Tag Archives | best business schools in the world

What the Best Business Schools Look for in MBA Applicants

MBA admissions

Barbara Coward

A guest post from Barbara Coward, a top education industry analyst, and founder of Enrollment Strategies, an advisory service to businses schools.

If you are applying to a “top” business school, you’re far from alone. The full-time MBA programs recently ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report received 54,694 applications last year. The acceptance rate for these schools topped at 23.6 percent, and the lowest acceptance rate was even more daunting. Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, for example, accepted only six percent of full-time MBA applicants in fall 2016.

It’s no wonder there is so much anxiety and stress involved in the admissions process. Despite all the resources available for prospective students on business school websites, blogs, and social media pages, the selection criteria can still seem quite murky.

So what do business schools really look for in MBA applicants? If you are applying to the best business schools worldwide, there are three key things to keep in mind.

  1. Academic Ability

While an MBA is viewed in most workplace cultures as a career passport, it is first and foremost an academic degree. The importance of the academic nature of the program is underscored, for example, in the U.S. News and World Report ranking methodology. All surveyed business schools are required to have AACSB Accreditation, and business schools must meet strict quality standards for student learning to earn accreditation. As a result, prospective students applying to AACSB-accredited schools need to provide evidence of academic ability.

A school will determine your academic potential primarily through your GPA. However, the GMAT is also a key factor in the selection process and provides an opportunity to strengthen your application. You can’t go back in time to improve your GPA, but you can demonstrate your academic ability through the exam and retake the GMAT every 16 days.

Yet there can be extenuating circumstances for applicants whose numbers fall below what some business schools look for, and admissions officers often take those situations into consideration. For example, I’ve evaluated applications from candidates all over the world who have high test scores but an underwhelming undergraduate transcript because of an illness in the family or a serious personal challenge.

In fact, admissions officers often become quasi-detectives as they dig through application materials searching for proof of potential. The more evidence an applicant can provide, the stronger the application will be. 

  1. Leadership, Team, and Communication Skills

Although they’re known as “soft skills,” these characteristics are considered hardcore in the application evaluation process. After all, business schools are developing a talent pool for employers and need to develop skills that companies demand, which today extend beyond technical expertise. In fact, the top two reasons companies hire MBAs are to build a leadership pipeline (62 percent) and to support company growth (53 percent), according a new survey of corporate recruiters by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)®.

Business schools look for evidence of emerging leadership skills, which include integrity, humility, and a global mindset, among numerous other attributes referenced on Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business website.

One that’s near the bottom of the list, but certainly not the least important, is team skills. Employers across all industries rank the ability to work in and build strong teams as one of the top five performance traits for recruiting and hiring business school talent, as indicated in the same GMAC survey.

Communication skills are just as critical. Among the employers surveyed by Bloomberg Businessweek in recent years, strong communication skills were the most frequently mentioned attribute for an MBA graduate. This ability is even more important in our age of digital communications. Students need to be able to communicate effectively (clearly, concisely, compellingly) across digital platforms such as email and video conference platforms, especially considering the rapid growth of remote workers and the fact that more companies are focusing on virtual recruitment. Business schools are adjusting their admission requirements accordingly. Georgetown McDonough’s School of Business, for example, recently introduced a one-minute video to evaluate how candidates will look in front of corporate recruiters as well as how they will contribute in class.

If employers are seeking these skills post-graduation, you can bet that business schools are seeking them pre-admission. Therefore, admissions officers will be searching for evidence of soft skills in MBA application materials, typically through a resume, letters of recommendations, essays—and now video.

  1. Clarity of Goals and Contribution

The question is easy, but the answer is deceptively difficult: why are you considering an MBA? Business schools want to know more than your desire to advance your career or change industries. That’s a given. They want to understand your personal story. They need to see that you are ready and prepared. They seek a picture of your vision for the future. Admissions officers at the best business schools look for evidence of maturity, self-awareness, and an alignment of expectations that are based on a concrete definition.

Also, admissions officers need to understand how you will contribute to their MBA program. The Wharton School’s Adam Grant, one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers, says that people tend to have one of three “styles” of interaction. There are takers, who are always trying to serve themselves; matchers, who are always trying to get equal benefit for themselves and others; and givers, who are always trying to help people.

The most successful leaders, he argues, are givers.

The challenge for prospective MBA students, however, is that they are understandably in the taker mindset during the application process. How will the program get me a great job in consulting? How will the school increase my salary? How will the career services team introduce me to my dream company?

Successful MBA applicants are those who frame their candidacy in the giver mindset. How will I enrich learning in the classroom? How will an MBA enable me to contribute to my community? How will this business school help me improve society at large?

There is an endless list of attributes that the best business schools seek in MBA applicants, starting with adaptability, ambition, and an analytical mind.

That’s just at the beginning of the alphabet, although there is one more “A-list” word that business schools look for in applicants. Authenticity.

 

“Sometimes we get asked questions from prospective students about, ‘How do I stand out? How do I make myself more appealing to the admissions committee?’” said a member of the admissions team at Columbia Business School. “The truth is all the applicant can do is be themselves.”

Or as Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

More on MBA admissions strategies:

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions 

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Applications

 

 

Apply Now or Later? Business School Age Range

“When should I apply?”  “Am I too old to apply to business school?” Those are often the first things students ask when planning their MBA application process.  The highly personal answer depends on both strategic and tactical considerations.

The Decision is Part of Your Career Strategy

 

The “when” question is strategic because an MBA application requires asking yourself big questions about your career and where you want to go next. Often these decisions depend on the experience you already have. If you are looking at full-time programs, that means you have to figure out whether you have enough experience to convince an admissions committee that this is the right time to leave your current job and take on the hard-core leadership and managerial training to set you up for the next phase.  Remember, the admissions committee is trying to determine your value added to your future stakeholders: classmates, faculty, and alumni.

But I Hate My Job!

That’s among the worst reasons to apply to business school. It’s really better to apply from a position of strength. Sometimes you just need one more year to gain more work autonomy, or you might want to switch functions to round out your experience, or even push yourself in a completely different direction. If you are not sure now is the time , then you are probably not ready.

Is there a target number of years? Not exactly. Most schools publish their average age and years of experience on the class profile page.

HBS histogram

HBS range of years of experience

You’ll see that over the past 10 years, Harvard Business School’s students matriculated with a range of 41-54 months of full time experience.  And there’s a standard deviation of a about year  around that, giving you a plenty to work with.

If you are on the young side, think hard about the quality of the challenges and emotional intelligence you’ve demonstrated to influence outcomes. Remember, your teammate may be an astronaut, a West Point-educated Tesla employee,  a prize-winning athlete,   or just a high-performing consultant. Do you bring enough maturity, self-awareness, and resilience   to add to your teammate’s experience? It’s quite a tall order, and that’s why admission to the top schools is so competitive.

You’ll note that I’m not writing too much about someone with many years of experience. In that case, your question is not “when?” but “if?” If you think you are on the “more experienced” side, then don’t wait.  For a good, balanced perspective on the “too old” question, take a look at  Wharton’s (now defunct) Student2Student forum (answers saved at the link).

Round 1, 2, or 3?

The decision about Round 1, 2, or 3, is more of a tactical one. I’m writing this article in the first week of January, so chances are, if you are reading it in early 2017, you probably have already missed Round 2. However, if you are thinking of next year, all things being equal (and they never are) I recommend Round 1. You’d rather have an admissions reader who is fresh and not looking to fill a gap in a class that’s already half-full. Furthermore, as a practical matter, Round 1 lets you enjoy the holiday season more, and your family with thank you for that.

This does not mean that Round 2 is an overly-tough round. Thousands of students apply and are admitted in the second round. Many have skipped on the first round because they haven’t done enough personal reflection to make sure their story and purpose are clear. Others wanted to take the GMAT score again, and for others, life got in the way. All of these are great reasons to postpone to Round 2.

Wrangling Recommenders

Recommendations are often overlooked when considering your tactical timing. I call this wrangling recommenders. You’ll need to brief and rally your recommenders to make sure they do the very best job for you. It is your job as project manager of your application to take this part of the application seriously. You will want them fully on your side, and the whole process WILL cost you some political capital. And no, you cannot write your own recommendations and just have them tweak and sign. That’s wrong.

Am I Crazy to Apply Round 3?

Finally, it’s come to this: the Round 3 question.  I personally know or have worked with students who have gotten into every top school in the country that has a third round. (MIT does not). The odds are against you, but if your tactical timing is right, then it may just work. As Dee Leopold, head of Harvard Business School admissions says,

“We like Round 3 enough to keep it as an option. Although we have admitted about 90% of the class by this time, we always – ALWAYS – see enough interesting Round 3 applicants to want to do it again.”

Yes, it is a little on the late side, and if you are just starting to think about taking your GMAT, you probably should delay until next year. But! If you are already in the process, and ready to go, you may not be as crazy as you think.

The choice is always yours. Whenever you decide to apply, make sure you execute well. That probably means you shouldn’t rush. Business school is a big decision and a bigger commitment, so you should apply when you feel you are presenting your best, true self.

This prompt is partly about your ability to plan logically and partly about your ability to envision a wild future.

Meeting Admissions Officers: Do’s and Don’ts

Alexandra Kenin of Wharton and me at last year's MBA panel

Recent Wharton grad and me at an MBA panel

Over the years I’ve received questions from prospective students on how to make a good impression with admissions officer.  Easy answer: be yourself. You either will impress someone or you won’t.  Remember, you aren’t trying to be Lady Gaga.

Spoiler alert! This article goes well against conventional wisdom advising students to impress admissions officers at public events, such as outreach sessions and MBA fairs.  I’ll get right to the point – your goal at these events is to find out information, not to make an impression.  These views are based on my own observations at having attended and run events with admissions officers for about the last nine years.

First, my conclusion:  throw away the entire idea of “trying to impress” an admissions officer.  Focus instead on learning.

Second, my rationale:  Although it is true that admissions officers do remember some of the people they meet, it is rarely because someone is trying hard to make an impression.  Furthermore, that memory may or may not positively influence an admissions decision.  It will largely be neutral, or in some cases, if you are just trying too hard, rather silly.

Third, when you are meeting admissions officers informally, it is not designed to be an assessment. Admissions officers are meeting you to spread the word about the school and its culture. That’s their job.  When they are out on the road, they are doing their best to give you information you cannot find out the website – and in a lot of ways, the best thing they can do is introduce you to students who are currently in the program or have recently graduated.

The Role of an Info Session

Info sessions are really that: filled with information.  They are not designed to be evaluative, and if you turn it into an admissions contest, you will fail.  I realize that admissions officers are people and they do have memories, and every impression needs to be positive, but you don’t have to try so hard.  In fact, the harder you try, the less you will hear what they have to say about how the school fits with you. Here are your handy Do’s & Don’ts:

DO: Listen

And listen actively. There’s a lot to learn at events, particularly during the presentation.  You can get a vibe for the kind of people who are on the stage representing the school. If it is an admissions officer, you can be that she’s talking from a script that’s been thought about *a lot* by people who are branding the school.

DO: Take Notes

If you are in the audience, rather than at a one-on-one, take down what strikes you. It’s amazing how this will help you later when you think about your impressions of a school, because they do tend to all blend together at a high level. The notes will help you figure out what struck you, and can guide you as to where you need to dig deeper

DO: Be Thoughtful about Your Questions

Some of the best questions come from active listening of the presenter.  If, for example, she is talking about a school’s focus on social enterprise, you might ask more specifics about what the school offers in terms of courses, for example. Or more importantly, you might ask what kind of career help the school might offer for people who are particularly interested in, say, a specific field in social entrepreneurship.

DO: Be Brief in Your Questions

Get right to the point in the question. I’ve seen people give a three paragraph intro to their question, only to have the presenter say, “What were you trying to ask?”  You’ve seen this happen in many venues, and it only draws attention to the questioner in a negative way.

DO: Take their Contact Information if Offered

Many admissions officers will give out business cards – take them! If you want to thank them for their presentation, or follow up with a short, thoughtful question, that you really need answered, why not?  From my own experience, I am never displeased to get a personal thank you from someone who has seen me speak. Nor do I mind if someone wants me to clarify on something I said, for example, a book or article recommendation.  But do not ask “what are my chances.”

DO: Network with Students and Alums

You can learn a lot more by getting to know students and alums, especially those you might have some connection with – for example – a former employer, your undergraduate school, or home town. They will often give you unvarnished truth, and can also offer insights about things you hadn’t thought to ask about.  You might even enjoy meeting them more because you will be more relaxed.

DON’T: Ask for an Assessment

Just don’t. There’s no real information there, and it just wastes their time. Again, from personal experience, if someone asks me about their chances in a public setting, all I can say is, “sure, you’ll do great!”  Might make you feel good, but it’s of little value.  Admissions officers spend a lot of time thinking about a candidate holistically.  Asking them to opine on your candidacy in two seconds is just bad manners.

 

DON’T: Try Too Hard

But if you do, don’t worry too much. They meet so many people, day in and day out, to be honest, it will all blend in. And if they do remember you, it will very likely be for the way you just “are.”  And hopefully, you don’t plan on changing that any time soon.

 

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After Round 2 — And Some Interview Tips Too

This is the in-between season for MBA applicants, characterized by anxiety for everyone, including me. Reason: those who have already met their first-round deadlines have nothing to do but wait, and are suddenly overwhelmed with free time and unused gym memberships. Those who are applying in round 2 realize that they have to go through the crazy deadlines and last-minute rush they saw their friends go through.
But here’s the good news: For round 1 folks, you will know what is going on by Christmas. Either way. In the meantime, you’ve got interviews to go through, which are actually fun. I mean, what better way to talk about yourself for half-hour?  It’s not that hard, even at HBS, where the interview really does make or break the application. So, for those of you who are getting ready to make their case in person, here are three handy tips:

1. Be over-prepared. About your story (why MBA, why you) about your leadership examples, and about why this school. You want to be confident, and with most type-A people (the kind of people applying to business school), the best way to be confident is to practice, practice, practice.

2. Look at the interview as a fraternity/sorority rush experience. The most important thing an interview is going to tell the admissions committee is whether they think classmates will benefit from having you around. Remember, your sectionmate/team member is paying $150,000 for the privilege of learning from you. Your interviewer is looking not only at what value you add, but how likeable you are. Face it, there’s an element of popularity here.

Having said that, you are not the interviewer’s best friend, so don’t get too cozy or flip. This is business.

3. Be prepared to talk about a fun fact.  If you don’t have a fun fact on your resume (glassblowing, member of the national darts team, lived in Suriname for a year), be prepared to talk about something a little unusual. Or at a minimum, be prepared to talk about what you are reading. Interviewers want to know something about you that’s just a little different from the others. Knowing every word from “The Big Lebowski” doesn’t count.

BONUS

4. Know your industry’s headlines. This is a new one, something I picked up from an interview guide published by HBS students. If you are in social media, there’s a good chance that the interviewer may ask you to opine on Twitter’s newest change (as of this writing it’s the ability to be able to direct tweet anyone). If you work for JPMorgan, you should probably be aware of what the media is saying about Jamie Dimon, even if it bears little influence on your division. You just don’t want to get caught off guard if an interview says, “Oh, you work in consumer tech, what do you think of Apple’s new head of retail sales?”

So remember, practice, stay interesting, and enjoy the process.

Incredibly useful interviewing tips from an MBA admissions officer

cornell johnson logoWe are proud to present here a special guest post by Interim Admissions Director Ann Richards of Cornell’s Johnson School

One of the key components to getting in to Business school is doing well on the in person interview. Johnson Interim Admissions Director Ann Richards has been working in the business for over 20 years and has interviewed hundreds of students from all over the world. She recently shared with us her top five tips for candidates on how to ace the interview.

Details matter.

Always be on time, no matter what.  So plan ahead when it comes to allotting time to leave for traffic and logistics. Make sure that you know the location of the interview, where to park and always leave extra time in case there are delays. If you are running behind, let your interviewer know as soon as possible.   If interviewing on campus, previous candidates recommend that you arrive in Sage Hall early to soak up some of the energy in the Atrium prior to your interview.

Look the part.

Dress professionally. You’ve heard it before but first impressions are key. Your dress for MBA interviews is business professional which means suit and ties for men and suits, for women, a pantsuit, a skirt and jacket combination or a structured (and modest) dress.  You may be wearing a great outfit, but remember to take the time to groom your hair and accessorize appropriately as well.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Be Prepared. Take time to review possible questions that you may be asked and review your resume to jog your memory. Students can often find sample questions online. I always recommend doing an internet search for “Johnson interview questions”  or “MBA interview questions” and you will find sample questions  to help you prepare.  Practice interviewing with another MBA candidate or a colleague who has earned an MBA – they can give you valuable feedback that can help you strengthen your interview skills.

Know your goals.

Reread your goals essay so that you can articulate well about major points you would like to make.  Make sure you can explain why you want to earn an MBA and why the school you have applied to can help you achieve your goals.  If you want to transition into a new career, have some examples of transferable skills that make the career transition possible.  Remember to stick with specifics and stay on point.

Give leadership examples.

Pick three examples of  your achievements or leadership to highlight during the interview.  The examples should not be a rehash of your essay. Remember that giving specific examples and anecdotes will be an advantage and help tell the story of who you are.  Try to pull recent examples of leadership or accomplishments, if your example is more than three years old, it’s not relevant.

Does this just whet your appetite for interview advice? You can find more tips from Master Admissions here.