I often tell my clients that an MBA application is like a mosaic. Each element contributes to create a full picture of who you are. Some pieces will be brighter or more colorful than others. Others fail to sparkle. You can either address those weaknesses — polish those dull stones — or decide to re-evaluate your school choices to be more competitive.
Here are five tips you can use to assess yourself as you narrow down your list.
Accepted.com’s President Linda Abraham summed it nicely in a post for Poets&Quants:
“If your score is more than 30 points below the average listed at your target school than you’ve got two realistic choices: You can either adjust your list of target schools and aim for MBA programs that have lower GMAT averages, or you can keep your list and retake the GMAT.”
That being said, it’s only one factor in your application. If you scored low on the GMAT, you may be an outlier in another area, which could mitigate your score.
Your undergraduate GPA is another factor the adcom considers. Those with a 3.6 and above are generally fine at top schools. If you had a wobbly semester or two, use the optional essay to provide context and discuss what you’ve done to address those weak areas. Perhaps you retook a few classes, or later enrolled in a continuing ed course to brush up your skill set.
2. Work Experience
Top business schools are generally looking for folks with between 3-7 years of work experience. Certain professions are highly represented. At Harvard, the top professions pre-MBA are consulting, financial services, VC/PE and “High Tech/Communications.” At Wharton, it’s consulting and military/gov’t/non-profit. At Stanford it’s consulting, VC/PE and military/gov’t/non-profit. If you’re not a consultant, in finance, or a government wonk – that doesn’t mean you’re not competitive! MBA programs are also looking for diversity to bring differing viewpoints to class discussions. Take a look at this “fox in the henhouse” admitted to Harvard. What you need to communicate is how your achievements are extraordinary and how your background will add to the school’s diversity. That’s what will stand out.
3. For international applicants, it’s work experience + international exposure. Or work experience + extraordinary accomplishments.
Take a look at profiles of students who head up international clubs at top US and UK b-schools. More likely than not they have one of two boxes checked.
1. They have significant international experience working outside of their home country, often with a multinational company or recognized global organization.
2. They’ve done something truly extraordinary in the context of their profession.
If you have never traveled or worked outside your home country, then your accomplishments should stand out anywhere around the globe. I don’t mean test scores here. I mean introducing significant innovation at work, developing a skill, creating a business, or founding a socially-oriented activity that’s unique and interesting.
Are you networking for international assignments at work? If not, start doing so now.
Would you consider what you’ve done, extraordinary? If not, stop dreaming and start doing it now.
Your goals need to make sense based on your past experience. They should draw a clear connection from your past to your future.
‘But wait!’ you say. ‘What if I want to switch careers?’ That’s fine – just show the admissions committee that you’ve already gained some exposure to the industry, and why your past experience will be an asset as you move forward.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the adcom will likely assess your employ-ability. Will your background + an MBA make sense to recruiters? Are you an international student? You may have a harder time getting hired by a firm outside of countries where you are already permitted to work. It’s best to show in your application that you’re flexible – you’re willing to return to your home country, get some more experience, then branch out based on your own networking.
5. Fit and familiarity
Finally we get down to what I call,”fit and familiarity.” For example, have you taken a summer session course on campus? Are you an alum of the undergraduate program? Have you worked in the city where the school is located? You can then make a better case of being familiar with its curriculum and community.
Another factor is your post-MBA plans. Do you have experience in a school’s specialization? Do you have family in the area, or previous business connections that would lead you to happily settle in the school’s locale after graduation? Are you a big city kind of person, or do you enjoy the strong connections forged in smaller communities?
Be HONEST with yourself. If you don’t know, I strongly recommend a visit to campus if you can afford it. Rankings and name recognition are a place to start, but ultimately—this is a HUGE investment. Don’t make it the worst two-year vacation you went into debt for and will spend a lifetime paying back. Make it a transformative experience. Find an environment where you will thrive.
Michelle Stockman is a professional journalist, former Columbia Business School admissions insider, and experienced MBA admissions consultant.