When talking with someone who is considering applying to business school, we at Stratus often hear the question, “What are my chances?”
You can find the acceptance rates of the top 50 US business schools in this Poets&Quants article, but keep in mind that these numbers are averages, and there’s a lot more to you than just a set of numbers. Although your “stats” are a part of who you are as an applicant, so is your work experience, your community involvement, your recommendation letters, and your story that explains how an MBA fits into your career goals. Think about these five areas and try to give yourself a grade (A through F). The more A’s and B’s you have versus D’s and F’s, the stronger your chances are at a given school. And the more competitive a program, the more A’s a program is going to expect.
We often hear that Harvard will “blink once but not twice.” So, if you’ve made a lot of job changes throughout your career, for example, you can still be a competitive applicant if your stats, community involvement, recommendations, and essays are solid. However, if you’ve made a lot of job changes and have no community involvement, your chances will not be as good.
In this blog post, we examine the five components of MBA applications that can affect your chances of acceptance and consider how to gauge your standing in each area.
GPA and Test Stats
Although your stats are only one part of your profile, they are the most quantified, so they’re a good place to start. When trying to assess your chances of acceptance at any given school, start by looking at the class profile, which presents the stats for the program’s most recent class. And when looking at that school’s profile (let’s use Northwestern Kellogg as an example), pay particular attention to the ranges. For example, while the average GPA among Kellogg’s class is 3.7, the GPAs range from 2.4–4.0. Now, with an average of 3.7, you can tell there are more 4.0s than 2.4s, but you can’t see what a school has accepted historically. And although Kellogg shares its 100% ranges, be aware that many schools only post the range for their middle 80% of scores. For example, at Berkeley Haas, the average GPA is 3.67 and the middle 80% range is 3.34–3.93, so you know there are still 10% of scores above and below that range. Ranges are also helpful in assessing where you stand with regard to your GMAT/GRE score and work experience.
Your work experience is also quantifiable to an extent. At most business school programs, we see that the middle 80% applicants have three to eight years of work experience. However, having one year or nine years of work experience won’t necessarily ruin your chances for acceptance—you just need to make sure that you can explain why now is the right time for you and how you will make yourself employable post-MBA. There is also a non-quantifiable part of work experience: How many promotions have you had? Were you promoted ahead of schedule? What type of leadership experiences have you had? All of these play into what you will contribute to the classroom. Schools are looking for leaders and change agents, and your years of work experience alone cannot demonstrate this.
Next, let’s discuss the more nebulous sections of evaluation. Through your community involvement, admissions teams want to see that you think about the world outside of work. Community involvement can take many forms, and the quality of the involvement is much more important than the quantity. Think about the impact you have had through your community involvement. Have you held a leadership role? Have you created significant change or impact? Community involvement can entail volunteering outside of work, but it also might come through participating in an employee resources group at work. It also might inherently derive from the type of work you do—if you work at a nonprofit or within the government or military, for example.
Recommendations can provide an amazing third-party perspective into who you are at work and how you have impacted an organization. The more your recommender advocates for you, the stronger your recommendation will be. And it is much more valuable to have someone who knows you well share specific examples of your actions than to have a skip-level or higher manager write something generic. Schools that use the Common Letter of Recommendation (CLOR) rely on a set of standardized questions to learn from your recommenders how you stand out among your peers and how you have responded to constructive feedback. Find a recommender (ideally, one of them is a current supervisor) who will shout your praise from the rooftops!
When you tell your story, the strength comes from investing time to determine what you want from an MBA and identifying how each program can help you get there. Now, some schools have essays that allow you to tell other stories—stories of leadership (Northwestern Kellogg and Berkeley Haas) and unique stories about you (Duke Fuqua, Dartmouth Tuck, Michigan Ross, Stanford). But somewhere in the application process—in the essays or in the interview—you will have to explain why you want an MBA. Admissions teams want to know that you’ve spent time self-assessing what you need so that you can get the most out of the program and will be employable after graduation.
We’ve talked about what you are in control of (i.e., your application), but we haven’t touched on what you don’t have control of: other applicants. Another factor that affects your chances of admission is how many people like you are applying. For example, there are a lot more consultants, bankers, and engineers applying than entrepreneurs and those with manufacturing or military experience. There tend to be more men in a class than women (except at Wharton this year), and there tends to be an under-representation of minorities. All of these factors affect how competitive you need to be in your application to gain acceptance to a specific program.
We at Stratus think the best way to increase your chances of acceptance is to apply to a suite of schools that will help you achieve your goals. Spend time conducting research to get to know a school and the resources it offers. Is the school placing students at companies of interest to you? Does it have resources to help you learn what you need to make a career shift? If you are applying to six schools, identify two stretch schools, where your stats are below the average; two target schools, where your stats are at the average; and two safety schools, where your stats are above average. If you are applying to four schools, maybe you apply to one stretch school, two target schools, and one safety school. Absolutely shoot your shot, but also create a plan for success.
If you would like help determining YOUR chance of acceptance, our team of experienced Stratus MBA admissions counselors are here to help!