Get into a top MBA program.

An insider’s guide to the business school admissions process.

Learn important insights, tips, and recommendations for the:
Application | Essays | Letters of Recommendations | GMAT | Interview

L
ast year, the top-ranked business schools in the United States – Harvard Business School, Wharton, and Stanford Graduate School of Business – received nearly 23,000 applications. Only 1 in 10 applicants was accepted. Yale Business School rejected 89 of every 100 candidates.  MIT Sloan School of Management passed on 86 out of 100.

Given those intimidating odds, how can you improve your chances of getting into your top choice MBA program?

The following will guide you through the entire process and provide advice and recommendations to differentiate yourself among the pool of candidates and put you on the path to MBA success.

 

MBA Application Overview

The MBA applications process is typically comprised of the following:

  • academics
  • essays
  • work experience
  • personal background
  • recommendations
  • candidate interview

Your academic record, work experience, and personal history are usually included in the application itself.

Many business schools give prospective MBAs three different application deadlines by separating the admissions season into rounds. Round 1 usually begins in September and runs through November. Round 2 applications are due in January, and round 3 in April.

However, some schools have as many as five rounds. And other programs work on a pure “rolling” basis.

While each round attracts a different pool of students, the vast majority of seats are filled with round 1 and round 2 applicants.

The entire process of applying to business school is long and arduous. You should plan on taking the GMAT in June, and spend the summer and fall crafting your applications, obtaining letters of recommendations, and preparing for interviews.

If you plan on working with an MBA consultant, consider signing up in early summer to give yourself a solid 3-4 months to work on your applications.

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Last year HBS, Wharton, and Stanford GSB accepted only 1 in 10 applicants. 

  Admissions Timetable


March: Begin preparing for GMAT exam

Apr-May: Begin visiting business schools

June: Take GMAT exam

July: Write first draft of essays for application

August: Ask for letters of recommendations

September: Complete essays and short answers

October: Submit Round 1 applications

Oct-Dec: Round 1 interviews

November: Prepare for Round 2 applications

December: Round 1 acceptance letters sent out

January: Submit Round 2 applications

Jan-Mar: Round 2 interviews

March: Round 2 acceptance letters sent out

What do Business Schools Look For?

Among the thousands of candidates applying to the top ranked business schools, what do Admissions Committee Members look for to determine who gets in and who doesn’t?

Leadership

Harvard Business School’s website lists “habit of leadership” as the first item on its “What are we looking for?” page. The website goes on to explain, “We appreciate leadership on any scale, from organizing a classroom to directing a combat squad, from running an independent business to spearheading initiatives at work. In essence, we are looking for evidence of your potential.”

Stanford Graduate School of Business’ website also lists “demonstrated leadership potential” as the number two evaluation criteria, behind “Intellectual vitality.”

Diversity

To boost your odds further of getting accepted to the most prestigious MBA schools, you should also be mindful of what institutions may covet even more than smart leaders: Diversity.

When admissions officers evaluate applications, creating a diverse student body is their overriding goal. Harvard states, “a truly diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — is the foundation of the HBS experience. Indeed, these differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the many perspectives and life experiences our students from all over the world bring to their classes.”

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Working with MBA Consultant
“A consultant will help you connect the dots from what you’ve done in the past to where you want to go. At Stratus Prep, we have a process designed to draw out your achievements during different parts of your life, which will create a certain thread that translates into your story.”

Marketing Yourself To Business Schools

Perhaps the most important advice we can offer throughout the entire application process (other than don’t miss deadlines) is to craft your story in a way that makes you unique and memorable.

You are building your brand.

There are literally thousands of investment bankers, consultants, software engineers with similar test scores and résumés applying for the same few seats. An applicant cannot afford to look and sound like everyone else.

This is an area where an MBA consultant can provide great help.

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The business school application process is about being authentic and true to yourself.

Business School Application

Do your homework

Before you dig into the Application itself, it pays to do your homework. Think long and hard about why you want to go to business school and how you plan to use your MBA education in your future. Schools will ask profound questions like Why are you unique? What are your ambitions? What has transformed your thinking?

Next, you’ll need to develop an in-depth answer for why you want to attend a particular business school. All MBA programs offer different strengths and areas of focus, and you’ll be required to explain what you find most appealing about a school.

While your answers should be authentic, an MBA consultant can help you think through these profound questions and assist you in articulating your strengths and weaknesses and what you hope to accomplish in life.

An MBA consultant can also help to bring to life your résumé and background. This part of the application is often reduced to a list of job titles, dates, and descriptions and can be a missed opportunity to continue your narrative. Use this section to highlight accomplishments that demonstrate, among other strengths, your leadership experience and leadership potential.

 
Tips for Your Application


  • Highlight accomplishments that feature team experiences and leadership capabilities.
  • Always use quantifiable metrics when possible, such as budgets, revenue, hours saved, customer growth, number of people you managed.
  • If there are gaps in the résumé, address them in the essays.
  • Emphasize successes outside work and the classroom by including community service or other notable activities.
  • Focus on progression and growth.
  • Tailor your application to each school to align with their objectives and strengths as well as use the school’s language and phrases. The admissions officer will make the connection and be more likely to view you as a “fit” for the MBA program.
  • Avoid using industry jargon, acronyms, technical terms, and consultant speak.
  • Write clearly and concisely. Don’t not use long prose or ramble.
  • Of course, pay attention to the details and accuracy – typos and omissions are obvious application killers

Business School Essays

Business schools use essays on the application to find out what makes you tick. You should use the essays to differentiate yourself and further your narrative.

Keep in mind that the overriding objective for any business school is to accept a diverse class. Therefore, you overriding objective for your essays should be to demonstrate how your unique life experiences will add to the richness of the incoming class.

Each MBA program will ask different questions, but in general, all essay topics will center on the following themes:

1. Why get an MBA at this moment in your career?

2. Why this specific MBA program?

3. How will you add value to this program and community?

4. What are your post-MBA goals and your vision for the future?

5. What are you strengths and weaknesses?

An MBA consultant can provide perhaps the greatest value in helping you answer these questions and maintain a consistent life story that ties together your undergraduate degree, work experience, personal passion, a particular business school’s strengths and your future goals.

 
Tips for Your Essays


  • Spend time to craft a compelling, attention-grabbing opening. Write something that makes you stand out. Admissions officers appreciate risk-takers and are looking for candidates who will break the mold.
  • Be sure you break through with a message that’s consistent with your overall application narrative and life story.
  • Use your personal background and accomplishments to demonstrate that you have a unique perspective and will add value and diversity to the class.
  • Show how you’ve been a leader at previous organizations.
  • Align your values and vision with the school’s. Every business school has its own culture and mission. Do your homework to ensure there’s a good fit between you and the school.
  • Be specific. Provide colorful anecdotes and interesting details to make your stories more interesting and memorable.
  • Do not make excuses for mistakes or failures in your past. Be honest and explain what you learned and how you’ve grown from your experiences.

Letters of Recommendation

Most business schools require two references, and often specify what should be in the recommendations. For example, Harvard Business School wants to know “How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles?”

You’ll likely find the letters of recommendations pose your greatest challenge in the application process because you have such little control over getting them done.

Consider your handling of this situation as an important test of your management skills. If the letters are late or don’t meet the requirements, what does this say about your ability as a manager?

You’ll want to request  a recommendation from someone who knows you well and can talk about your performance.

The ideal letter is from a current or recent supervisor. However, if this request would jeopardize your employment, it’s acceptable to ask someone else. You can explain your dilemma in your optional essay.

While you should never offer to write the letter for your recommenders, you can offer to meet with them to explain your vision and reasons for wanting to go to business school. You can also remind them of your recent accomplishments and how you’ve shown leadership qualities on certain projects.

Finally, it’s appropriate, especially if the person does not commonly write letters of recommendation, to reinforce the importance of providing details, examples, and anecdotes.

 
Tips for Your Letters of Recommendation


  • Letters should come from someone who has been your immediate supervisor, has worked with you on a day-to-day basis, and has seen first-hand your contributions to the organization.
  • Ask your recommender to be honest but also to be an advocate for you.
  • Reinforce the importance of specific, detailed examples to illustrate their points.
  • If you need two letters of recommendations, consider asking 3 people to provide them in case one falls through.
  • Give each recommender plenty of time to write the letter.

Business School GMAT Exam

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) is a computer–adaptive test required by most business schools. It’s comprised of four sections:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment
  • Integrated Reasoning section
  • Quantitative Section
  • Verbal

The GMAT measures your reasoning skills — it is not a test of reading or mathematical achievement.

To get accepted to a competitive business school, your GMAT score is critical.

The best approach to improve your chance of getting a good score is to study and take practice tests.

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, the average amount of study needed to achieve a score between 600 and 690 is 92 hours. To score above 700 requires more than 100 hours.

While everyone’s study habits are unique to himself or herself, there are general guidelines to help you prepare. See “Recommendations.”

 
Tips for Taking the GMAT


  • Familiarize yourself with the basics of the exam, including the question formats, directions, time limits, and scoring.
  • To create an effective study plan, start by taking one full-length practice test to assess your strengths and weaknesses.
    Always time your practice to get used to the time limits and to practice pacing.
  • A good rule of thumb is to average about 90 seconds answering each question.
  • Taking a test on a computer may be new to you, so be sure to take enough practice tests so you feel comfortable with the GMAT’s computer-adaptive format.
  • As you prep, keep a detailed log that tracks your performance, especially your errors. This will make it easier to focus on and improve your weaknesses.
  • Even if you’re a math genius, be sure to prep for the GMAT math section. The quantitative section and quant questions feature special types of questions that can challenge the unprepared.
  • If you guessed on a question and got it correct on a practice test, review it as if you got it wrong to make sure you understand it for test day.
  • Simulate game-day conditions. Wake up, eat, and prepare the same way you will for your actual GMAT. And take your practice tests at the same time.
  • Be well rested the day of the exam.

Business School Interview

The interview is critical in the overall MBA admissions decision. Most schools do not offer an interview to every candidate, so if you have been offered an interview consider this a positive sign. Your chances of getting in improved significantly. Typically half of those offered interviews are accepted.

While not all interviews are structured the same, you will likely meet with an admissions officer or an alumnus. Most interviews last between 20-45 minutes.

The most important question you will not be asked, but one which the interviewer, especially an alumnus, will seek to answer is “Would I like to work with this person?” Build rapport and camaraderie with the interviewer is critical for a successful interview.

 
Tips for Your Interview


  • Prepare for a business school interview the same way you would prepare for a job interview.
  • Practice answering questions out loud and within a certain time limits. Conduct mock interviews with a friend, or better yet, a consultant or coach.
  • Rehearse giving natural, succinct answers.
  • Don’t just repeat lines from your application essay. Be able to flesh out answers with new, interesting anecdote and details.
  • Do your best to make a personal connection at the beginning of the interview. Find common interests, shared passions, similar backgrounds.
  • Prepare answers for challenging questions, especially those that probe for weaknesses.
  • Be ready to support atypical career decisions.
  • Be self-aware. If you have a tendency to ramble or go off on tangents, practice staying on point.
  • Prepare 3-5 insightful questions about the program to demonstrate your seriousness about the process. Avoid questions that have obvious answers.
  • Show up early to the interview. This will allow you to get relaxed and look your best.

Work with an MBA Consultant

Working with an MBA admissions consultant has prove to significantly improve your chances of getting accepted to a business school of your choice. Schedule time with an admissions specialist to learn how our team can help you achieve your dream.