Are You Targeting the Right MBA Program for You?

MBA Admissions for SmartiesIn honor of the first birthday of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools, by Linda Abraham and Judy Gruen, we are posting a series of excerpts from the book throughout November. “Are You Targeting the Right MBA Program for You?” is the first post of the series.

If you are considering adding the prestigious initials “MBA” to your credentials, you are probably like many of the thousands of clients that Accepted.com has worked with over the years: intelligent, goal-oriented, ambitious and eager to make your mark in the world of business. Whether you dream of bringing new products to the marketplace, becoming a successful investment banker or one day having the title of CEO of a business or not-for-profit organization, you know that a robust business education can make the difference between realizing those dreams – or not.

It’s no wonder that in good economic times or bad, the MBA remains one of the most sought-after graduate degrees. Foundational coursework in business combined with access to internships, specialty programs and powerful alumni networks usually makes the investment in an MBA pay off handsomely. Research commissioned by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011 and conducted by PayScale estimated the difference in median cash compensation (salary and bonuses) between the “haves” and “have-nots” of MBAs to be more than $1 million over the course of twenty years. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the most prestigious of the full-time MBA programs, including Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, yielded a long-term salary differential much greater, about $3.6 million over a twenty-year period. That’s a lot of cash.

But gaining acceptance to the right MBA programs for you requires considerable thought, research and effort – significantly more than you may realize. Notice that I said the right MBA programs for you and not the most illustrious name in the pantheon of top-ranked programs. MBA applicants like to aim as high as possible when applying to schools, but even in tougher economic times it’s always a buyer’s market, and the MBA programs are the buyers. This is one reason, though certainly not the only reason, why the process of choosing an MBA program must go beyond a superficial picking of the top ten or even top twenty schools. 

In more than sixteen years as a graduate school admissions consultant, I have seen a needless yet predictable pattern in too many clients. These men and women were well qualified for many excellent programs yet set themselves up for rejection by failing to evaluate how closely they fit with their target schools, which were often out of their league. Dazzled by a school’s star status, these applicants didn’t or wouldn’t explore whether they were competitive for their “reach” schools or even whether the schools met their educational needs. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t aim high, but you’re much more likely to hit your target if you subscribe to the “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach rather than the “Fire, Aim!” approach.

Fortunately, most clients understand that to be successful in their quest for an MBA, they must ask themselves two fundamental questions:

  1. Do my career goals and personal preferences match the school’s curricular, extracurricular, and recruiting strengths? 
  2. Do my academic and professional qualifications compare favorably to the school’s recent class profiles?

When you take the time and effort to match your career goals to the school strengths, you reveal “fit,” an element all admissions committee members look for. When you understand how your profile compares to those recently accepted, you are in a position to evaluate your competitiveness for a particular program. The schools that help you achieve your goals are the ones you should want to attend, and the schools where you are competitive are those more likely to accept you. Determining overlap between those two categories will help open the MBA admissions doors at the right schools for you.

An effective application is not about spin

It’s also become popular among some grad school consultants to claim that MBA candidates need to create “spin” in their applications and advise candidates to “brand” themselves. I disagree. Branding is important for consumer products, like Pepsi, Patagonia, and Puma, and it’s essential for ranchers who need to identify their cattle. Spin is also necessary after publicity disasters or to put the best face on poor corporate earnings. Ultimately, however, no matter how competitive a program is, the MBA applications process involves complex and multifaceted human beings on the admissions committee who are carefully (albeit sometimes quickly) evaluating other complex and multifaceted human beings as potential matches for their programs.

Understood this way, focusing on spin is a bad idea not only because it is simplistic and artificial. It’s a bad idea because in focusing on the sizzle rather than the steak, you might easily present yourself in a way that is inauthentic or incomplete. Either scenario is a loser for you. For example, let’s say you portray yourself as someone you think the school wants you to be (but are not) and are accepted. In that case, you may realize only too late that the school is a bad fit for the real you. This emphasis on marketing over authentic presentation will likely cause you to miss opportunities to reveal yourself to the admissions committee in a meaningful way. This, sadly, can dash your prospects for acceptance. So leave the spin for the wash cycle and branding for soft drinks and athletic shoes. Your job as an MBA applicant is to show yourself to full advantage – authentically and genuinely.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of MBA Smarties publication, and Judy Gruen and Linda Abraham the co-authors, will be sharing excerpts from the book throughout November.  Whether you are still deciding whether to get an MBA, deciding where to apply, working on essays, preparing for interviews, or trying to deal with a “special situation,”  MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools provides practical, down-to-earth advice for the MBA application process in a coherent framework — and for less than the cost of a first-run movie. Check it out. Download the first chapter FREE.


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