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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

 

 

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays

MBA leadershipI am not a very good athlete, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when I decided to pick up a new sport. I decided to learn to row – not in a traditional rowboat, but in a long skinny shell with two 10-foot oars. It isn’t that hard, except you’ve got to do a few things right or you end up in the water.

But to really enjoy it, at least for me, I had to accept the fact that I was a novice.  And that meant not expecting myself to get it perfect from the very beginning.  As I found myself cursing my inability to square my blades, I realized that my mind was not allowing me to enjoy what should be a serene, zen-like experience.

Mindset
I was guilty of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset instead of the more constructive “growth” mindset.  Dweck is an authority on things like brain science and learning. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes the growth mindset as a far superior method for transforming effort into success.  The growth mindset allows you to focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility for results.  A growth mindset keeps you from saying, “I’m a natural-born loser,” and instead saying, “I need to work harder at this.”  In a growth mindset, people are not afraid to make an error, look silly, or show a deficiency.

The growth mindset represents a key leadership characteristic.  It’s no surprise that since 2015, Kellogg’s MBA program has this preface to one of the application questions: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? 

Dweck’s decades of research are particularly relevant for people aiming for business school.  The growth mindset resonates on a strategic level, considering the personal leadership attributes sought by admissions officers of most business schools. It also resonates on a tactical level, in studying for the GMAT or GRE.

 

The Strategic: Leading
Business schools seek out people with attributes that will make them leaders who will change the world for the better. They are looking for people who don’t give up and see hurdles as a challenge. They want people who can learn from others to improve themselves and their environment.  I worked with one student, now on his way to Wharton, who appeared on the surface to be an all-or-nothing high achiever. At first, he looked like the “typical MBA,” never a good sign. But later, in his application and interview, he mentioned something both disarming and revealing: he never learned to swim. So as an adult, he decided to jump in.  When discussing his recent lessons in swimming, he said “It is never too late for a fervent beginner.” That’s the growth mindset.

The Tactical: Testing
Standardized tests demand a growth mindset. The computer-adapted tests, which give you harder questions if you answer right and easier questions if you score wrong, can send the fixed-mindset student into a failure spiral that will ruin any chances of a decent score.  The growth mindset, however, allows the student to work toward mastery. To put the time and the effort into learning the material and the process.   The growth mindset allows the student to embrace the possibility that skills can be learned (they can), and that sustained effort (and a good coach) leads to accomplishment.  The person with a growth mindset loves to conquer a challenge, while the person with the fixed mindset demands perfection right away.

There may have been a time when business schools were looking only for people with natural-born talent.  But as the world has changed and management science has evolved, MBA  programs want growth-mindset types in their classes. They want people who are willing to try new things, and are prepared to not be perfect the first time out.  They want people who think of themselves as works in progress.

And that’s why learning a new sport (or skill, or technique, or trick) isn’t so bad. I know I was clumsy and got it all wrong with my first attempt at rowing. But no harm done.  I’ll just keep trying until I get it right.

Whenever that may be.

You Really Want to Read this Article Now

Believe it or not, the admissions deadlines for 2016 entry is fast approaching. I’d rather think about relaxing during the summer and taking a break.  But MBA programs are releasing applications for the next cycle, and it makes sense to start your campaign for getting into your top choice business school.

To get you going, I’m offering just a few tips to get you going as you launch the application process.

1. Consider first round.

Whether it less competitive or not, the admissions committee has a blank slate for the class. Better they pick you because of you, rather than search for someone to fill a hole and it happens to be you. For portfolio managers out there, you know what I mean – if the portfolio is partly built, you tend to look for either non-correlated securities or to fill a certain area where you need exposure. MBA classes are built similarly.

2.  Make sure your GMAT scores are up to snuff.

The last thing you want is to have to deal with studying for a very annoying standardized test and project-managing the rest of the application. I am a strong believer in taking a course or hiring a tutor. Feel free to email me for specific suggestions.

3. Use your summer to talk with first-year and graduating MBA students.

You have a wonderful chance to ask the dumb questions and get a feel for your fit with each school.  If you are thinking of switching careers, find a between-years student or recent grad and ask how it has worked for them so far. The clearer your game plan for the next few years, and how it connects with the future, the better.

4.  Research by reading and watching everything published by the schools.

Let the school market to you. A college classmate of mine actually tells business schools how to market their services to prospective students. MBA programs pay good money to consultants and brand managers to make sure that what they are saying about themselves represents the school’s unique selling points.

5. Start thinking about your recommenders.

You want to make sure you have buy-in from the people who will help you the most. I’ve written about this a lot, including an article in Poets & Quants – and here’s the original blog post on wrangling recommenders, which culls the best advice from admissions officers and other experts.

If it makes you feel any better, applications for medical school are due in June.  Just think…you’ve got several months more!

And if you will be in Palo Alto, CA in July, I’m facilitating the Dartmouth & Harvard Clubs’ MBA Admissions Workshop.  Save the date of July 14 for a fun and interactive few hours that will help you clarify and organize your plans for the upcoming applications.

GMAT or GRE?

GMAT test successFor those who are applying to business school,  the question arises: should I take the GMAT or GRE?

Or if you’ve already taken one or the other,  you may be wondering if you should have taken a different test.

In all honesty, I think the answer is either, but it’s not entirely black and white.  These days, just about every top US business school accepts the GRE.  But read the fine print. Not all schools value it equally (UCLA for example) and some even have quirks (Columbia).

You’ll see a list at the end of this article that indicates, at least of this writing, which do and which do not. I’ve also put links to the school websites for further explanation. Things change all the time. The most recent data shows about 10% of students are using the GRE, and the numbers are growing.

Why do schools even take the GRE? Because they are casting a wider net to get more interesting students, and because they realize that lots of students think about joint degree programs.

Harvard Business School was one of the first schools to accept the GRE, because, as Dee Leopold said in 2009

HBS: Since many HBS applicants are also considering graduate programs besides the MBA, there is now no need for them to take the GMAT if they have already taken the GRE. We believe that the GMAT and the GRE meet our expectations of what a standardized test can tell us about a candidate’s ability to thrive in our MBA Program.

The Rumor Mill
Face it, both tests are standardized, and both are computer adaptive.  They are both annoying and require more studying than you want. Most, but not all schools are perfectly happy to take either. For example, this line is from Michigan Ross’s application instructions:

ROSS:Your performance on either exam will be used as part of our assessment of your academic ability, and you are at no advantage or disadvantage by taking one exam instead of the other.

But other schools, such as UCLA Anderson, strongly prefer the GMAT

ANDERSON: We prefer GMAT scores as the common denominator by which we have historically compared candidates, but we accept the GRE now as well.

That means you have to check carefully and rely on what you read and hear from admissions officers, beyond what is on chat boards, and even blogs like mine.

I thought the next few lines were hearsay, but they were just confirmed, May 30, 2014, in person, by senior members of the admissions office at Columbia.

COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL: If we have a GMAT score, we are going to use that. We will disregard the GRE.

I had a student who took the GRE for Columbia, did well, but felt he wanted to take the GMAT to prove his quant mettle. He didn’t do well because he had an off day, but because he HAD taken the test, Columbia took his GMAT instead of the GRE. What would have happened if he didn’t report the GMAT? Who ever knows? (He went to Yale SOM anyway, his first choice).

Other schools are much more relaxed.  At a May 2014 conference, Isser Gallogly, Assistant Dean of Admissions at NYU Stern, suggested that students try the GRE if they are sub-par in the GMAT.

NYU STERN: If someone is struggling with one test, try the other, the GRE

Your Quant Score
Most admissions officers admit that they want to see a balanced score on both verbal and quant. The general buzz is that around 80% on both is about right, but there’s definitely some give on both sides. So don’t fear if you get a 47 on the quant, which is turning out to be a 78% these days. As for the GRE, the population on the quant side is a bit less numbers oriented, so if you get an 80% in that pool, it’s pretty well known that you are being measured against a different population, usually not as quant-oriented as GMAT test takers. So shoot for a higher percentage, say about 85% on quant.

If you are worried about how you look by taking one test vs. another, I say, don’t worry unless they really make a point of it (like UCLA). All you need to do is get it over the net, and they pretty much tell you what a normal distribution looks like. Get within one standard deviation of the average, and you are fine.

Having said all that, if test taking is not your forte, you really should take a GRE or GMAT course. You don’t know what you don’t know about your own study habits. It’s worth the investment.

Future Employer Preference on GMAT vs GRE

One more thing–and perhaps this deserves a blog post all to itself, employers will take any statistics you throw that them.  At least that’s what representatives of the Career Development Office at Yale SOM stated on May 27, 2014, “Employers love points of data wherever they can find it. So gre or gmat doesn’t matter. They do like the numbers!”

MBA Programs: GRE in addition to GMAT

School GRE? Link
Cambridge YES Cambridge Judge
Chicago YES Chicago Booth
Columbia YES Columbia Business School
Cornell YES Cornell Johnson
Darden YES UVA Darden
Duke YES Duke Fuqua
HBS YES Harvard Business School
INSEAD YES INSEAD
Kellogg YES Kellogg MBA
Mich Ross YES University of Michigan Ross
MIT Sloan YES MIT Sloan
NYU Stern YES NYU Stern
Stanford YES Stanford GSB
Tepper YES Carnegie Mellon Tepper
Texas YES Texas McCombs
Tuck YES Dartmouth Tuck
UCLA YES UCLA Anderson (GMAT Preferred)
Wharton YES Wharton MBA
Yale YES Yale School of Management
Haas YES UC Berkeley Haas (Part-time YES)
LBS NO London Business School
Oxford NO Oxford Said

If you are looking for more schools the ETS link has a full list of MBA programs which accept the GRE.  Further, to confuse, or perhaps clarify you, ETS also has a GRE-to-GMAT converter.

UPDATED: June 5, 2014.

Interested in admissions consulting? Email me at betsy@masteradmissions.com

Just have a question? post it at my Wall Street Oasis forum

GMAT vs GRE with Pictures!

GMAT test successMany students ask whether they can apply to business school with the GRE, thinking that they may be disadvantaged compared to students who are applying with the GMAT.  I’ve even quoted business school admissions directors, who are still undecided.  Last year at an AIGAC conference of graduate admissions peers, I heard arguments well in favor of the GMAT, and I tend to think that all things being equal, you should take the GMAT.  Further, if you haven’t taken much quant in your life, don’t be lured into arguments that the GRE is easier. It may be, but there’s a chance your higher relative score would be discounted.

To help with your decision, my friends at Magoosh, also based in Berkeley, released a very pretty GRE vs. GMAT infographic that presents a side-by-side comparison of the two tests.

GREvGMAT_infographic_800x6188