Tag Archives | MBA admissions

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

 

 

Why It Helps Your Application to Visit Schools in the Spring

I’ve always told students to visit schools in the springtime. Now that it’s almost April, and schools will end classes in May, it’s time to remind prospective students it’s entirely worth the trip.

If you can schedule a visit before classes are over, while the sun is shining, and when students know what’s what, you’ll get a much better idea of the school’s DNA.

Here are five reasons to get yourself on a plane sooner, rather than waiting until summer or fall.

1. THE WEATHER

Admit it, life is more pleasant for visitors in the spring than in the dead of winter.  OK, Stanford and Berkeley are lovely most of the year, but the rest of the country? Not so much fun.  Says one Booth second-year student, “For Chicago, the spring weather is a huge plus. The winter just makes everyone miserable.”

2. CLASS IS IN SESSION

One of the best ways to understand an MBA program is to go when class is in session. You’ll feel a completely different vibe when a campus is filled with purposeful students. You want to sit in on a class, see what it’s all about, and get a feel for what it would be like to be a student yourself.  And if you’ve never seen the case-study method in action, you don’t know what you’re missing.

You’ve got about a month left of classes for most MBA programs – for example, the last day of classes for MIT Sloan is May 14.  HBS is a little earlier, and exams begin at the beginning of May. Stanford GSB and Kellogg, which are on the quarter system, run a little longer; last day of classes for Stanford is June 6, for Kellogg is June 2.

Students visiting one-year programs like INSEAD or programs like Columbia Business School need not worry; prospective students can see the school in action year-round.  “With classes taking place over the summer, the J-term also offers prospective students an opportunity to sit in for a class and really experience what it would be like to be a Columbia Business School student,” says Amanda Carlson, assistant dean of MBA admissions at Columbia.” It’s these types of experiences that seem to have the greatest impact on prospective students.”

3. CURRENT STUDENTS KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT 

In addition to class visits, you want to talk with real students to discern the realities of campus life.  First year students are usually in a state of shock during fall term – they’re overwhelmed with courses, activities, recruiting, and FOMO, or fear of missing out.   Second year students have figured out the lay of the land, but can be stressed by recruiting, which swings into full gear during autumn.

Spring is a different story.  Jodi Innerfield, Michigan’s Ross School of Business recent graduate notes, “visiting schools in the spring gave me the opportunity to speak with first years as they reflected on year 1, and MBA2’s as they ventured off to their full-time jobs. In the spring, we’re all reflecting on our experiences and enjoying the nice weather, so it’s a good time to get our perspective and see campus.”

Christine Sneva, senior director of enrollment and student services at Cornell Tech, agrees:  “Spring is actually an ideal time because as someone who’s scoping out a program’s value proposition, prospective students should be talking to folks at the end of their program. You’ll get a raw, real-time perspective that will most likely stay with you throughout your search.”

4. LESS PRESSURE

Since most MBA admissions deadlines begin in September or October, things can get pretty rushed for applicants in the fall.  Assuming the student has taken the GMAT or GRE, there’s the application to navigate, recommenders to organize, and goals to figure out, all while continuing to excel in a full-time job.  Amy Mitson, senior associate director of admissions at the Tuck School of Business suggests that, “Spring is a great time to take an advanced look at a program with no pressure. You are still months away from the start of the fall application season. Relax and take it all in! This will also give you something to reflect on when writing your application in the fall.”

5. LONGER LEAD TIME

In addition to reducing pressure, early visits allow a prospective student a chance to reflect on their experiences as they figure out the whole question of fit (see How To Know If Your Target Schools Fit You). The visit will help you figure out where to apply and why.  You’ll be able to go beyond rankings or brand reputation as you think about what the school offers you, and importantly, what you offer the school.  A spring visit allows you to use the summer to really think through your argument for why the MBA and why a particular school.

Not everyone can visit every target school, but it helps prospective students understand the MBA program’s culture, and it never hurts to make the effort, if possible. Says Tuck’s Mitson, “Nothing beats the first-hand perspective and showing your sincere interest like a visit to campus.”

On Failure and the MBA Essays

Α while ago, I entered a competition for the best MBA blog. In my day job, I am a graduate admissions consultant, so I thought I would try to get some attention to my blog through this contest. I didn’t win. I didn’t place. I didn’t even show.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. I tapped all my social media friends and contacts as I looked for votes. But I didn’t get enough. It’s not the end of the world, but it never feels good not to win. This lack of success reminded me of my own rejections from college and graduate school. I was mirroring my students when they put their heart and soul into an application and are then turned down. This contest was small potatoes compared to a college or graduate school application.

Beautiful losers

But being a loser isn’t all that bad. I mean, it’s not the first time it happened, nor is it the last. We say to ourselves, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, sort of.  I’m in good company with losers. The Atlanta Falcons, Hillary Clinton, and famously Michael Jordan on his beautifully watchable Nike ad.

Losing is part of learning about leadership. It builds resilience, propels you forward, and teaches humility. Here are a few ways how that works: Losing helps build resilience. It means being able to build muscle around not always getting your own way. One of the things that Harvard Business School looks for in prospective MBA students is the ability to handle things when they don’t work out. A few years ago, alongside the required accomplishment essays, the admissions committee asked applicants to describe three setbacks. Nowadays the HBS essay is more open ended, but if you don’t include some setback, they may think you are just trying to impress, and not tell the real story.

The F Word: Failure

That’s why admissions officers often say they are looking for both awareness and maturity. A key factor in high achievement is bouncing back from low points,” writes management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Harvard Business Review’s “Failure Issue.” Losing means you’ve taken risks. You really cannot live without taking risks. As

Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

J.K. Rowling told the Harvard graduating class of 2008, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.“

Talk to most entrepreneurs, and you’ll hear the same theme: you cannot innovate without taking risks. And taking risks often means falling on your face. “Failure is not a badge of shame, it’s a rite of passage,” says Tony Hsieh, Zappo.com CEO and author of the inspirational book, Delivering Happiness.

Learning Humility

Humility is one of the not­ so­ obvious components of great leadership. The real leaders aren’t arrogant bombasts, but people who are gracious and, humble. Just ask Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball, and the force behind Duke University’s Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, shows and teaches humility, in the face of great wins and embarrassing losses. Many leaders already have ego, and that’s ok, but, as Coach K writes in The Gold Standard, “Ego and humility are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. You should have both.”

When you think about it, losing does not always have to have a bad ending. Sometimes losing is simply a matter of the way you look at things. Sure, I didn’t win the best blog award, but when I went back and looked at the numbers, I came in fifth. That meant that I was in the “Top 5.” In my business, that is, the business of MBA admissions, the top five includes Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, and Columbia. Not bad company, I think.

 

More on leadership and the MBA:

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays 

How to Convey Authentic Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

The Classic: Leadership and the MBA Application

Resilience as a leadership trait in MBA Admissions

The essays and recommendations play a big role in MBA admissions, mostly because admissions committees are trying to gauge the candidate’s leadership potential.  When preparing your essays or your briefing sheet for your recommenders, you want to address very specific leadership traits.

Many prospective students ask me what leadership means in MBA admissions.  I completely understand the confusion! The reality is that there is no real textbook definition of leadership, and if there is, but it’s very mushy.  But one element most people agree on as a measurement of a good leader is RESILIENCE.

Executive leadership expert Rebecca Zucker, founder of Next Step Partners, wrote an excellent article on ways to identify and improve your resilience, strategies which “help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen.”   Here they are in brief; check to see if these are your normal behaviors, or you need a little practice:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: A growth mindset looks at setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Don’t over-ruminate: Reflecting and acting is positive. But morosely wondering “what if”?  leads to unproductive wallowing. Especially stuff that is outside of your control.
  3. Take care of yourself: Be healthy in mind and spirit. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
  4. Seek inspiration: seek out stories of people who have overcome failure. They are everywhere, not just on TED. Or Michael Jordan Nike commercials.

The Resilience Checklist

Rebecca Zucker’s article also includes a resilience checklist – which comes close to helping us define leadership in specific terms that prospective and current MBA students can think about and model. Many of these attributes are similar to those that you will find as part of the MBA recommendations forms.

The full worksheet has 18 behaviors, most of which would work quite well in an essay describing personal leadership in the MBA application.  The first, “I have good knowledge of myself” is probably one of the most important – self-awareness is a particularly useful trait for leaders of all levels, particularly young professionals on a rapid trajectory.

“I am flexible and can adapt to changing situations” might be easier to write about. Businesses are unpredictable. For internal or exogenous reasons, stuff always happens at work, and it’s an asset if you can deal with uncertainty.  If you can incorporate a story of your own personal flexibility in the face of a changing work environment, you’ll be demonstrating resilience and maturity.

“I am able to see multiple perspectives on a situation” is useful for your personal growth; for example, it keeps you from ruminating or getting stuck in a doom loop. But it is also useful for working in teams; small or large there are bound to be as many perspectives on a problem as there are members of the group.

“I am able to ask for help” is a definite statement of strength rather than what looks like a sign of weakness. Digging your way out alone is never pretty (or efficient). You might think that puzzling over a knotty problem and finding the aha moment shows your brilliance, but often the opposite is true.  If you are really in trouble, not asking for help just makes things worse.  At work, if you see that your project is falling apart, get resourceful and find someone who can help you solve your problem.  You might break down a few silos in the process.

It’s Not About You

But sometimes things are just awful, and that’s when personal resilience is about not taking it personally. Lost your job? Had a project taken away? Get a rejection letter from the business school of your dreams?  In all these cases, it’s not necessary that you just put on a happy face. That’s not realistic. But look at contingency plans, your support picture and the longer-term perspective.  The universe hasn’t singled you out of bad news, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Setbacks, failures, defeats—they are all part of life.  But resilience with grace, humor and grit, that’s what makes a leader.

Read more on leadership and MBA learning:

Some Introspection in Advance of Your MBA Essays

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Leadership and the MBA Application

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.