Our Favorite Advice from MBA Admissions Directors, Part 2

At mbaMission, we constantly strive to learn more about what makes a successful application and what the leading schools want—and do not want—from prospective students. To accomplish this, we communicate regularly with admissions directors at the top MBA programs, and in this two-part blog series, we want to share with you some of our favorite advice we have collected from these experts over the past few application seasons.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Former Associate Dean for Admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

“It’s incredibly important to be authentic in this process. The worst thing an applicant can do in the business school application process is to misrepresent who they are and what they’ve done. You don’t have to be anyone other than who you are, but you do have to be able to articulate your story. You are more than your GMAT score or the sum of your years of work experience. We may admit students who have lower GMAT scores because they are amazing in all other aspects of their candidacy. We may also deny candidates with very high GMAT scores because they are one-dimensional and are not as competitive on those other important dimensions. Applicants really have to take the time to understand what our program is about and then make the connections throughout their application. Be who you are.”

Hima Bindu, Associate Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at the Indian School of Business

“Inconsistencies in performance, immaturity, and lack of focus as to why they want to do an MBA are a few pointers that spell trouble. Chance is that many applicants see an MBA more as a natural progression than as a conscious choice which adds value to their career and business. If essays and recommendations of the student are things that speak volumes about the skills he or she is going to bring to the table, a history of no achievements, awards or credentials holds up the red flag.”

Amanda Carlson, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Columbia Business School

“One thing that raises not a red flag but more like a yellow flag is when somebody’s really interested in making a career change—and I know that a lot of people come to business school to make a career change—but there needs to be some consistency in their story. So if … somebody wants to go from working in marketing at a financial services company to working in real estate development, what can they claim that shows demonstrated commitment to this interest in real estate development? I mean, is there volunteer work? Is there academic background? Are there continuing education classes? Is there a membership in some type of professional organization that would show that this is actually coming from some place genuine and it’s not just a pie-in-the-sky idea of what they think they might want to do with their MBA?”

Dustin Cornwell, Former Director of MBA Admissions at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University

“If you look at any of the schools in the top ten, for example, or even the top 30, you’re going to get a great education at just about any of them. In terms of the faculty there, in terms of the resources the schools can provide, you’re very likely to get a good education and learn a lot at any of those programs. What you have to kind of drill down and look at, though, is what experience do you want? Some people thrive in a large environment. They want to meet a lot of people. They want to have hundreds of companies recruiting on campus. They really want that type of an experience, and there are a number of schools that have anywhere from 300 to upward of 800 students per class. That might be a great fit for that type of student. We hear a lot of our candidates say, ‘I want that personal attention. I want to have a small class size. I want to know my classmates. I want to know my professors personally, and I want to make sure that I’m not lost in the crowd.’ And so a [smaller] program … fits that person well. They’re able to know their classmates very well and to really have an impact on campus, maybe be a club leader, maybe get involved in student government and leave their mark on the school. So I think you can use rankings as a starting point, but you really have to look a lot more closely at other factors when you’re making a decision.”

Isser Gallogly, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at the Stern School of Business at New York University

“You should really have a super clear goal when you’re applying to … business school. I don’t know why anyone would make a $100,000 or so investment in anything without carefully reading the prospectus and doing a lot of investigation. There are those who haven’t researched themselves, their future careers, and also haven’t researched the schools. You can tell people who are just throwing applications out there to everybody versus those who have taken the time to do it right. All the great schools are going to give you a great education and opportunities, but there are schools where you’re going to excel, where you are going to thrive and become the best you can be, and there are other places where it’s going to be a bad fit. People really need to investigate a lot more than they think they do. There is nothing like going and visiting the school, even if it has to be virtually.”

Rodrigo Malta, Director of MBA Admissions at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin

“I always advise applicants to take a close look at the letter of recommendation process and make sure that they’re selecting the right people to be their recommenders, making sure that their recommenders are able to really talk about why they want an MBA and what their differentiators are. Probably the biggest flag that we see is whenever we open those letters of recommendation, and they’re either very skimpy or negative. Letters of recommendation are outside of the applicant’s control from a writing perspective, but the applicants do have a say in who they select and what they’re able to share about their candidacy with those folks that write them.”

Niki da Silva, Former Director of MBA Recruitment and Admissions at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management

“I think the worst thing people can do is not be authentic. I’m not sure why [applicants do this]. I know candidates continue to do it, but you just think, you’re going to be in this program for two years of your life, and it’s going to be exhausting to have to be someone that you’re not. So just embrace who you are and have fun with it.”

Soojin Kwon, Director of Admissions at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

“There are two main things [applicant mistakes] that come to mind. On their resumes: applicants often give us a job description or a list of responsibilities rather than highlighting results and impact. The second common mistake I see is that applicants use the essays to tell us about us rather than themselves. They cite a laundry list of classes, clubs, and faculty in their essays—sometimes from the wrong school—and use that as evidence of school research without really understanding what they’re about. We already know what we’re about. What we want to know is what the applicant is about and why he or she will benefit from and contribute to our community.”

Sara Neher, Former Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

“Never be afraid to interview because you think it’s going to be competitive. Don’t try to differentiate yourself from others; try to be your best self. These are sort of cliché, but people get caught up in ‘There are so many consultants applying’ or ‘There are so many bankers applying.’ I still want the best and most interesting bankers or the best and most interesting consultants, so don’t let that dissuade you.”

Bruce DelMonico, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at the Yale School of Management

“One thing I frequently tell people when asked is, we’re good at reading applications and we know that everybody has weaknesses. Very few candidates are strong across the board in every respect, and I think there’s a tendency for applicants to run away from the weaknesses to try to avoid them and hide from them, which is a natural tendency. But actually, what I find so very refreshing, and actually can be a net positive, is for applicants to actually address their weaknesses. Not dwell on them. You don’t want to lead with the weakness necessarily, but try to explain it and contextualize it, and I think applicants who do that in a good way and can do that successfully—actually, they stand out in a number of regards. It shows self-awareness, it shows interest in self-improvement, and it really can put someone in a much better position in terms of their application. One of the things I tell people is a lot of the time, if we see a weakness, if we see a gap—for example, you don’t have a recommendation from your current supervisor even though we ask for one—and you don’t explain that, we’ll likely draw a negative interpretation based on that. But if you explain it for us and contextualize it and make us understand why that’s the case, we’ll be much more forgiving.”

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