by John Byrne,
If you’re applying to a leading business school anytime soon, you know you face daunting odds. All of the most prominent MBA programs routinely turn down three of every four applicants. The odds are even more severe at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business or Harvard Business School. Stanford rejects 94 out of every 100 candidates. Harvard turns away 89 out of every 100.
How do you sway the odds in your favor? Not unlike elite undergraduate admissions, getting into a branded MBA program can be something of a marathon. Subtle, random things can impact a school’s admit/deny decisions. Even some of the most extraordinary candidates are dinged. And in all of the top school’s applicant pools, a lot of self-selection is going on so you are competing against an amazing array of candidates. It’s commonly believed that as much as 85% of the candidates in a school’s applicant pool are fully qualified to attend and do well in a highly selective MBA program. Yet obviously no really good school admits 85% of its applicants.
Over the years, Poets&Quants has published lots of advice from MBA admission directors and admission consultants. Here’s the best of it:
1. Thoroughly research your schools and programs. Don’t merely apply on the basis of an MBA ranking. Every school has a website, of course, and you should see how each institution presents itself. You should think of those websites, however, as advertisements, an opportunity for a school to put its best foot forward. A great way to start then is to get your hands on a third-party, in-depth report on the school and its MBA experience. These MBA Insider Guides range from 60 pages long on Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management to 91 pages on Harvard Business School. The best part? They are absolutely free from Poets&Quants here.
2. Listen closely to what admission directors have to say about their schools and the process. Many of them have blogs on their school websites, and many more participate in open forums that are recorded and transcribed. While you can expect some spin, a spontaneous conversation that is open to the public is a place where you can more easily judge for yourself what is good candid feedback and what is a bit over the top. Only last month in Boston, the MBA gatekeepers at London Business School, MIT Sloan, Duke Fuqua and Indiana Kelley were on stage at the CentreCourt MBA Festival. Another noteworthy event was The MBA Summit at Michigan’s Ross School of Business earlier this year. The MBA admission directors from Yale, Berkeley and Ross provided uniquely fresh perspectives on both their schools and the application process.
3. Talk to current students and alumni about the programs you’re most interested in and ask them what they think made the difference in their applications to the school. Every school has an ambassador program of students who volunteer to speak with candidates. Take advantage of it. There’s also a way to gain a sense of what alumni think of the MBA program as well as what advice they might offer current applicants. Each year, there’s a Meet The Class series published by Poets&Quants that is a great resource for candidates. The series gives you a sense of the kind of people each school admits and enrolls. More importantly, those incoming students provide insights into why they decided to go to the school.
4. If you have trouble with standardized tests, sign up for an online or in-person course. If you can afford it, hire a tutor. You need to have a solid GRE or GMAT score to get into a top MBA program. But you also need to understand that even a 780 GMAT score won’t get you automatically admitted to any of the three schools. In fact, Berkeley Haas denies close to 60% of the applicants who had a 750 or higher GMAT score. “Take a lot of tests, practice tests, so you get used to it and you know what your range is, and then spend some time researching schools, because you really want to find the right fit for you,” says Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at Ross. “It’s not about finding the school that’s shiniest. It’s about finding the one where you’re really going to thrive.”
5. If you plan to apply to multiple schools, you should build out a calendar with all the deadlines required to apply. Reverse engineer the dates from when you hope to start your MBA program. That’s the best way to keep track of all the things you’ll have to do from when each application needs to be filed to when to approach your likely recommenders. “Advance planning can go a long way,” believes Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean and director of admissions at Yale’s School of Management. “I know a lot of you probably live in spreadsheets. In thinking about the deadlines, I tend to try to reverse engineer things. So ask yourself, when do you want to start the program? Then, when do you have to apply to start the program? And finally, what steps do you need to do to get the applications in?”
6. Be your best authentic self. Don’t try to package your identify for a given school. Present who you are and who you want to become. And yes, you can be authentic while you are also putting your best foot forward. Think about what makes you unique or unusual and takes you out of the pile from every other consultant, marketer, banker or non-traditional candidate. “When you’re writing that first draft, don’t write it for us,” counsels Jim Holmen, the director of admissions and financial aid at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “Don’t picture an admissions committee at the other end reading your words. Imagine if you were asked the very same question by your best friend, or maybe even a family member. I bet it would be a pretty easy answer. But as soon as you think that you’re answering the question for an admissions committee, the question all of a sudden seems bigger than it needs to be. So my suggestion is again: be authentic. Write your essay to friends and family. Then clean it up for us. That may be a good way to get started.”
7. If you can, visit a business school campus to best determine ‘fit” with a school’s MBA program. Sure, it’s hard to get to all the programs you might apply to. But there’s no substitute for actually visiting a campus, attending a class, having lunch with current students, and hanging out for a day at the school to feel the vibe and get inside knowledge about a school’s culture, strengths and weaknesses.
8. And finally, we love this advice from Morgan Bernstein, executive director of full-time MBA admissions at Haas. “First,” she said, “I’d probably sit down with a glass of wine and prepare for the long journey ahead. I’d take a deep breath and remind myself that in the end it’s all going to work out, and that it’s all going to be worth it.”