Isn’t this a question that has plagued the MBA applicant community for ages?
Like Eleanor Roosevelt “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them yourself”, we did exactly that. There is no exact formula for getting into a top business school or you target business school. But there are a few things that applicants have done over the years that have constantly either helped them get into business schools or rejected from them.
Read on to find out what factors can positively affect your chances of getting into one of the best MBA programs in the world.
- The MBA Resume and work experience
An MBA resume is very different from the ones you might have created so far. It is a brief account of your work experience.
Every business school application asks an applicant to submit an up-to-date resume. This resume should be kept as short and simple as you can keep it.
The ideal length of the resume is one page and it should only include major achievements. For anything within your resume, that you wish to explain, mention it in the optional statement section of your essays.
Also, make sure you mention dates for everything you put down in your resume as it is a requirement from the schools. Anything that doesn’t add value to your application should be left out of your resume. To mention any personal achievements/ personal growth, you have the application essays.
The optimal way to write a resume is by using the STAR format. STAR stands for:
This means that every professional achievement mentioned in your resume should contain these four components without increasing the length of the essay.
Applicants often find the work experience part of an application quite confusing. And it is. You never clearly know how your work experience is being assessed by an admissions committee member.
However, business school admissions committee members have mentioned several times that an applicant’s career trajectory or work experience isn’t measured against another applicant’s work experience.
It is measured against people in similar career paths as you. What they generally focus on is how much initiative you have shown in your job.
Work experience requirements also change depending on the geographical location of the school. Unlike the top schools in the US, European business schools have more of a global focus.
Their focus on a global MBA requires their applicants to have a similar focus as well. While not everyone who gets into European business schools has international exposure, most do. So, if you do not have any international exposure in your profile, make sure to cash in on it.
What is considered international exposure
Before you start saying you have no international exposure, you must understand what international exposure means to business schools. There are two ways to look at international exposure; first is direct and the second is indirect.
The direct international exposure is pretty straightforward. It includes living or working in, having frequent business trips, or extended vacations in a country different from your birth-country. This is simple right?
The confusion comes in when the second, indirect, form of international exposure comes into play. If you have direct international exposure, squeeze that out for all its worth during your business school applications. But if you don’t you would need to pay attention to the international experience you have gained indirectly.
This includes any global projects that you have worked on, working for an international firm, or working with clients outside your home country.
Let’s try to make this clearer with an example. Let’s say you’re currently working for KPMG, a Big 4 firm. If you’re in the US/UK audit department of the firm you will directly be working with clients from either of those countries and will have indirect exposure.
However, if you’re a part of the firm’s HR, on an executive level, you will only be dealing with the employees in India. Thus, giving you no indirect international exposure even though you work at an international firm.
The indirect experience is only to be used when you have no alternative direct experience to share. But it should be accompanied by a lot of other things to make sure you off-set the lack of a proper international experience.
- Academic Performance
Needless to say, the admissions committee at business schools look at your GPA and GMAT scores to evaluate your academic prowess. After all, an MBA is an academic course with a rigorous curriculum. The GPA and GMAT scores are a good indicator of how a student might perform in a structured and demanding program.
However, they are not the sole criteria for admission. Many business schools clearly state that they aren’t looking only for academically gifted students. An applicants’ creative abilities are also crucial. However, if an applicant isn’t able to show academic excellence, the committee digs deeper into their profiles to find out if the applicant balanced the lack out.
Thus, if you have a low GPA or GMAT score, but have additional certifications that can show that you have the academic skill set to perform well during an MBA program, the admissions committee members will consider your profile rounded out. Read more on how you can compensate for a low GPA score in a top business school.
- The Equation of Employability
Two-Years in an MBA program might seem like a long-time during applications, but it isn’t. With the rigorous curriculum, you won’t even realize that the program is over when your graduation day arrives.
If you approached a world-renowned sculpture and asked them to help you sculpt a lady, the result could be anything according to his interpretation. But, if you went to him with the description of a lady wearing a saree with a pot on her head, he will be able to provide you with the exact result that you had in mind.
While an MBA program will help you recognize your strengths and chisel out your career path more, you will require a rough sculpture to start with. This is why your professional goals matter to the admissions committee.
While a lot of students do not end up following the same career path they talked about during admissions, admissions committees say that it’s simply because an MBA exposes students to a new world of opportunities.
Thus, having a clear equation of employability is more important to know whether the reason an applicant chose to do an MBA was authentic or not.
The equation of employability is also important to the business school admissions committees because if they can’t see a future where they could place you in the workforce, the MBA would add no value to you and vice versa.
The following is the equation of employability.
Past (AHA moments) + MBA (Current handicaps) = Short-term and long-term goals
Past: The AHA moments are moments from the past year or two that have made the applicant identify the need to do an MBA. These are moments that have motivated the applicant to work towards their short-term and long-term goals.
MBA: The current handicaps are the gaps or the absence of the skills required for the applicant to function smoothly in their short-term or long-term goals. A good goal story would have the applicant detail how an MBA would help them overcome their current handicaps and acquire the said skills.
- Application Essays
Ah! Now comes the most exhaustive part of an MBA application. The application essays!
While it is a very exhaustive process to come up with authentic and genuine answers to essay questions posed by business schools, it is worth it as an essay could potentially change the admissions committee’s mind in a positive, or negative direction.
Here are a few tips that should be kept in mind while writing a business school essay.
- Use formal Business Language while communicating with the admissions committees
When you write an application essay to a business school, your essay needs to be vulnerable, real, and all that. But that, in no way means, the language in your essay should not be formal.
This is your first impression for an admissions committee member, so your aim should be telling them about all the important milestones of your life. But this still doesn’t mean you’re writing to your friend. Consider it as a leave application to your supervisor. You have to give them the reasons to convince them to grant your leave, but you will still restraint from using any vocabulary that you would use with a friend.
This includes slang or industry jargons.
You might wonder why something as formal as industry jargon is being prohibited here. An admissions committee member might not be aware of the jargons used in your industry. So, if you mention the full process name once at the beginning of your application, and then just use abbreviations to refer to it, it just causes inconvenience for the reader.
Instead, use a simplified term. For example, if you have to write about the time you were invited to the International Air Transport Association Annual General Meeting (aviation industry), just refer to it as the annual meeting after mentioning it in its true form once in your essay.
- Be precise not wordy
When students look at the word limit for an essay, they tend to write all the possible things they can just to fill space.
Admissions committee members aren’t your school board examiners. They won’t give you marks to fill in the page. Instead, if you’re falling 50 words short of the word limit in your essay, but have effectively communicated your story, your essays have more of a chance to be placed in the shortlisted pile.
This, however, shouldn’t discourage you from narrating your story. All you need to do is keep the additional information at bay. When you write without a blueprint, you can easily digress from your topic and end up writing details about something that adds no substance to your cause.
A very easy way to avoid this is to create a rough list of topics you wish to discuss throughout your essay and stick to them.
- Take time to figure out your answer
Have a drink. Take a walk. Take a vacation if you need to. Just don’t rush in to answer an essay question.
Even the best writers can be stumped when faced with a question that demands an answer with a philosophical view of themselves. When Stanford asks you “What matters most to you and why?”, don’t try to come up with the whole essay right away.
Come up with a one-sentence answer first. What comes to mind when this question is presented to you? Whatever the answer was, reject it and think of another answer. Reject the second answer as well and now come up with a third.
The third answer is the one that will have you wondering and questioning all the decisions you have ever made. And it will take the most time but will have strong beliefs, values and experiences to back it up.
- Skills to mention in the essay
You obviously should be leveraging any skills that you have showcased during your professional experience while writing admissions essays. You must also make sure to provide the right anecdotes for any skills you claim to have.
But regardless of all that, there is a set of skills that business schools are looking for in prospective students. You don’t need to have them all, but if you do have a few skills out of these, I would suggest not skipping mentioning them in your essays.
Letters of Recommendation
- Intellectual ability
- Work experience
- Professional goals
- Interpersonal skills
Most business schools require an applicant to submit Letters of recommendation or have separate forms for recommenders to make sure the applicant doesn't tamper with the letters in any way. However, some business schools let you decide.
They provide applicants with the opportunity to decide to either be able to see the Letters of recommendation or be kept out of the process completely. When you choose the former, the credibility of your recommendation goes up.
Also, if you choose your recommender carefully, you will not require the access that the school offers to your letters of recommendation.
To choose your recommender, go for someone who has a good rapport with you, can speak about you in a professional capacity (like a supervisor, or a client), and has readily agreed to write your recommendation. In case someone is not interested in writing your letter of recommendation, move on to your next option as they will probably end up writing an average letter if you convince them to do it. Also read our tips for the perfect letter of recommendation.
Business School Interviews
If you’ve come as far as a business school interview, first, congratulations! The chance of you scoring the admit have become significantly higher and all you need to do now is prepare for a conversation with your school’s alumnus.
I’m sure you know the basics like dressing right and prepping with a mock interviewer. Here are some additional interview tips to help you crack that business school interview.
Be ready to ‘tell them about yourself’
This question can take many forms and can be asked at any point in your interview. A simple, ‘Tell me about yourself?’ is a common question to start an interview. It helps the interviewer decide which approach to take when interviewing a candidate.
Your answer to this question should not be a recital of your profile. Treat this as a more personal question, after all, there is more to you than your education and work experience.
Answer precisely in details
This might sound confusing but it isn’t. While you want to keep your answers to your interviewer’s questions short, make sure you get your whole point across.
There is nothing wrong with talking for a minute while answering a question as long as the information you are providing is relevant. If they ask you about a year gap in your profile, telling them about your home situation during that period is definitely a good answer as long as it had a role in you choosing to take the year gap. If you took that year gap to travel and find yourself, the ‘home situation’ would be pretty irrelevant even if, in the long-term, it led to you being emotionally exhausted and needing the vacation.
Learn to make such executive decisions about the details that are unnecessary to your story and leave them out.
Look at your profile as an interviewer
Before going for the interviews, take a look at your application and essays, because the interviewer will. Nitpick every and red flags that you can see, because the interviewer will too!
Prepare an answer for every red flag you picked up through this process. Predicting your interview questions might seem useless if the interviewer takes a more casual and interactive approach to the interview. But, be sure that any significant red flags will be picked up in an interview since your performance at an MBA program is somewhat dependent on your past choices and performance and the interviewer is well aware of the fact.
Being prepared for the smallest deviations in your profile will make you feel confident to answer any question about your profile that is thrown your way.
Prepare questions to ask the interviewer
This is very important. The reason that business schools encourage pre-MBA networking with alumni and current students is so that an applicant can know for sure that the school is a good fit for their career. When the interviewer opens the floor for questions that you have about the school, asking school-specific questions would give show them that you are serious about your application to the school and have done your part in researching how it can help your career and personal growth.
However, make sure your questions aren’t generic or ones that you should already know the answer to.
Asking, ‘What is the class size at INSEAD?’ will be met with a response from the interviewer but will also show that you didn’t really research the school because a simple google search would reveal the answer. So, spend quality time and ask questions that you are really curious about and haven’t been able to find an answer to.
Other things to keep in mind
- Know yourself well
This is something that will help you during the applications to any business school and in life. Knowing yourself doesn’t mean you need to have a completely formulated 5-year plan or knowing exactly what meal you’d like to have in the morning when you wake up. Knowing yourself is more in the realm of self-awareness.
It means being conscious of the state your mind and body are in. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, shortcomings, opportunities, and everything in-between. This not only helps you overcome your limitations, and use your strengths but also makes sure you do not miss out on any opportunities presented to you.
In any business course, a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis is taught as being one of the most important things to have a successful project. This helps predict any forthcoming issues.
In simpler terms, having a SWOT analysis of yourself will help you predict and deal with any problems in your application before you are blindsided by a question about it whether in the Video Essays or the Interviews.
- Cultural fit
Business schools today are big on cultural fit.
To give you a clear picture of how important this aspect of your profile would be: admissions committee members would focus on finding this answer out through your essays, video essays, and interview.
It’s upon you to prove that you’re a good fit at your target school. One very effective way to do this is by learning more about the school. Ditch the old Google search and network with current students and alumni of your target school. Take time out and attend admissions events if possible.
Use such methods to research about the school and its programs. When you know the school inside out, you will be able to give better and more in-depth answers to questions like ‘Why this school?’ or ‘Why should you get the admit?’.
While this is a comprehensive account of what works during top school MBA admissions, there is no guarantee that it would all work for you as well as it has worked for someone before you. However, the chances of you getting the admit to your dream school will definitely be positively affected by taking these actions.
All things said and done, business school admissions are highly uncertain and sometimes the outcome could shock even the admissions committee members themselves. The only certainty, however, is that curating a genuine and authentic profile will is the way to go.
Want more information on how to apply for admission: Read our business school guides:
How to get into Columbia Business School?
How to get into Stanford School of Business MBA Program?
How to crack London Business School (LBS) MBA?