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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



Wrestling with MBA Application Essays

You are thinner, of course

Writing MBA essays can be hard work. If you know anyone who is applying to business school you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or  “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”  (or any other school).  They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare.  It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.

The essays matter.  Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”

Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.

Writing is HARD. You aren’t the only sufferer.

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Writing isn’t easy for anyone.  Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied.   Fine.  That person is in the minority.

If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” 39 times. That’s just the ending.  That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time.  Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the main character  nearly drives himself crazy from writers block?   That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.

To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Death by Rewriting

Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere?  It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing.  Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed.  Print it out, walk around with it.

If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor.  Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper.  Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy.  If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either.  You may have to start all over.

These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal.  Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions.  You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until it’s right.

What MBA Schools Think of Admissions Consultants

aigac conferenceIt’s natural for MBA students to worry, and indeed they do. One thing they shouldn’t worry about is the use of an admissions consultant. Well, at least an ethical and professional admissions consultant, that is.  So here it is in black and white from one top school: Tuck.  They say it’s really OK. In their words,

Reputable consultants have experience in MBA programs and a broad understanding of the variety of schools out there. Consultants can also assist on the path to reflection and discovery.

See? Nothing to worry about.

Not exactly. Tuck, and every other school I know of is very clear: the work has to be yours. If someone you pay can help you make that hard work more focused, and less stressful, GREAT! If they guarantee they or their method will get you in, RUN! And if they offer to write anything for you, “HANG UP!”

Also, not every admissions consultant will be the right fit for you. I (Betsy of Master Admissions) have one style, and my colleague Candy of MBASpain, has another. And the many experienced consultants at the big firms, like MBA Exchange, have a range of different skills and offerings. It depends on what is right for you.

That’s what Tuck is saying here — the right consultant can help. Read what they say in their own words here. We had a terrifically productive day with the admissions committee at Tuck in June. And we stay in touch with them regularly, to understand what’s new with the school and its value proposition.

Tuck is not the only school who has met with admissions consultants and hosted us. The list is robust, in Boston alone we saw MIT Sloan, HBS, HKS, and had conversations with visiting admissions officers from Wharton, Columbia, Yale, Darden, Texas, UCLA, Babson, LBS, INSEAD, Haas, and more I am forgetting. We’ve been hosted by Stanford GSB in Palo Alto and by Chicago Booth virtually. So yes, if you do it right, admission officers “get it” that using a consultant may just make the difference for you.

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Many aspiring business school applicants wonder how to present themselves as authentic leaders before an admissions committee. They worry they don’t have a fancy title, they don’t have direct reports, or they haven’t thrown themselves in front of a land mine to save their fellow soldiers. Those are great examples, but there are thousands of students who are admitted to top programs who have none of those attributes, and easily viewed as leaders by their communities.

I’ve encouraged people to look at Daniel Goleman’s classic article about emotional intelligence, “What Makes a Leader;”  it is a helpful framework. In so many words, MBA admissions officers are coming out and saying that they look for emotional intelligence in a candidate.

Leadership guru Bill GeorgeStill, it’s hard to apply the principles directly. It’s not that believable to say, “I’m a great leader because of my empathy.”   Bill George, professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, focuses on “authentic leadership,” has been writing about this topic for over a decade, and articulately revisited the basic tenets in a recent article,  “Authentic Leadership Rediscovered.”

Here are my takeaways from that article that will help you with interviews, and writing your essays or personal statement

  1. Authentic leadership is based on your own life story. According to George, authentic leaders incorporate their personal stories. That means talking about where you come from and showing some vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that you need to hang out all your personal secrets, but it does mean that you don’t want to be bulletproof, for example, in the answers to Stanford’s “What is Most Important to You and Why,” the HBS “Introduce Yourself” prompt, and Columbia’s “Pleasantly Surprised” essay (specifically referring to CBS Matters).
  1. Authentic leaders embrace failure. Bill George calls it a “crucible moment,” and we’ve all had them. Business school essay prompts aren’t focusing on failure as much as they used to, but they are looking for change and growth from being tested.  Kellogg, for example, in one essay asks you about challenges you faced, and in another asked you how you have grown in the past.  Again, this doesn’t mean you have to write only about how you’ve crashed and burned, and risen like a phoenix, but it does mean that you want to show some resilience as well as a sense of humor about yourself.
  1. Authentic leaders are not perfect. Nor do they know everything. One of the things business school teaches us is how to make better decisions.  One of the ways to do that is to ask for help. In most business school essays which ask for an accomplishment, such as MIT Sloan’s “Tell us about a recent success,” because you can’t know or do everything, it’s likely you asked for support, and in doing so, you had to convince others to join your cause.
  1. Authentic leaders support and develop others. Look at the principles of Team Fuqua, in particular, “supportive ambition… because your success is my success.”  This is wedded into Tuck’s definition of leadership,  “helping others achieve great things.” And UCLA Anderson’s focus on shared success gets at the same idea. To quote Bill George from his book, True North.  Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders”

Bill George is not the only management guru who focuses on character-driven leadership. Wharton’s Adam Grant, also takes a broad view of leadership, in his book “Give and Take” he shows that those who elevate others are more effective leaders than “takers.”  Just look at the subtitle of his book, “Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.” 

As you look for ways to illustrate your leadership, take a look at the current best-practice thinking on leadership. It’s surprisingly personal, and as a result, shouldn’t require you do gymnastics in your interviews or essays to demonstrate your leadership character.









GRE & GMAT Percentiles, Timing, Details

GMAT test successAnswers technical questions about GMAT and GRE percentiles, the opportunity to retake, cancelling the score,  and other puzzling mysteries.

These days, more and more students are taking the GRE, and that’s great. It is a slightly different style test from the GMAT, it is administered by a different organization, and it is likely to be more useful for those embarking on joint degrees in schools like environmental science, education, and international policy.

It’s been about four years since business schools started taking the GRE in force, and that means that the data set is now large enough to have some predictive ability (to the extent that any standardized test has predictive ability). We’re still seeing some confusion about what is known as the GRE-to-GMAT conversion tool.

Subscores more important than overall score

I’ve linked to it, but schools have their own ways of looking at scores.  The first thing to remember, GMAT or GRE, is that it is about the subscore. That is, the quant and verbal breakdown.  Don’t believe me? Here’s Dee Leopold in her HBS Blog “From the Admissions Director

We care less about the overall score than we do about the components.

There’s an old rule, but one that seems to be changing, that the top schools hoped you would get at least an 80% on each of the components.  If you look at the GMAT (as of the the Sept. 17, 2015 webpage on the MBA.com website), you’d have to get a raw score of 49 for the quant (78%) and 36 for the verbal (80%). That would work out to a 690 or 700. More on that below.

For the GRE, the 80th percentile is a 161 for quant, and a 159 for verbal.  The GRE folks also offer a conversion-to-GMAT tool, but my sense is that it is flawed and that admissions committees are getting familiar enough with the data to just look at the GRE numbers. A very interesting article in Poets & Quants, which is about one year old, lists some of the top schools’ average GRE scores. The article claims that by using the comparative tool, the GRE scores are lower.  Maybe. But it all goes back to the subscore.  Look at Yale SOM, possibly the highest-ranked school on the list. That school’s average quant GRE was 160 Verbal/162 Quant, which works out to be about 85% verbal and 83% quant.

In that same Poets & Quants article, one of my colleagues in the admissions business, Linda Abraham, wrote something in the comments that made a lot of sense, and I often pass her comment along to students.  Linda is very experienced, and has a lot of friends in the industry.  She wrote,

Many admissions offices pay more attention to the percentile score than the raw GRE score. In fact several years ago, but after they were already accepting the GRE, I attended a panel with admissions officers from top programs and they hadn’t even heard of the comparative tool mentioned in this article. They were relying on percentiles to evaluate applicants and compare GRE vs GMAT.

My suggestion for test takers is to go with which ever one makes you feel more comfortable. You will not be penalized for taking the GRE. My guess is that the 80% guideline applies for the GRE, so make that your target if you are aiming for the top schools.

For the GMAT, things are a little skewed these days. The 80% guideline doesn’t really work, because a 49 is just really high. I advise students to aim for a 48 (76%) or above. I’ve seen plenty of great students get in with 47 (70%) scores as well. As for verbal, I actually think that native speakers of English should aim for an 85% or above. Most people I speak with actually do much better than that.

Retaking the test, and how often

As for timing, the GMAT folks now allow you to take the test once every 16 calendar days. That means that you could theoretically take the test up to the maximum five times before 2016!  You probably don’t want to take it that often, but as we get closer to deadlines, you will be thankful that you can take within roughly two weeks of your last test. The GRE offers a 21-day retake cycle.

Most admissions officers expect to see you retake the test if you don’t meet your target score. That’s natural.  You might even need to retake it more than once.  That’s fine too. Five times in three months might look a little desperate, so I don’t recommend going that route.

I’ve also had questions about switching over from GMAT to GRE.  That’s fine. Schools will take the highest score you self-report. Except Columbia — which may have changed their policy of using your GMAT score even if you self-reported the GRE.

Note:  Much of what I’ve written above is my opinion. Except where I have quoted an admissions officer, or linked to a GMAT/GRE website, the rest is hearsay.  So please, caveat emptor.