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6 Mistakes to Avoid When Applying to Business School

B-school application mistakesBusiness school applications can be the start of your journey toward your dream job -- or the end. In the rush to meet deadlines, sometimes applicants make simple mistakes that prove all too costly.

"My advice to applicants is to treat the application process like a full-time job," says Nirav Mehta, associate director at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "It is necessary to complete applications with commitment and care."

That's why, if you're working on your b-school application, you should make sure to avoid these common blunders:

Sending the same application to every school

People get lazy and don't want to write a unique application for every school they are applying to. The problem is that each school has a different culture and is looking for different qualities in candidates, and they all ask different questions, says Mennette Larkin, co-founder and director of Admissions Unlimited in Austin, Texas. "Cutting and pasting isn't usually a good idea," she adds.

Instead, applicants should give serious thought to what they want the admissions committee at each school to know about them. They should make a point to demonstrate the connections between their qualities and the school's culture, as well as how their specific career goals align with the program they're applying to. Of course, this means they have to do serious research -- reading about the program, visiting campus or taking virtual tours, and talking to students, alumni, or professors.

Not paying attention to details

Unfortunately, many working professionals rush through the MBA admissions process and fail to catch stupid mistakes, such as misspelled words or grammatical errors. One of the worst offenses is using the wrong school or university name in essays, another reason to avoid the copy-and-paste approach. Another error is simply failing to follow directions by submitting more recommendation letters than requested, mailing materials when everything should be uploaded to a website, or ignoring the word limits for essays, says Rebekah S. Lewin, assistant dean of Admissions and Student Engagement at University of Rochester's Simon Business School.

Failing to pick a career route

One of the greatest myths around is that MBA programs are a good place to explore career options. While you'll have a chance to learn about different jobs, you need to have a pretty good idea of what you want to do from the start. "Admissions officers know the reality of the situation: There is very little time for exploration because students will begin searching for summer jobs early in the first year," says Mehta. "Thus, it is critical that students have a focused career plan and convey it in the application."

Schools want to pick students who will succeed in the job search and help others do the same. In other words, take time to reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, and capabilities before the application. This will help you present a more focused career vision, and give you a better chance of choosing a business school and MBA program that aligns with your goals.

Screwing up the recommendation

The recommendation portion of an application is your chance to have someone else confirm what you've shared about yourself in the essays. Lots of applicants ask the wrong people to write their recommendations. Don't get caught up in the prestige of having a CEO, congressman, or other VIP write about you unless he or she knows you well. "In essence, recommenders should care about you getting in," says Arthur Ahn, director of pre-business and pre-graduate programs for Kaplan Test Prep, "almost as much as you do."

Oftentimes, applicants get talked into writing their own letters of recommendation by busy or apathetic recommenders, who simply sign their name on the finished product. "Savvy admissions staff can recognize self-written rec letters a mile away," warns Ahn, "and some have even banned them, so there's that." Just say no. Someone who can vouch for your greatness will be willing to write a letter on your behalf.

Dropping the ball in the interview

Many programs require a face-to-face interview as part of the application. Of course, you should be well-mannered and ready to answer obvious questions, such as "Why the MBA? Why now? Why this school?" Try to avoid squirming and fidgeting -- usually a result of nerves -- as it can distract interviewers. You also need to be dressed appropriately. As more schools permit long-distance applicants to interview via video conference, there's more room for error. Applicants forget to take down inappropriate images in their living room or bedroom, or don't tidy up before the interview, says Ruthie Pyles, director of Graduate Programs Admissions and Recruitment at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. In one instance, a student with a mirror behind him was dressed in business casual only from the waist up -- and lacking appropriate attire from the waist down. Yikes!

Living up to the stereotype

Over the years, MBAs have gained a reputation for greed and arrogance. Business schools know that these characteristics don't make for successful leaders. No one wants these types on their teams at school or in the office. While you must share your accomplishments, you have to avoid stepping into Braggersville. "I have also seen many people pat themselves on the back rather than incorporate their story with the school fit," says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions in Berkeley, Calif. "That is especially troubling when they are writing for a school, such as UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, where one of the four defining principles is 'confidence without attitude.'"

You want the application to sing your praises and prove your work experience. You want the admissions committee to feel as if they know you -- and like you. "If the application doesn't make your best friend smile, your mom blush, your boss jealous, and your worst enemy furious, then it's not good enough," says Dan Bauer, CEO and founder of the MBA Exchange in Chicago. "Start over." And, yes, letting some of those folks critique your application isn't a bad idea either. After all, you can continue to refine right up until you turn it in.