Ten Essentials for a Successful MBA Application

After reflecting on your career amid the constant shifting in today’s business landscape, you now have three letters on your mind: M. B. A. You know the degree is key to developing the foundation you need to successfully navigate the current dynamic reality of business, but what does being admitted to a top MBA program require? What are the core elements of a successful MBA application? How much time do you really need to dedicate to it? One thing is certain, you cannot pull off a successful MBA application overnight, in a week, or even in a month. An effective strategy involves ten essential elements:

  1. Soul-Searching: First, you will need to do some soul-searching and ensure that you understand your personal “why” for pursuing an MBA. Business school is a transformative experience by most counts, but it also requires sacrifices, not the least of which is financial. You must have clarity as to why you want to earn an MBA and how it will be beneficial in achieving your future career goals. Due diligence related to your desired career path is critical to properly assessing the necessity of an MBA and what is most important to consider in narrowing your school choices.
  1. Self-Reflection: Think deeply about what is most important to you in a business school. There are so many factors beyond rankings to consider! Fit is critical, and whether you genuinely feel excited about a specific school will come through in your essays and interview—and also influence your ultimate experience, should you attend. Make sure to check out mbaMission’s business school Insider’s Guides, which assess the leading MBA programs across eight key criteria: location, class size, curriculum, teaching style, academic specialization/recruitment focus, alumni base, faculties, and rankings and reputation. Carefully consider your personal learning style and what type of program would best fit your personality and overall profile.

You also need to think about your personal “tipping point.” Where do you draw the line regarding schools you would not attend, even if admitted? This is a very personal decision; some applicants want an MBA regardless of program, whereas others will enroll only if they are admitted to a select handful of schools. The admissions process is arduous and time-consuming, so ensuring that you have carefully vetted your final application list is an important step. Leverage the expertise of mbaMission’s consultants, who can help you on this journey by pointing you in the right direction via a free consultation call or dedicated purchased time.

  1. Admissions Criteria: What are the admissions committees looking for in applicants? In broad strokes, they assess candidates across three key evaluation pillars: (1) academic track record, which includes test scores (GMAT, GRE, or Executive Assessment), GPA, and the academic rigor of undergraduate major/coursework; (2) professional experience, which includes accomplishments, history of progression, value provided to places of employment, career goals, and whether an MBA is necessary to advancement or success; and (3) engagement and community, which includes activities and commitments outside of work, community contributions, and personal interests and how those have been pursued.

The admissions committee’s ultimate goal is to bring together a diverse group of individuals who will thrive in a business school setting, be active members of the student body, and reflect positively on the school in the future. They want you to be successful both while you are pursuing your degree and after you graduate and are looking for signs in your application that this will be the case. Of course, the specifics of what each school is looking for are somewhat nuanced. Leverage multiple sources to fully understand the evaluation criteria and what is most important at each program; online research, school-produced and third-party webinars, and networking are all helpful sources. Also, be sure to check out mbaMission events for helpful perspectives and insight provided by experienced admissions advisors.

  1. Timeline and Process: The MBA admissions process is definitely not something that can be completed in a few days or even a few weeks, if you want to put your best foot forward. Make sure you understand everything involved in the process, the various elements of the application, and the ideal timeline to position yourself for success. Check out the helpful timeline provided in the mbaMission Complete Start-to-Finish MBA Admissions Guide, which offers detailed explanations of each step, or this summary blog article. Ideally, you should plan to dedicate at least six months to ensure you have adequate time to submit the absolute best representation of yourself and your potential to the admissions committee. An admissions consultant can be helpful in keeping you on track and providing accountability at each step along the way.
  1. Testing: Most MBA programs require applicants to submit scores for either the GMAT, the GRE, or the Executive Assessment (EA), though testing waivers have become more common. Testing is one of the first steps of the application process you should complete to help you refine your list of target schools. Your academic track record is a key element in the schools’ evaluation of you and is assessed based on your test scores, along with your GPA, major, and undergraduate institution. Depending on how long you have been out of school, your natural test-taking abilities, whether English is your native language, and the test you take, you will most likely want to devote a few weeks to a few months to studying for the exam of your choice. Although test scores are only part of your overall profile, they are an important component, and depending on which schools you are applying to, you might want to take the test more than once to submit the strongest possible score. Additionally, you might way to try more than one test type to determine which one is a better fit for your strengths. This YouTube video offers a helpful comparison of the GMAT, GRE, and EA.

  1. Essays: The essays represent an opportunity to set yourself apart in a distinct and meaningful way and to showcase your unique experiences and perspective. They allow the admissions committees to get to know you beyond the numerical statistics. Spending sufficient time crafting your essays is critical to a successful MBA application. They can also be one of the more dreaded elements of the application for those without a natural penchant for writing, but breaking the process down into smaller steps can help alleviate stress. We recommend that you begin with a thorough brainstorming session; write down the many significant experiences you have had professionally and personally, including community service and volunteering. These stories will serve as fodder for answering essay questions and identifying themes. This step is especially important for the more open-ended questions posed by schools such as Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business (we even wroteon writing these notoriously difficult essays!). Then, take time to draft a detailed outline for each essay to structure a logical flow and supporting points before you dive right into writing. Consider partnering with an mbaMission consultant for expert guidance on how to approach your essays and draft a compelling narrative, and read our mbaMission Brainstorming Guide and Essay Writing Guide for helpful tips.
  1. Letters of Recommendation: Because they offer the admissions committee the only third-party point of view of you (outside of a potential interview), letters of recommendation are an extremely important part of your application. Do not shortchange yourself on this critical step. Spend time evaluating your options for recommenders, especially when more than one letter is required. And prepare your recommender to write an effective letter by sharing with them why you want to pursue an MBA, your career goals, and the significance of their advocacy in the admissions committee’s decision. Enable a strong endorsement by reminding them of your accomplishments and the key projects/deliverables you worked on together. Remember that your application is not considered complete until any required letters of recommendation have been received, so make sure you provide your recommender with ample time to write their letter and submit it (especially for Round 2, with application due dates typically set for just after the start of the new year!). The mbaMission Letters of Recommendation Guide offers additional tips on how to select and work with your recommenders to secure compelling letters and even includes illustrative examples. And check out this video for guidance on effectively coaching your recommenders.
  1. Resume: Do not assume you can simply repurpose your current resume and use it for your MBA application. A resume successfully tailored for a business school application differs in important ways from a resume used for job seeking. Results, achievements, accomplishments—these should be the focus of your professional bullet points, not just responsibilities. Make sure you demonstrate how you added value to the organizations for which you have worked. All notable examples of leadership and community engagement should also be on your resume, including those from your undergraduate days. Keep your resume to one page with reasonable font size and margins (and make sure to follow any specific formatting directions provided by the school). Check out the mbaMission Resume Guide for annotated examples and additional tips.
  1. All the Extras: Completing the base application itself takes time, and it often includes several “short answer” questions. Also, some schools require video essays/responses in addition to written essays, and you will want to spend time preparing for those to ensure you come across as confident and well-spoken. If your profile includes something that requires additional explanation, or if you want to proactively address a weakness in your application and what you have done to offset it, you will want to take advantage of the optional essay (or “additional information” section). Make sure that you are completely clear on allthe requirements of submitting a school’s application (these can vary by program), and leave yourself enough time to do a thorough job preparing and finalizing these additional elements.
  1. Interviews: At many schools, the opportunity to interview is offered on an invitation-only basis. So, if you receive a request to interview, that is a good sign! You have worked so hard up to this point to submit a strong application, so do not put the brakes on just yet. Good interviews require practice! Make sure to read the mbaMission Interview Guide as well as any applicable school-specific interview guides as you prepare for this important meeting. Know who your potential interviewer will be and whether they will have reviewed your entire application in advance (“comprehensive” format) or will have only your resume for reference (“blind” format). Practice answering behavioral questions using the “STAR” (situation, task, action, results) framework for logical responses with good flow, and share your stories concisely. Make sure you can clearly articulate what your career goals are, why you need an MBA, why now, and also why the specific school is a good fit for you. Consider practicing with an mbaMission consultant, who can provide valuable feedback and coaching. Rehearsing your answers will give you confidence for the big day and help mitigate any natural pre-interview jitters.

So, you have submitted your application and completed your interview; now the really tough phase begins—waiting to hear if you have been accepted, waitlisted, or denied. If you find yourself on the waitlist, make sure to read the mbaMission Waitlist Guide to understand proactive steps you might consider during this ambiguous period of time.

The MBA admissions process is certainly not for the faint of heart, and it requires very careful and thorough consideration, as well as a significant dedication of time (and eventually funding). An mbaMission consultant can personally guide you through the process and provide strategic advice at every stage to help you improve your chances of being accepted at your dream school(s). Do not be deterred by the arduous work involved; plan appropriately, seek help as needed, and set your expectations accordingly. It will all be worthwhile! Almost all MBA graduates would agree that the transformative experience of attending business school and the lifelong friendships cultivated more than make up for the lengthy and challenging application process.

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