Applying to business school is certainly not something to be taken lightly or put off until the last minute! It is a significant decision, and the process is time-consuming, but it certainly has the potential to provide meaningful returns, both financially and personally. If you are by nature a planner and like to thoroughly evaluate and assess all your options and to seek the guidance and perspective of others, starting the application process as much as a year in advance of your target program’s application deadline is ideal.
Six to Twelve Months in Advance – Test Taking, School Research, Additional Coursework Evaluation
At a minimum, you want to set aside six months from start to finish. This assumes a relatively short test-preparation time frame and that you will feel good about your scores on your first official test or two. Although test taking is only one part of the overall application process, it is a good place to start, not only to calibrate the schools you desire to attend (given their average test scores) but also to ideally get it out of the way so you can then focus on the many other elements of the application.
Almost all schools accept the GMAT and GRE, usually with no preference given to one over the other. Importantly, both tests have changed in recent months and in positive ways for most test takers, including a shorter test duration! Changes to the GMAT are relatively significant, with the new GMAT Focus Edition now including a Data Insights section to accompany the exisiting Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections, each of which lasts 45 minutes. And the Analytical Writing Assessment section has been removed. As of February 1, 2024, the Focus Edition version will be the only GMAT test option. A shorter version of the GRE was also recently released, but its length is the only element that changed. A handful of traditional two-year MBA programs now accept the Executive Assessment (EA)—which was initially developed for executive MBA applicants—though it is growing in popularity as a third testing option for applicants.
Determining which test is better (or best, for schools offering the EA) for you depends on your individual strengths, but we recommend doing some online research to understand the methodologies, specific subject areas, and scoring involved in each one, as well as taking free practice exams to see which test you naturally score better/best on. Check out our mbaMission YouTube video on deciding between test options for additional perspective. Note also that some schools are currently offering test waivers; make sure to review the unique requirements and instructions provided on each school’s website to learn whether you might qualify for one and, if so, how to acquire it.
Most applicants set aside several weeks, if not months, to study for their chosen exam and take practice tests, often completing official study programs or working with tutors. Test scores are not the end-all be-all, but they do provide an objective data point that can help you assess your odds of acceptance at a specific business school. Also, a strong score can help negate a weaker GPA, given that the two statistics are considered together when an admissions committee is assessing a candidate’s academic track record and potential for successfully managing the rigorous course load required at top business schools.
If your test score (especially on the quantitative side) or GPA is not as strong as you would like for your target school(s), you can consider pursuing additional coursework, such as Harvard Business School’s Online CORe program, MBA Math, or Berkeley Extension business classes. These courses can also be a positive addition to your application if your major and undergrad coursework were light on analytical and quantitative classes.
While preparing for your chosen test, you should also begin learning about different schools and assessing which ones are the right fit for you. Many factors should be weighed beyond just rankings. mbaMission recommends considering eight key criteria when evaluating a business school. Take a look at our suite of free Insider’s Guides for a comprehensive overview of the top MBA programs with respect to these eight criteria. In addition, make sure to participate in the online webinars and virtual tours that most schools provide. If possible, visiting a school in person is a great way to experience a school’s campus and culture firsthand. Networking is also critical; speaking to students or alumni one-on-one can provide invaluable insight about a school that you might not be able to learn otherwise.
Spending quality time thinking about your future career goals goes hand in hand with researching schools, because you want to ensure that the programs you apply to are strong in the relevant academic specialization(s) and ideally, that your desired potential employers recruit on campus. This is a particularly important due diligence step. Should you be accepted to the schools you apply to, you do not want to be questioning whether you actually want to attend any of them at the last minute. Business school is a significant investment in yourself—one not to be taken lightly, especially when you factor in the opportunity cost of leaving the work force for up to two years.
In researching schools, make sure to also note key submission deadlines and the number of rounds offered (three is standard). A few schools offer “rolling admissions”; for these, submitting your application as early as possible can be advantageous. Applying in Round 1 can also offer an advantage, especially if you are from an “overrepresented” background and will be evaluated against many other candidates with comparable experience. MBA programs desire diversity in their classes and will therefore admit only a certain number of applicants who could contribute to the school in a similar way.
So, you have completed your entrance test, feel good about your scores, and have decided on five to seven schools to target—including a couple of “stretch” schools, a couple of “on target” ones, and a couple about which you feel relatively confident. You are most likely at least three months in at this point. If you allocated six months total for completing your applications, you now have three months left in which to take care of the remaining tasks, which is good. You still have a lot left to do!
Three to Six Months in Advance – Essays, Recommender Selection, Resume
Check out the websites of your target business schools to familiarize yourself with all their requirements and create an online account for your application. For many programs, you will want to soon start preparing to write your essays. Note that most schools’ essay questions are typically released in May or shortly thereafter, though in 2023, release dates were later than historical norms, and several schools made changes to their prompts after releasing them.
mbaMission recommends beginning with a brainstorming session and creating an outline for inspiration and efficiency. Many essay word limits are quite restrictive. On the surface, you might think that means the essays will be quick and easy to write, but there is truth to Mark Twain’s keen observation “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Writing with brevity and clarity is often more time-consuming. Make sure to dedicate sufficient time to complete multiple rounds of revisions and to have others review your essay(s) as well. And do not try to use “fancy” words to impress the MBA admissions committee with your vocabulary. Remember Leonardo da Vinci’s words of wisdom: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Although Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) generally have less-restrictive essay word limits, the freedom the schools’ somewhat ambiguous questions afford means you will want to take time to complete multiple iterations. Our book “What Matters?” and “What More?”: 50 Successful Essays for the Stanford GSB and HBS (and Why They Worked) provides helpful instruction on how to approach these notoriously difficult essays, as well as annotated essays from successful past applicants. Our YouTube videos analyzing an HBS Sample Essay and a Stanford GSB Sample Essay also offer useful tips and guidelines. And of course, all mbaMission admissions consultants are very experienced in providing guidance on successfully crafting these essays.
You must also carefully consider your recommenders at this point and ensure that you are aware of how many you will need for each of your target schools. The programs often provide direction as to whom they prefer your first recommender to be (typically your current manager). If you deviate from the school’s request on this point, you must offer an explanation for your alternate choice in the optional essay. Your letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of your MBA application because they represent one of the only third-party perspectives of you that the admissions committee will have—and because they are provided by individuals who have (or should have!) significant experience interacting with you in a professional setting. Consider the right timing to share the news of your MBA desires with your manager and solicit their support of your decision.
In addition, you need to provide a resume (or CV) with your application. Do not assume that you can simply upload your most recent job application resume. You must tailor your professional overview specifically for your business school application. (And unless you have more than ten years of work experience, make sure to limit your resume to only one page.) The admissions committees want to understand what you have accomplished professionally—the value you have brought to your employers—as well as your education, leadership experiences, and what you have done outside of work to engage with and better your communities. They are interested in learning about you holistically, not just the career side of you. Some schools have very specific requirements for how the resume is presented, so always read any instructions the programs provide very thoroughly. And watch our YouTube video on How to Write MBA Resume Bullets for more helpful tips.
Zero to Three Months in Advance – Short-Answer Sections, Recommender Outreach, Reviewing and Refining
Once your target programs have released their application for the new school year (typically in mid-August), review it fully to prepare yourself to answer the many questions included in the online form. Do not underestimate the time you will need to dedicate to the application’s short-answer questions, which are often related to career goals, if they are not covered in one of the school’s essay questions. Some programs also request or require a video submission to supplement the written essays. In addition, you might be asked to provide a description of each professional position you have held and your reason for leaving it. We recommend drafting your responses to these elements first in Microsoft Word, where you can check to ensure that you are within the school’s character limitations and can leverage spell-check.
Now is the time to reach out to your recommenders with the specific details about the letters they must write (i.e., completing the school’s online form). You will need to enter their information into the school’s online portal to trigger the program to contact them directly with instructions. Do not hesitate to ensure that your recommenders understand what MBA programs want to see in applicants or to remind them how you have demonstrated those coveted qualities in your professional endeavors. Do whatever is necessary to enable them to be strong advocates for you! Most schools publicly share the primary questions they ask recommenders, and many use questions from the GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation to simplify the process for recommenders who will be submitting responses to multiple schools.
Before submitting your application, make sure to reread and review all the elements in totality. Ask yourself a few key questions: Have you told a consistent, compelling story? Have you fully represented your accomplishments, qualifications, and potential? Have you leveraged each part of the application to further the admissions committee’s knowledge of you and what makes you unique? Always check carefully for typos and misspellings. Consider your application a formal, professional representation of you. You have spent months getting to this point; you owe it to yourself to not let a minor detail reflect poorly on your attention to detail.
Submission – Preparing for Interviews
A few schools interview all candidates shortly after they have submitted their application, while many others interview on an invitation-only basis. Review the mbaMission Interview Guide as well as any relevant school-specific interview guides to understand the logistics of the interview and to access sample questions with which to prepare. We also have a YouTube video that addresses how best to approach Five Common MBA Interview Questions.” Continue to stay current on the schools where you will be interviewing—read blogs, connect with students, review recent press releases—so you will be able to authentically discuss in the interview why the specific program is a strong fit for you and your career goals. Although you should practice responses to common questions and ideally do a mock interview as part of your preparation, you do not want to sound overly rehearsed or robotic. Remember that the interview is very much a conversation, and the interviewer’s primary goal is to get to know you and your motivation to attend business school in more detail—not to test or trick you!
Notification dates following your interview vary from school to school. But at this point, take a deep breath. Hopefully, you can confidently say that you represented yourself well in your application and interview and can feel proud about your submission, regardless of the outcome.
Without a doubt, applying to business school demands a substantial commitment and can potentially feel overwhelming. mbaMission consultants are experts at navigating the process and can help you improve your odds of a successful outcome. Sign up for a free 30-minute consultation to learn more about our services and to discuss your specific applicant profile. Check out this video to learn more about what you can expect during your free consultation. We look forward to meeting you!