MBA Admissions Guide – How to Get into Business School
The MBA Admissions Guide that will get you started. Including – resume tips, interview help, essay pointers, and recommendation resources.
Chapter 1 – The Journey to an MBA Degree Did you know that the first graduate school for business management was founded in 1900, with four students enrolled in its newly created MBA program? Fast forward to 115 years later; the MBA remains the most popular post-graduate degree in the world! Its popularity with thousands of students each year makes a lot of sense from that perspective. All of those applicants are competing for a limited number of spots. Make your application stand out from the rest by understanding the ABCs of the MBA application and admissions process. Check out the different factors to consider when researching MBA degrees and schools, and gain a deeper understanding of the different components of the application in this chapter.
Chapter 2 – MBA Application Essay The MBA application essay, also known as an admissions essay or personal statement, is an individualized account where you answer one question for your prospective graduate school: why should we accept you? This is your opportunity to shine by projecting yourself as the ideal MBA candidate for the prospective institution in particular. To gain admission to the program of your dreams, you must absolutely seize that opportunity. This chapter tells you how. Included are the details of the five parts of the application essay, and the right approach to writing it.
Chapter 3 – Your Application Resume Akin to the application essay, your application resume is there to promote you to the MBA admissions committee. It serves to strengthen your application by showcasing skills, talents, and qualifications that make you the right candidate for your prospective B-school. Your MBA application resume should not be a perfect match for your job-hunting resume, though. What should you change in your resume, then? Find out as you read this chapter. Also included are 10 + 1 tips to nail MBA application resume writing.
Chapter 4 – Letters of Recommendation Learn how to further your cause by getting three recommendation letters from authority figures, as well as general tips on effective letter-writing in this chapter. Letters of recommendation serve as official endorsements of your person, skills, abilities, and overall candidature. They come from high-ranking executives who are intimately familiar with your work. They carry a lot of weight in the applications process, and it’s easy to see why. Having a current or former supervisor who recommends you validates the claims you have made in your essay and resume.
Chapter 5 – Business School Admissions Interview Read on to discover the right strategy for approaching the admissions interview. Find tips for both preparation and delivery when facing the interview panel. You have sent in your application, along with an essay, a resume, three letters of recommendation, and certificates (if any). You have aced the GMAT or GRE and have been invited for a face-to-face interview. You cannot afford to make any mistakes here. It all comes down to this: your admissions interview.
Chapter 6 – Don’t Dismiss Extracurricular Activities Highlighting extracurricular activities in your application, and tying them loosely to the skills or goals listed therein, is a great way to add some extra charm to your MBA application. Such activities position you as a well-rounded person and paint you in a more positive light.
In this chapter, you will find out the six ways extracurricular activities can make your application stronger than that of a person who failed to do so. Also included are examples of how to tie your skills and capabilities to extracurricular activities for higher impact.
The Journey to an MBA Degree
To provide some context for the application process, we have traced out the typical path that you – as an MBA aspirant – must travel.
Preparing for your GMAT Enrolling in a winter or spring course if you feel like you can improve your academic performance (optional).
Brainstorming on the traditional campus and top accredited online MBA programs that meet your career aspirations. While your mind and heart will guide your decision on the choice of program, finalizing a set of MBA programs can be an agonizing process.
Before researching B-Schools, consider factors such as:
- How committed am I to going to school next year?
- Considering factors like available time, finances, and work and family commitments, should I enroll in a full time, part time, or online MBA program? Should I consider evening and weekend classes?
- What kinds of sacrifices am I willing to make?
- How many schools do I want to apply to?
- Should I put together a bigger list to increase my rate of success?
When researching B-Schools, you want to look at the following factors:
- College reputation
- Curriculum (core subjects, what kind of flexibility?)
- Teaching method (lecture vs case)
- Class size
To get ahead on this front:
- Learn more about your target program through admission blogs, chat boards, Q&A sessions, meeting with current students alumni and campus visits.
- Zero in on 4-5 choices
- Get busy with essays, resume rewriting, letters of recommendation and mock interviews.
You obviously need to plan your journey on this path carefully and consciously. MBA aspirants have a one-year long-term plan mapped out to give themselves the time to prepare, research and accomplish milestones. Here’s a 12-month MBA planning calendar from MBA admissions consulting firm mbaMission that you will definitely find useful.
Components of Your MBA Application
As you may have already figured out from the calendar above, the application process has several major components, all of which require significant time and effort.
Application Form and Academic Records
You will need to provide target B-Schools transcripts from your undergraduate institution. The original transcripts will be sent directly from your undergraduate college to the school(s) to which you’ve applied. Request your transcripts early as the registrar’s office may take a couple of days to up to a week or more to process your request. If you don’t contact the office until the end of the fall semester, your transcripts may be delayed as most offices close for the holidays.
If you end up in this situation, include a copy of your unofficial transcript with your application and a note that the official transcript has been requested. This way the admissions committee will still have something to review until they receive the official copy.
There are different ways in which you can submit your application form: snail mail, the school’s website, or online application services. Cross check for accuracy, grammar, typos, spelling, alignment, and legibility. Once you’ve filled out the application form, save a copy for your own records.
MBA Application Essay
Have you been asked to provide an application essay or personal statement as some B-Schools call it? There isn’t much of a difference between the two, except that the essay gives you about four or five prompts to choose from. If you choose your own prompt, it becomes a personal statement.
One: What purpose does the application essay serve?
Look at it this way. Business schools have the big task of selecting worthy candidates who can become distinguished future alumni and enhance their reputation as a premier choice of bright students or aspiring entrepreneurs. Naturally, they want to know more than just what your GMAT scores or resume (if they actually review one thoroughly) say about you.
Here’s where your application essay comes in. The essay reflects the real you, how you intend to use your MBA degree, and what kind of career you envision after graduation. It indicates your suitability and potential for the MBA program you’ve applied to, helping understand the kind of MBA student or future business leader/entrepreneur you’re most likely to become. It also reveals how much an admission into the particular B-School means to you.
Two: How should you approach application essay-writing?
Remember that you’re a unique candidate with your own specific goals, fresh ideas, and creative instincts. Your essay should present your best facets to the admissions panel, indicating what you’re bringing to the B-School. It should also specify how exactly the B-School may help you improve. So, the first thing you want to do is make a list of your strengths, weaknesses and goals. Ideally, you would have already absorbed everything you need to know about the school, programs, infrastructure, student life, and other details. All the information you’ve gained can help you write your essay.
Three: What are the various building blocks of your essay?
Everything starts with a beginning. We’re talking about the introduction of your essay. Don’t start with ‘My name is….’ or ‘I’ve been working as a….’. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb for being unimaginative and uninteresting because the competition is tough, or you won’t stand out at all for being nothing special, and you’re only on the first line of your essay! If you check out a few good MBA sample essays, you’ll find that they read more like stories or a series of anecdotes, building context about the applicant’s life or work experience. The advantage of this approach is that it’s both interesting and attention-grabbing. You can also begin the essay with a quote, question, or compelling statement. A word of caution: don’t make the essay sound like your autobiography.
Why this B-school and program?
Next, you want to connect the story, anecdote, quote, or question to your decision to pursue the chosen MBA program. Talk about how exactly the school’s offerings and resources match your individual requirements and interests. Don’t try to flatter the committee; be truthful about how the program ties your career path up until now to the one you aspire to in the future. If you want, you can mention the classes in the MBA program that can help you achieve your goals.
What goals do you hope to accomplish with an MBA degree?
You’ll obviously need to discuss your short and long terms goals from the degree, and how they’re connected. Be realistic about your goals and define them clearly. Don’t just say you want to work in investment banking or become a management consultant. State the functions and areas that interest you most, and what aspects of a particular role or job appeal to you. Note: avoid using buzzwords and industry jargon to make your essay sound impressive. Make simple yet assertive statements that suggest your intentions and passion clearly.
Your work experience
Your application essay should include the most notable and relevant aspects of your work experience so far. Don’t make generic statements, and definitely don’t just paraphrase your resume. If you’re an investment banker or a consultant at a top management firm, don’t talk about your standard work responsibilities. Focus on one or two successful assignments, examining your contributions and what you enjoyed most about working on them. In discussing your work experience, you want to phrase sentences and use words that communicate that you’re a proactive, can-do sort of person. Words like ‘initiated,’ ‘led,’ and ‘galvanized’ can help you get the message across effectively.
If you have any overseas work experience, talk about it. If there’s scope for it, briefly discuss how your ethnicity, gender, foreign background or minority status have affected your outlook or experiences. Avoid extreme descriptions and colorful language or you may end up sounding unprofessional and even tacky.
The ending should tie in well with the rest of your essay. If you started by saying that you lack a certain skill that the MBA program can assist with, end by stating that given the opportunity, you will be ready to apply that skill to your future career and generate value for your company and community.
Start by writing as much as you can, addressing every question or a set of themes and topics with the appropriate response, and then edit. You will end up writing 3-4 drafts before you have the final one. Allocate time to writing, rewriting and editing. Read your essay out loud, proofread carefully twice at least, and have it critiqued by someone who will be honest with his/her feedback
There is no magic formula to cranking out a fabulous essay. If you can communicate your strengths, express your career goals and show how well you fit into the program and the school culture, with integrity and sincerity, you will strike a chord with the panel. For inspiration, you can consider purchasing this book on successful Harvard Business School application essays.
Your Application Resume
Almost all MBA programs require you to submit your resume along with your application. Some admissions directors regard resumes with the same importance as essays. At the very least, they will skim through your resume to understand various aspects of your candidacy.
Will the latest version of your resume do, or should you take a second look at it? The admissions committee wants to see leadership and problem-solving skills that can be transferred to any industry. Your core scholastic skills will matter less and those important to an MBA program must stand out clearly. If you’re proficient in a particular programming language and a coding ninja, don’t expect the admissions committee to be impressed. This is not the kind of skill that will help you lead a team or build a great company. How, then, do you go about modifying or rewriting your resume?
10 MBA resume writing tips
1. Be mindful of the B-School’s resume requirements
Some may ask you to hold the resume to one page; others may accept up to two pages. The one-page resume required by such stalwarts as MIT Sloan can very well be a test of how well you can craft an ‘executive summary!’
2. Use a structured, logical format
Follow a standard heading with your name in the middle, phone number and email on one side, and address on the other side. You can structure your resume in chronological or reverse chronological order. The format can look something like this:
- Extracurricular activities
3. Make your resume look good
Pay attention to presentation, legibility, and white spacing to make your resume easy to scan.
Choose a font size of at least 11pt Times New Roman or Calibri.
- A 1 inch or at least .75 inch page margin on the left, right, top and bottom
- Left aligned, rather than justified, bullets and paragraphs
- Consistent spacing after periods, that is, either one space or two spaces throughout
- Normal and not expanded font spacing
- For small spaces within sections, use ‘before and after’ paragraph spacing as opposed to line breaks
- For large spaces between sections, use line breaks and no ‘before and after’ paragraph spacing
- Use state abbreviations for address and company locations
- Ensure correct hyphen usage
- Use multiple levels of hierarchies (bullets, sub-bullets, boldfaced, underlined)
- Run spell check and grammar check in MS Word
4. Put your best resume content first
Your resume can reinforce certain characteristics that are important to your MBA candidacy or complement the information in other areas of your application. That’s why it makes sense to prioritize your most impressive resume content first. So, if you trained a team of 12 and led a department of 20 employees, you want to state the latter first as it shows your leadership experience.
5. Use the STAR Method
The STAR method describes a specific situation or event as opposed to a generalized description of your work accomplishments. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. The situation is the who, what, where and when (your job title, company and time served at the company); the task is your assigned role; the action refers to the steps you took to solve or achieve something; the result is the tangible outcome of your actions. For instance, you can say ‘led a team of 10 specialists to a timely product launch with 97% customer satisfaction despite a slight change of scope and after a last-minute leadership change.
6. State accomplishments, not merely responsibilities
In the STAR method, you almost always have a challenge to overcome. If there are none to speak of, you can still talk about the effectiveness or success of your actions. For instance, you can say ‘analyzed weekly sales volumes and identified opportunities to increase price points on the West Coast, resulting in a 25 percent margin improvement and $20M in profits,’ or ‘supervised and mentored four junior marketing executives each of whom was promoted to manager (the company promotes 20 percent of the marketing staff each year).’ This method of communicating accomplishments can help strengthen any resume, whether it’s for MBA admissions or a new job opportunity. It is much more effective than merely stating your responsibilities at your previous jobs.
7. Quantify results with numbers and percentages
Don’t leave the admissions panel second guessing about the context or results of your strategic actions. Quantify your accomplishments where you can with numbers. In cases where you don’t have accurate figures, make an estimate and honestly state how you arrived at the estimate. So, you can say ‘efforts directly boosted operational efficiency by 10%’ or ‘negotiated over $200M in supplier contracts for inventory financing and production capacity in a tight supply environment.’
8. Don’t include redundant or very technical content
A laundry list of the technologies you’ve worked with or less familiar industry jargon will only take up precious space on your resume and won’t mean much to the admissions committee. Some lines, phrases, or words you’ve used to describe your accomplishments may also be immaterial or redundant. For instance, if you say you’re ‘goal-oriented’ or ‘hard-working,’ it doesn’t make you special or give you an edge over other applicants. Be accessible, but be specific.
9. Don’t overuse conjunctions and prepositions
Write single line descriptions, but don’t stretch that line endlessly with multiple prepositions or conjunctions! An example of how not to write a description: ‘Directed a team of 10 to promote and introduce a new soap to expand customer base and to increase Q2 sales by 15%.’
10. Use power-packed action words
Describe action using strong verbs throughout your resume. Some resume power words to consider include built, persuaded, analyzed, directed, projected, forecast, improved, initiated, solved, planned, increased and managed.
11. Bonus tip – Parallelism
Your resume gives you an opportunity to use the parallelism concept taught as part of high school grammar. Writing in parallel basically means ending all verb forms consistently in a sentence with ‘-ed’ or ‘-ly’ and not a mix of the two. Parallel construction in a sentence looks like this: ‘Discovered new suppliers, developed existing suppliers, and managed future supplier selection iterations’.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are an important constituent of your MBA application process. They carry weight with the admissions panel and serve to reiterate the abilities and commitment that your resume, personal statement or essay, and GMAT score suggest. These letters provide you with the chance to demonstrate your leadership experience or noteworthy skills that you couldn’t fit into your essay. They can also counter a weakness in your profile.
For instance, if you have a strong quantitative background, your recommendation letter can highlight your communication skills. If you don’t have a background in quantitative reasoning, the letter can wax eloquent about your analytical and quantitative skills. Letters of recommendation help the admission committee visualize your complete profile and validate your potential as a successful future MBA student.
Most B-Schools require two recommendation letters. In an ideal situation, you should provide one recommendation letter from your current supervisor. The other should from a former supervisor or manager who has personally overseen your work and is familiar with your abilities and character. Should the B-School you’re applying to ask for three recommendation letters, you can request one from a professor. In this case, the professor must focus less on scholastic achievements, and more on the characteristics that present you as a mature and capable individual ready for the challenges of business school.
The issue you face with letters of recommendation is that you can never be sure what has been written in the letters sent on your behalf. What you can do is plan the process in advance with the individuals who’re recommending you. Here are some tips to consider:
- B-Schools will specify who the writers should be, so make sure you follow instructions to a tee.
- To be on the safe side, ask more than two or three individuals for a letter of recommendation. You cannot guess who will agree to write one or who will even have the time to draft a letter.
- As discussed, choose individuals who’re intimately familiar with your work, and can speak knowledgeably about your achievements and skills. Avoid asking people who otherwise have important job titles but don’t know much about you or your work.
- Give writers your updated resume so they can highlight relevant skills and achievements more compellingly.
- Make sure you communicate the submission deadlines to writers and follow-up with reminders.
The admissions committee has the task of choosing from thousands of similar-sounding applicants. Specificity in your recommendation letter can work to your advantage. Share your admission essay and program information with recommenders so their letters are compatible with the tone of your essay. Provide specific stories illustrating your strengths, outline your skills, aspirations, and accomplishments, and state why you will excel in your program. It doesn’t hurt to casually suggest some tips to your writers for a stand-out letter. Here are a few:
- Writers must mention how well they know you
- Pick two or three outstanding qualities they noted in you
- Discuss specific instances where you demonstrated those qualities
- Quantify your strengths or compare you against other applicants the writer has observed
- Discuss your potential in your field of choice
Business School Admissions Interview
In the second round of your business school admission, you will be interviewed by one or more members of the admission committee. Everything you worked for to get into that dream B-school, especially those long nights of GMAT or GRE preparation, culminates into this moment. Don’t approach the interview from a hostile perspective, and don’t let it pressure you; look at it like an intelligent and friendly interaction where the panel is trying to understand your goals, commitment, and aspirations.
Preparing for the interview
You don’t want to walk into an interview without second-guessing what you may asked. It may have been a couple of days since your GMAT and you may be taking a well deserved break, but you’ll need to get back to the applicant mindset to ace the interview. In this regard, there are three things you must know:
One: Your interview can be ‘blind’, meaning the admission committee may not have seen your application documents. So, the ball is in your court, and you will want to make a list of some points about your background that you want to emphasize.
Two: At some schools, notably Harvard Business School, the interviewer would have already reviewed your application and will frame questions to help the admission committee learn more about you.
Three: There are some typical questions that panels ask candidates. Preparing answers to these common questions can be a confidence booster. Here are the questions you want to think about:
- Tell me about yourself.
- Why do you want to earn a graduate business degree?
- Why are you interested in this school/program?
- Why should we admit you?
- Talk about your accomplishments as a leader.
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- Do you have any questions about the school or program?
At the end of the interview, candidates often have the opportunity to ask the panel questions about an MBA education at the particular school. Make the most of this chance and inquire about aspects of the school that resonate personally with you. Even questions about the facilities or highlighting your interest in a certain faculty member’s philosophies or research can indicate that you’re genuinely interested in the program offered by the school. Here are some questions you want to consider:
- Something about the school or program that you read about on their website or brochure. Take care not to ask questions for which the answers are available on the school’s website. The questions should relate to your MBA experience, and personal and professional goals.
- Ask the panel members what influenced their decision to be part of the school.
- Ask what is the most distinguishing and valuable aspect of the program.
- Request the interviewer to describe the school in three or more words.
- Ask the interviewer to provide some advice on the program.
Tips on putting your best foot forward
The average MBA interview lasts 30 minutes. Within this window of time, you have the task of engaging the interviewer with confidence and enthusiasm, providing clear and intelligent answers. Keep these pointers in mind to convince the panel of your ‘MBA student worthiness!’
One: Practicing prior to the interview through mock interviews helps a lot. Interviewers can quickly identify whether you are paraphrasing content from your essays or you’re a serious, committed candidate. Practice the common interview questions with a friend to interact more naturally and confidently, put your points across clearly and ensure a lively conversation.
Two: Be mindful of the basics. Don’t be late to the interview and wear the appropriate business attire to look presentable.
Three: Maintain eye contact at all times as this indicates confidence and honesty. Make sure you answer every question asked of you. Don’t divert the question or go off track as it suggests that you’re either trying to conceal something about yourself or not listening attentively to the panel. If you’re not sure of what’s being asked, feel free to ask the interviewer to repeat the question.
Four: Don’t get alarmed by unexpected questions. If you’re thrown off by a question like ‘Is there any question you wish we’d asked you?’ or ‘It is considered cool to work for your company. Do you agree?’ stay calm and give yourself time to think about an appropriate answer. If you’re not happy with the response you’ve given, acknowledge it and ask the interviewer if you can express yourself with greater clarity.
Five: Keep your answers concise. Don’t ramble on and use appropriate examples to explain what you want to put across. Don’t be arrogant, flippant, or excessively friendly. Answer honestly and candidly, providing specific examples and sharing anecdotes to emphasize the character traits and skills you want to highlight to the admissions panel.
Six: You can also use the STAR method to answer questions succinctly and effectively. This method will especially come in handy for situational questions such as ‘Can you talk about a time where you solved a critical problem with a creative solution?’ or ‘Tell us about your experience managing a particularly difficult client and how you overcame challenges.’
Seven: Wear a confident attitude, but answer truthfully and don’t act fake or phony. Interview committees will see right through you and the bad impression you create will sustain throughout the interview.
Eight: If you’re required to attend a student or alumni interview, treat it as seriously as you would an interview by the admissions committee. The opinions of students and alumni carry significant weight, and can affect your chances at securing admission to the B-school.
Don’t Dismiss Extracurricular Activities – The Overlooked Application Secret
Imagine you’re sitting on the MBA admissions panel at a B-School. Candidate A has an impressive GMAT score, but besides participating in a blood donation camp back in college, has no extracurricular activity to speak of. Candidate B has an equally impressive score, volunteers at the soup kitchen every Wednesday night, contributes to a non-profit’s newsletter and seldom misses a game of beach volleyball every weekend. If you have the task of picking between the two, your choice would invariably be Candidate B, wouldn’t it? She appears to be an active self-starter who can balance multiple commitments. She also seems to have a dynamic personality, an asset to a future business leader.
Extracurricular activities offer a glimpse into your personality and reveal the soft skills that your GMAT or GPA score cannot communicate. They can be the differentiators that make you stand apart from 20 or more similar profiles. Don’t discount the importance of non-scholastic engagements in your application or interview.
Extracurricular activities can be loosely tied to your long-term goals and show your commitment to your field. Say you’ve applied for an MBA in Marketing and have two years experience as a marketing associate. If you’ve been helping your local rotary club publicize its activities and driving membership at the club for the past five years, then it speaks volumes about your marketing enthusiasm and acumen. What if your extracurricular activities are not relevant to your field or long-term goals? They can still paint a more complete picture about your abilities and potential. For instance, if you’ve volunteered as a junior softball coach or assistant at the local community center, it can demonstrate your ability to organize and lead a team.
Here are some more reasons why you must highlight extracurricular activities:
One: To display your creativity. Were you part of a student-run television or radio program at your undergraduate institution? Did you organize your college’s choral group and win state level competitions? If you were, you applied your unique talent to enrich your life and make a meaningful contribution.
Two: To demonstrate your sense of community. Did you provide after-school tutoring, participate in adult education programs, or lead youth summer camps? It can give the MBA panel confidence that you will be an active and engaged alum who contributes to the continued success of the program.
Three: To indicate that you’re a well-rounded individual. In the modern workplace, professional relationships significantly impact job satisfaction and employee retention. As a future manager or entrepreneur, your ability to nurture a positive and enthusiastic work culture will be vital. Good soft skills and an open personality can work to your advantage in the real world. MBA panels recognize this all too well and look at your extracurricular activities to build your overall profile. If you don’t have any, it may send out wrong signals about your potential to successfully lead and mentor people.
Four: If you’ve never had the time to indulge in community activities or hobbies due to a grueling work schedule, don’t join a volunteer organization or take up a new hobby a few weeks before applying. B-school panels will see right through you. Instead, think of the initiative you took or contribution you made to a team-building program on a corporate day-out or a company-sponsoring fundraiser, and demonstrate what personal strengths or skills it took to make the event a success.
Five: It’s not about the number of extracurricular activities you’re engaged in but how deeply you’re engaged in an activity that you care about. Ideally, you can also show how it complements your career goals.
Six: Think about what a particular extracurricular activity says about your character or ability. If you’re some sort of a master chef in the kitchen or a talented photographer, it offers no assurance that you will be a worthy MBA student. On the other hand, if you’ve won many scholastic chess competitions all through high school or have been a member of your college’s synchronized swimming team, you have already showcased your ability to think strategically and your discipline, teamwork, and competitive drive respectively.
Stay Positive and Motivated During Your MBA Application
The MBA application process takes several months to complete. The journey will be taxing on your mind and body. Side-effects may include stress, mood swings, and episodes of panic or dejection. Take a deep breath, give yourself time to reassess and redo if necessary, and give it your best shot. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get into your dream B-School. There’s always a better fit for you lurking around the corner… or another year to make a fresh attempt.
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