courses you took, how rigorous they were, and what they say about your ability to handle all the quant work you'll have to do at b-school and beyond.
Your GMAT (or GRE) score together with these grades will paint a picture about your abilities. Schools are looking to pick students who will succeed in the job search, which means they want people who can handle the academic rigor and bring to recruiters good grades that prove their skills. From the start, everyone wants to see you succeed, which is why schools reject students who don't show the necessary acumen.
Perhaps you weren't very mature when you first went off to college, or you were just sowing wild oats and don't have a GPA that is truly reflective of your abilities. It happens. And admissions committees, who work at universities, are well aware of the phenomenon. However, you'll still have to do some work to redeem yourself.
What to do if your GPA isn't high enough
For starters, you could take courses at a local university ahead of applying. Get the best grades possible, preferably an A but nothing lower than a B, and include those grades in your application. This is also a good idea for those non-traditional candidates, who may have earned good grades but did not take any of those challenging quant courses that b-schools want to see on the transcript. Of course, earning a high score on the GMAT or GRE is also important. This serves as proof that you just weren't showing your true potential back when you were an undergrad and that you're up to the challenge that is an MBA program.
Almost every school provides extra space to share anything that wasn't covered elsewhere. You can use the area to explain your low undergraduate GPA. If you do this, be sure to avoid making excuses. Take responsibility for your grades and share how you've redeemed yourself and your plan for future academic success. Keep it brief and to the point.
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What business schools want to know about your experience
Most applicants have worked four to five years before applying to business school, and admissions committees want to know what they've been doing. Work experience is an important part of the application because the admissions folks want to put together a diverse class from a variety of industries. This makes the classroom discussion, team projects, and networking richer. Just knowing your industry and function is not enough.
You will share specifics about your work experience through a resume. Just like the rest of the application, you should follow directions. Don't make it longer than the school asks. Usually, one page is all you need. Follow a professional template if one isn't already provided. Again, be sure to proofread and use the same style throughout.
What is most important is that you are descriptive in your brief write-ups of each position you've held since graduating college. For instance, instead of simply writing that you worked on budgets, write exactly how much money you saved the company. If done well, the resume should not only show the jobs you've held but also the accomplishments you've achieved at each.
Work experience, as you probably expect, infiltrates other parts of the application, too. You'll also be discussing your professional life in the essays and interviews. Citing examples from work that show how you overcame a challenge, what you learned from a failure, how you united with a team, or when you demonstrated leadership are welcome additions. In fact, you should learn to briefly describe each, so when the opportunity arises to slip them into conversation in an interview either for school or a future job, you can do it in a concise and precise manner. Of course, again, you need to walk the line between bragging and speaking up about your accomplishments.
What if you changed jobs before applying?
Sometimes, there are gaps in your work history. Perhaps, you took time off after college or you were laid off. Business schools realize that these things happen. But they need to be explained. You can use that additional essay space that schools usually provide. You should keep the explanation short and avoid making excuses for a gap caused by something like a lay off. Take full responsibility, describe what you learned, how you wisely spent the time off, and how it improved your career, even and especially if it's what led you to apply to business school.
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How to choose the right person to recommend you
Your recommenders have one job: to confirm all the good stuff you have shared about yourself in the rest of the application. Some schools provide the recommenders with templates and questions for writing their letters. Make sure to instruct your recommender to carefully follow directions and provide the admissions committee with exactly what it needs.
There's no harm in providing a bit of instruction to your recommenders. Asking them to back up their declarative statements with proof of your skills is a good idea, says Abraham. "If they write that you handle difficult interpersonal situations with calm and outstanding listening skills, they should follow up with an anecdote in which you navigated a sticky situation with aplomb," she adds. "General, generic declarative statements that are not backups with examples are the kiss of death in letters of recommendation."
Knowing who to ask to provide a recommendation can be tricky. Recommenders should have worked with you in some capacity, and should know you and your work style well. They should be ethical people, which means they should not ask you to write the recommendation and just have them sign it. This is a risky proposition, because if an admissions committee catches on, you'll definitely get rejected.
"Your recommenders should be people who can comment objectively on your work performance and with whom you have worked for a prolonged period of time," according to the blog entry, "How to Choose the Right Recommender for MBA Admissions," written by Mennette Larkin, co-founder and director of Admissions Unlimited in Austin, Texas. "One other thing, choose someone with whom you have worked in the last two years." Someone who worked with you earlier in your career will be writing about your potential and not your present abilities, explains Larkin.
What if you don't want your employer to know you are leaving?
Ideally, at least one of your recommenders will be your current supervisor. Some MBA applicants don't want their employer to know they are planning to leave the company for school. In that case, you can try asking a former supervisor or other manager in the company, who will keep your application confidential, suggests Larkin. Refrain from asking a colleague, who holds a similar position, because b-schools really want to hear from someone who has managed you, and not a peer, she adds. Often schools ask for a second or even third recommender. You can ask someone with whom you volunteered or did some sort of other extracurricular activity. If you do that, make sure the person has witnessed your leadership and management abilities firsthand.
One common error is to ask a CEO or other VIP, who has some vague connection to the applicant or owes someone a favor, to write the recommendation. Once readers get past the big name and title, they will realize that this major player knows little, if anything, about the candidate and it does nothing to boost his or her chances of admission. So, unless you personally know one of these folks -- and he or she knows how you operate -- ask someone else. While your mom might know you better than anyone, she is not an objective voice, so forget about asking friends and family.
And be sure to thank your recommenders. A formal thank you card and a shout out when you get accepted are nice touches.
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How to prepare for the MBA interview
Many business schools narrow down the list of applicants before issuing invitations for interviews, while others make interviews available to everyone. Usually, you are preparing for an in-person interview, which can take place on campus or off campus at an eatery or coffee shop. Admissions committee members and second-year students often conduct on-campus interviews, and alumni handle those off campus, sometimes in cities outside of the school's region. Nowadays, however, some applicants -- especially those who live far away -- have interviews via videoconference. Regardless, preparing for what to say is the same.
For starters, you should become well acquainted with the application you sent. Pay special attention to what you wrote in the essays, particularly what you pointed out about your career goals and the connections between them and the school with which you are interviewing. Pick up on examples from your work life that support what you wrote about yourself. Practice boiling them down to a couple of sentences each, so you don't ramble. You can say it a few times in front of a mirror if it helps. Larkin offers the following advice in the blog entry, "You've Been Invited to an MBA Interview -- Now What?":
"Most business school interviews are behavioral in focus and often questions begin, 'Tell me about a time…' Past performance predicts future behavior, so have lots of examples in mind of various professional situations you have been in. These questions are best answered by briefly setting up the situation, describing the task or challenge you had to handle, then going into more detail about the actions you took, and finishing with the results. The mnemonic for this is either STAR or CAR."
Wear professional clothes -- suit and tie for men and appropriate suit or dress for women. Make sure you're not wearing anything that will distract from the conversation. For example, save the bangle bracelets that make a lot of noise if you move and big, dangly earrings for Saturday night at the club.
Be on time for the interview. Once you arrive, try not to fidget, be polite, replete with firm handshake, and be sure to answer the questions you are being asked without babbling on and on. Remember there is a bit of a time limit, even if it isn't openly expressed.
While you can't be certain of every question you'll be asked, there are a few universals that usually come up in all admissions interviews. First, you'll probably receive questions about your upbringing and background, work experience (think, "walk me through your resume"), and reasons for seeking an MBA at this particular institution. You should have brief, yet descriptive answers, ready for all these questions. Practice answering them, so you avoid droning on or getting off topic. In fact, many consultants, including Larkin, suggest getting a business school expert to conduct a mock interview with you, so he or she can offer constructive feedback.
Of course, send a thank you note, either handwritten or via email. Larkin says you should do this within 24 hours of the interview.
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The importance of timing your MBA Application
Deciding when to apply is a personal decision. Some people know for years that they are going to pursue an MBA degree, while others unexpectedly become dissatisfied with their careers and see the MBA as the solution. But it is helpful to know how the admissions committee times its deadlines and work. Check on the school's policies about rolling admissions or order of submissions, suggests Massar. "Clearly Columbia Business School has rolling admissions, but won't look at regular decision applications until it is finished with early decision applications," she notes. "Most other schools have a hard deadline, and it usually doesn't matter about the timestamp."
If you can get your application in for the first round, you might be giving yourself a bit of an edge. After all, you'll be among the first group to be considered for a particular class. Pacing yourself, so that you are never rushed, is also important. "This is a project management exercise: you have to juggle yourself, the required standardized tests, your other application materials such as the resume and transcripts, and, importantly, your recommenders," says Massar. Since the recommendations are up to someone else to complete, you should give them plenty of warning and instruction, she adds. Still, if you get your application in early, but you haven't given enough attention to it, the admissions committees will notice and you might not get into your target programs. The best answer to the question of when to apply to business school: when you're 100 percent ready.
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