We at Stratus Admissions Counseling are frequently asked what it takes to get into one of the top-ranked MBA programs. Of course, you need a strong GPA, GMAT, or GRE score, along with work experience, essays, etc. But gaining acceptance also requires your best effort—meaning that you have done all that you can to create a killer MBA application.
In real terms, this means the following:
1. Getting an early start
It may be an old adage that “you can never start too early, but you can finish too late,” but this is never more true than with business school applications.
Every piece of the process requires time, be it writing essays that really sparkle or hunting down that final recommender. At a minimum, we recommend 100 days. However, our most successful clients start about six months in advance of submission deadlines.
2. Improving your GMAT or GRE score
One of the first things an applicant usually starts with is the GMAT/GRE. Although we all know the higher the better, how does this translate into what’s the best you can do? That point comes only after you have taken a prep course, possibly worked with a tutor on some particularly rough spots, and had a great test-taking day.
If you are still falling short of your practice scores—the fire alarm went off during the test or you became ill (true stories!)—then you are not done yet. I have seen GMAT scores jump by 20 to 30 points just because things fell into place on test day. A Stratus client who knew the stars hadn’t aligned when she got a 740 sat for her GMAT one more time: she got a 770 and is heading to Wharton. Keep on working until you have one of these great test-taking days.
3. Pursuing mentors as recommenders
The best recommendations come from those who really know you, can point to specific examples of your strengths, and are deeply invested in your success. Do you have such a relationship? Great. If not, you may have to cultivate it. This means having a lot of lunches or coffees with special folks who can be advisors and champions as you go through the MBA application process. Again, this takes time.
4. Gaining school knowledge
What can really set an application apart is school-specific knowledge. Rather than just applying to business school, you must convey that you are applying to the one-and-only business school for you.
To communicate this specific knowledge, you have to really get to know the school. In real terms, this means exploring the curriculum, courses, and clubs; connecting with current students and recent alumni; and, in a perfect world, visiting the school to breathe the air. (Of course, this is likely not possible this application season.)
All of this takes time, so another good reason to start early is to do the school research necessary to really connect.
5. Filling potholes
There is no such thing as a perfect applicant, but there are applicants who are candid about their weaknesses and are working to address them.
For those with a weak GPA, this may mean taking an online course. Candidates who lack leadership experience may find it outside the office with a nonprofit. Identify your weaknesses, and rather than trying to hide them, attack the problem.
6. Running spell-check
“Columbia” or “Colombia”? One is the name of a top-ten business school, while using the other in an MBA application is likely a “fast pass to the ding pile.” And by spell-check, I don’t just mean making sure your spelling and grammar are right on; you should involve other people in your process who not only check syntax but also confirm that everything else makes sense. And although your parents may be able to help you with some of this, wouldn’t it be even nicer if someone who actually went to business school took a look?
These are some tips to get you on the road to a successful application, but here is one signal that you are probably not giving this process your best effort: the fire drill.
If you have 48 hours left until the application deadline and your essays are not quite done, your recommender is on vacation, and you are checking the GMAT schedule to see if you can give it one more try before decision time, it sounds to me that this will not be a “best effort” application. Let me be even more precise: under such circumstances, you are almost certainly producing a truly lousy application that will almost certainly be rejected.
Even if you feel like you did a good job over the weekend, there are always those people who did an infinitely better job over a longer period of time—and it is these people who actually get accepted.