Is there a secret recipe for MBA application success?
Linda Abraham lays out seven steps that MBA applicants can take now to enhance their chance of success when the MBA applications come out over the summer. Listen to the show!
What steps can you take NOW to improve your chances of acceptance to top MBA programs?
The content I’m about to explore mirrors the training I offered in 7 Steps to a Successful MBA Application in 2021, a recent webinar. I feel that this material is so valuable that I don’t want my podcast listeners to miss it.
What motivates me to provide this training?
- A frustration with applicants who start the process too late and shortchange their chances at their dream schools. We love to start working with applicants now because our clients can improve their profile, qualifications, and chances of acceptance when they start early!
- The amount of limiting and misleading imagery in MBA advising from adcom directors, consultants, and sometimes MBA applicants and students themselves.
- The paradox of MBA admissions. After 25 years in this business, I’ve seen a lot of metaphors used in describing the MBA admissions process. “It’s an accounting exercise, not a marketing exercise,” or, “It’s all about personal branding,” or, “It’s all about marketing.” While I believe metaphors and similes can be useful, I think they have been abused in MBA admissions, obscuring the process.
I do not promise an image-free training! I do promise that this training will provide you with a purpose-driven, goal-centered approach to the MBA application, including what you should be doing now (six to nine months before you submit your application) to maximize your chances of acceptance at top MBA programs when you apply in Round 1 or Round 2 of the 2020–21 application season.
Let’s cultivate those three seeds into a flourishing, healthy MBA application. (Not bad for someone who just complained about abuse of metaphors in MBA admissions!)
When applicants come to us at the last minute
Yes, we can polish your essays during the week before the essays are due, but we can do so much more if you start early. Use the next few months before the applications come out to improve your profile and maximize your chances of acceptance.
Step 1: Define your goals, the foundation of your application
Begin with the end in mind: Clarify your post-MBA goal, the foundation for your entire MBA application strategy, even if it changes while in B-school.
In Admissions Straight Talk Episode 185, I asked Ross Admissions Director Soojin Kwon, “What makes an application really stand out for you?” She responded, “People who seem to really know what they want and know themselves, and who can articulate it well. They can connect the dots.”
Define your post-MBA goals, both short-term and long-term. Short-term goals include your industry and functional focus (something you do, not something you study). Long-term goals, those five to ten years down the road, are your aspirations or dreams –perhaps a way of contributing to the betterment of society on a larger scale. These are less critical from an admission perspective, but if you have something like this, don’t hide it. Prepare to discuss.
If your goals are fuzzy, look at what you like and are good at. Talk to people in positions that you find attractive. What do they actually do? What education do they believe was useful to them? Do they wish they would have had before they started? From what programs do they want to hire people for the positions you find appealing? Then take time to think about what you want to do. Reflect. Once you have a clearly defined goal, it will be a substantive and meaningful guide in the process of choosing schools—your North Star.
Realize that at many schools, a clearly defined, realistic post-MBA goal is as much a requirement of admission as a competitive GMAT or quality work experience. Chicago Booth explicitly says that it seeks a “sense of personal direction” and “realistic expectations for the MBA.” That’s why so many schools ask about your goals. They care!
Step 2: Assess your qualifications
What about your qualifications? Those qualifications are partly about what you want and partly about what you bring to the table, which includes evidence of your potential for success in a given school’s program and beyond. What different elements make up those qualifications? There are four basic areas to examine.
- Pillar 1: Academics. Show that you can and will do the work. Grades and test scores are the most common ways to show academic ability, but not the only ways.
- Pillar 2: Work experience. Both quality and quantity are important here. In terms of quantity, three to six years is ideal (two to eight on the outside). In terms of quality, schools look for responsibility, growth, impact, and demonstrated managerial ability. They may also like to see a global or multi-cultural perspective.
- Pillar 3: Personal qualities. Leadership, leadership, leadership is most important. You also want to show you possess teamwork, organizational, analytical and communications skills, initiative, and an entrepreneurial mindset. Demonstrate that you are a contributor, a giver, and a person of impact and consequence.
- Pillar 4: Fit. Show you identify with the school’s values, fit well into its culture, meet its qualifications, and add to its community. On some level, the first three pillars are also about fit, but I added this one because a school’s mission and stated criteria or values are absolutely crucial. Since they are less quantitative and concrete, applicants tend to overlook them.
Can any of these elements be improved or mitigated? Enhanced? Yes, because you are starting early. Can you improve your profile to make yourself more competitive? That’s the next step.
Step 3: Research the schools to which you’ll apply
Which elements are least important to you when selecting an MBA program to apply to? Career placement? Curriculum? Ranking? Extra-curricular activities?
I’d choose Rankings, as being least important.
When selecting which schools are best suited to help you achieve your goals, consider recruiting and placement, educational preferences, extra-curricular activities and opportunities, and personal preferences. Look at career services employment reports and the school’s website or blog. Contact current students and recent alumni. Take advantage of MBA tours and school-sponsored events. If possible, visit campus.
Ask yourself two questions: Does the school support your goals? And are you competitive?
Get specific about the answer to that second question. Rejection happens when you don’t consider your competitiveness objectively.
Consider a Venn diagram, featuring one circle that reads “Schools you are interested in” and “Schools likely to be interested in you.” Choose schools that lie at the intersection of those two circles.
Step 4: Improve your profile
Let’s go through the pillars and see how to improve, if that’s necessary.
Pillar 1: Academics
If your undergrad grades were low, you’ll need to provide evidence you have the ability and the discipline to succeed. If your quant skills are weak but your grades are good, consider something like MBMath.com, HBSOnline, or MOOCs.
The best way to handle a low GMAT or GRE is to retake and raise it. If you’re not sure if you should retake, or if you’ve taken the GMAT three or more times, please see our video on whether or not you should retake.
Pillar 2: Work experience
If you have less than two years of work experience, perhaps wait a year, or aim for schools with lower average ages at matriculation. Note that schools seem to be turning away from admitting and matriculating MBA students straight from college and with less than two years of experience. Consider an MS in Management like that offered by Duke or LBS, Kellogg, or Ross, or a deferred admission program if you are currently in college (HBS, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, MIT Sloan, Wharton, Columbia, Darden).
If you have too much work experience (six to eight years), aim for programs with higher ages at matriculation. (This is common in many European programs.) Consider EMBA and Sloan Fellows if you have 10 or more years of work experience. Be extra clear about why you want an MBA now at your level. Show you are not relying on the school to find you a post-MBA job; you have the contacts to achieve your dreams or perhaps already have an offer. Also, an international component isn’t required at most schools, but sure can be nice to have.
Pillar 3: Community service
Take on responsibilities at work that will allow you to demonstrate compelling qualities at work. Frequently, this is not so easy to do at work; it’s often much easier to assume leadership roles in volunteer commitments.
When it comes to community service, better late than never, if you haven’t previously been involved. If you have, continue what you have been doing, and if possible, expand your responsibilities. Remember that community service is an opportunity to demonstrate personal qualities desired by schools.
Until now, we’ve been talking pre-application strategy and tactics more than implementation and application, but I’d like to shift gears here and discuss three to-dos that will directly contribute to your application.
Step 5: Prepare to write your essays
Start jotting down notes and ideas. I wouldn’t start writing application essays yet, but I would create a file where you can jot down ideas for topics to include, notes from your informational interviews and school research, and thoughts about schools and possible essays topics.
What experiences are you most proud of? Make a few notes. What was the challenge faced? What did you do? What was the impact? What character traits did you reveal through your actions?
Once applications are out, you can start working on the essays, but for now, I would nail the other stuff. Start work on the essays in June or July if you are aiming for R1 deadlines.
Step 6: Polish your resume
This is something you can nail now. Keep it to one page. Focus on achievements and outcomes, not just descriptions of responsibilities. Quantify when possible. And please, don’t use bullet points to repeat what your job title implies!
Step 7: Choose your recommenders
Recommenders should have supervised you directly and really know what you’re capable of based on personal experience. Ask them if they are willing to write a strong, supportive letter of recommendation for you. Tell them you will give them material they can use (your resume, a brief summary of accomplishments, access to the recommendation, and a one-paragraph summary of what the school is looking for) as well as about four weeks notice. Give them a time frame.
You don’t need to ask now. You can wait until May or June when you have even more achievements under your belt.
Reviewing the 7 actions for a successful application
- Hone your goal.
- Evaluate your qualifications (GMAT, GPA, work experience, community service, leadership) to see if anything needs work.
- Research the schools to determine which best support your goals.
- Improve those areas that need improving.
- Essay prep (no pressure).
- Polish your resume.
- Decide on and ask recommenders if they will help you.
Some of you will look at this list and wisely decide to apply in the second round or even wait a year. Others will have only a few action items because you’ve already started on many of these tasks (congrats!), but you all should have something to do, and whatever you do now will improve your chances of acceptance.
Right now, I’d like you to write down at least one action item you’re going to start on this week based on today’s training. And set yourself a deadline for completion.
Let’s discuss that third seed, the one I mentioned way back at the beginning of this episode, the stress-inducing paradox of MBA admissions: You have to show that you fit in at your target programs and at the same time are a unique individual, a stand out, in the applicant pool. And it’s not easy. We understand that.
We have a free download that addresses that part of the MBA application process: Fitting In and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions. This guide will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you are well on your way to acceptance. Download this free guide at accepted.com/FISO.
- Fitting in and Standing Out: the Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, a free guide
- The Importance of Defining Your MBA Goal
- Accepted’s MBA Selectivity Index, a tool to assess your competitiveness at your dream programs
- Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting Services
- MBA Insider Shares His Secrets in New Book
- Is the MBA Worth It, or Is the Sky Falling Down on the MBA Degree?
- How to Get Accepted to a Top EMBA Program: The Experts Speak