Expert tips on how to approach your MBA application [Show Summary]
What’s the right way to approach an MBA application? Like a productivity challenge? A jigsaw puzzle? A to-do list? Linda Abraham weighs in and shares her expert tips to master this process.
Linda Abraham, Founder and CEO of Accepted, shares her insights into how best to approach your MBA application [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 487th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Today is going to be a solo show where I answer common questions while also providing information on how to approach your MBA application. If you’re not applying for an MBA, there’s still going to be a lot for you to learn from this episode, specifically from its strategic approach to the application process and its focus on using every element of the application to your advantage, not to mention thinking about where you want to end up after you get the degree.
For you, MBAs, when you finish listening to this episode, you’re invited to take a free six-question quiz at Accepted.com/MapMBA to see how well you’ve absorbed the lessons in this show. You’ll also gain access to other relevant resources, both free and paid, that you can use as you attempt to incorporate the advice contained in this podcast into your strategy for a successful MBA application.
I realize it is an enormous effort to apply successfully to an MBA program, especially if you’re applying to top MBA programs with acceptance rates like 6%, 10%, and 20%. That means they reject the overwhelming majority of applicants who submit applications.
Indeed, the elite programs reject many, if not most, admissible candidates. You have a challenge, even if you have good stats, and that challenge is even greater if you don’t. Actually, it’s really a few challenges:
- How can you make your application as impressive as possible?
- How are you going to tell your story and effectively present the non-statistical elements of your application, specifically the essays and, when necessary, a video?
- How can you make the process efficient?
Those are the questions I’m going to address. Listen in. There’s a lot to cover here.
How to choose the right schools [2:47]
The foundation of any effective application process is choosing the right schools to apply to. In order to determine what those schools are, you must have professional direction, defined for MBAs as having a preferred industry in which you want to work and a function you would like to perform. Note that this is not necessarily what you want to study. It’s different. The basic question is, where do you want to end up? What’s your goal for the MBA? Because that goal, or direction, becomes your north star in the application process and when you arrive on campus.
You also need competitive academic qualifications. You’re going to have to show through your application that you can handle both the communications and quantitative demands of a top MBA program. These qualifications are usually revealed via your transcript and your test score, but they can also be revealed via certifications and work experience, your application itself, your writing, and your interview.
The third thing you’re going to need is a sense of what’s important to you in an MBA program. It might be location. This can also be a part of your professional direction. For example, you may want to work in London or you might want to work on Wall Street or you might want to work in Silicon Valley. Those are more professional, goal-oriented location questions. What I’m talking about is just personal preference. Do you prefer being in a small city or a big city? Do you prefer a warm climate or a cold climate? Do you have a significant other whose work and preferences you need to account for? Do you prefer to be close to your family or far from your family?
You’ll also have to consider instructional focus and curriculum: case versus experiential learning versus a combination of case, experience, and lecture. What do you prefer?
You’re going to want to apply to programs that support your goals and meet your needs and where you’re competitive based on a realistic evaluation of your qualifications and what schools are looking for. One to two aspirational schools are fine. But unless you are very open to the possibility of rejection or reapplication, most of the programs that you apply to should be those where you are competitive.
Unless you’re limited geographically, I recommend applying to four to six schools. Fewer schools if you are highly competitive and limited geographically. More schools if you are aiming high or have some serious blemishes on your record.
Applying to appropriate schools is step number one to applying effectively. Again, you start with your goal, your assessment of your qualifications, and then you choose the right schools.
How do you know what are the right schools? Well, you need to research them. Start with the obvious, the websites of the schools. That should help you narrow down your list of ten to twelve schools that you’re considering.
Attend events for the schools that you’re most interested in. You need to learn about the programs beyond the website to confirm your initial inclination to apply to certain schools and also to apply effectively. If you want to learn about the schools more in-depth than just the information provided on the website, attend the Admissions Committee events, either live events or recorded events, because those events will provide you with insight and confirm your decision to apply to certain schools, or perhaps help you decide not to apply to certain schools. They will ultimately help you gain acceptance because you’ll be more informed and they may even help you decide where to attend in the event of multiple acceptances.
Attending those events and getting information will also help you respond to essay questions, short answer questions, and hopefully, interview questions. It’s also a form of demonstrating interest in specific schools. Some schools definitely weigh the amount of demonstrated interest they see from you, whether it’s attending events in your city, possibly visiting the school, which is less and less common due to COVID, or participating in online events. Those are all really important. Also, follow schools on social media.
Doing all of this is really important because schools provide a lot of information about their programs as well as advice on completing applications. Take advantage of what they provide to ensure that you are making a wise investment in your MBA application and also to improve your chances of acceptance.
How to choose where to apply [7:15]
Now that you’ve done this research, what criteria should you use to decide where you should apply? There are four criteria I think that you should use.
- The first is the school’s success in placing grads in the positions and companies you’d like to work for. Look at their employment reports. Talk to recent grads that are in the fields you’d like to go into.
- The second is the curriculum. What and how are you going to study? Is it what you want to study? Is it presented in a way that you’d like to learn? That would be things like case, project, experiential, or lecture learning styles. Are they providing you with what you want to learn in a way you want to learn it?
- The third is extracurricular opportunities. That would be clubs, tracks, and competitions. Do they support your goals and match your interests? It doesn’t have to be all work when you’re in business school. Is there a group that matches your specific ethnicity, perhaps your religious beliefs? Maybe you have certain sports interests. Look for activities that support your goals and also where you share interests.
- Finally, I’m going to go back to it, is your qualifications and competitiveness.
These four points are fairly easy for me to list but it might not be so easy to implement them.
Check out these three resources to help with the process.
- Best MBA Programs: A Guide to Choosing the Right One
- Seven Steps to MBA Acceptance
- Accepted’s Individual Advising
How to approach the application [9:38]
Once you know where you want to apply, what’s the next step? How should you approach the actual application?
You need to think about what you want the schools to know about you based on the questions in the application and the different opportunities available for you to present yourself, as well as the values of the schools that you are applying to.
Note that I did not say to ask your friends what’s cool in MBA admissions and make sure you present it. I did not say to prepare an application that matches what you think the Admissions Committee wants to read but has little similarity to the person you see in the mirror. I did not say to dive into the writing process, emphasizing the one achievement that you’re most proud of throughout your application so that your personal brand is clearly associated with that accomplishment.
These are all approaches that we have heard from clients who purchased our rejection review service. I’ve also heard them from admissions committee members when I’ve asked, “What mistake do you commonly see applicants making in their application?” These are the answers I get.
I very frequently hear the one where applicants say what they think the admissions committee wants to hear. The admission committee want to hear who you are. These approaches do not work. Don’t take them.
Schools want to meet you via your application. They don’t want to meet somebody else. They don’t want to meet some imaginary version of you. You, as an applicant, want to present your best self, but you have to make sure that the person in the application resembles the person that you see in the mirror. You want to come across as a genuine, thoughtful, multidimensional human being who can add diversity of interest, thought, background, and experience to your class and to the school’s community. You want to show that you belong in that school’s community and that you share its values. You just haven’t started paying tuition yet.
Take the time to approach each application thoughtfully and purposefully and authentically. What’s an approach that will help you present that multidimensional human being effectively and efficiently? I’m aware that you are working full-time and don’t want to compromise quality. Well, here are three options. You can think about it and I’ll tell you which one I prefer.
- The first approach is to treat the applications as a series of discrete tasks that you simply need to check off and complete. It’s kind of like a to-do list. Your goal is to get done.
- The second approach is to create a spreadsheet for all the written or visual portions of the applications. Have a worksheet for each school so that each application is viewed separately and as a whole, and then have a row for each element in the application. Plan ahead and think about how you’re going to use each element to the best effect.
- The third approach is to batch all leadership questions, all diversity questions, all challenge/overcome questions. Write them at one time. That’ll save you time. Then write the essays that are school specific. Respond to short answer questions and draft activity and work descriptions. Batching essentially is what I’m presenting here. It acts like a productivity enhancement tool, and it maximizes efficiency and time usage.
Which do you think is right, one, two, or three? I would go with two. Application real estate is valuable and every question is there for a reason. You want to minimize duplication and have every element of your application add value, texture, and color, just like a puzzle piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
The first approach is efficient. You just check it off, but it doesn’t allow for that step back and looking at each application as a whole and making sure that all elements are additive. And the third approach certainly doesn’t do that.
Approach your application process thoughtfully and purposefully. Each application is one whole where every element is supposed to add to the reader’s knowledge of you like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
How to approach the writing process [14:07]
Now you can start your writing process. You’ll have to strategize how you want to use each element in the application to create a wonderful portrait of you. Then start writing the essays, the short answer questions, and when relevant, video scripts.
If you’d like help strategizing and then editing your essays, check out Accepted’s most popular services for MBA applicants which are our application packages and hourly editing services. You can access the application packages at Accepted.com/MBApackage.
You’ve written your essays and you think your applications are ready for prime time. You’re ready to hit submit, but shouldn’t you check everything? And if so, what is the best way to do so? Is spell-check sufficient? Here are my recommendations for a comprehensive check of your application before submitting it.
I would do it not just once, I’d do it in four steps. I also would suggest that you don’t do it at the last minute, like an hour before the deadline. Give yourself a few days.
- The first step is to review the application as a whole to ensure that all elements are adding to the reader’s knowledge of you, minimize duplication, and show fit with the school you are applying to. Wait a day, if possible. If not, because I’m a realist, wait an hour, 10 minutes, or a walk around the block and move to step two.
- The second step is to critique each essay or written piece to ensure that it is a coherent piece of writing that answers the question posed and reveals something distinctive and interesting about you. Then wait a day or at least an hour or that walk around the block.
- The third step is to line edit each essay to correct for spelling, grammar, wording, and syntactical errors.
- The fourth step is to review the rest of the application to ensure that there are no factual or spelling errors elsewhere. When I’m talking about spelling errors, that’s pretty obvious, but factual errors are important too. You don’t want to exaggerate your salary. You don’t want to omit, either through omission or commission, unemployment, gaps on your resume, or your activity list. Own up to them. Be factual. It can be far worse to omit something that’s negative than to include it and address it.
Every few years, we’ll work with a client who doesn’t follow the previous recommendation, and they are accepted and then rejected. If they had told us what they were doing, we would’ve told them to be factual. That’s what I’m going to tell you now. Please, please, please don’t omit the negative information that is requested. You don’t have to volunteer it if it’s not requested. But if it’s requested, provide it and obviously correct any genuine errors.
If you want to submit a polished application, take the time to review it on both a macro level and a micro level. And that’s exactly what I’m suggesting with the review steps I provided. Again, don’t review it at the last minute in a rush. Set your deadline three days ahead of time before the application is really due, and then you’ll have time to review it. If something comes up, you’ll have at least three days to make sure you still get it in. I’ve dumped a ton of information on you in this episode, and I probably could have gone into more depth on almost any of the individual points I was making. Right now, I invite you to take our new quiz, Accepted.com/MapMBA. It’s free, and it will give you a chance to see how well you understood the material presented in this episode.
- Map Your MBA Application Quiz
- Help with choosing schools:
- Best MBA Programs: A Guide to Choosing the Right One, a free guide
- 7 Steps to MBA Acceptance, a free webinar
- Individual guidance and editing of the essays and application
- Fitting In and Standing out, a free download
- Application Packages
- Hourly Editing
- How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose
- When Should I Plan to Apply to Grad School? NOW!!!
- Applying to U.S. Business Schools from Europe, Asia, the Middle East
- An Insider’s Look at MBA Admissions