Addressing Academic Strengths On MBA Applications

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on

Hard data points such as test scores and GPAs carry significant weight as business school admissions committees attempt to determine whether an applicant has the chops to handle the quantitative requirements of an MBA program.

While you’ll often hear advice on how to mitigate poor academic performance when applying to business school, it’s also important to take a look at the academic strengths in your undergraduate record and how you might play up those qualities in your application.

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If a candidate had a quantitative-heavy undergraduate course load, obviously he or she should throw the spotlight on that. But business schools don’t want to fill their classes solely with economics and business majors.

Those applicants do fill a fair share of seats, but today the emphasis on diversity of thought means the schools are working hard to attract applicants from a wider variety of academic backgrounds. Often candidates coming from the humanities such as sociology, psychology or political science, are more attractive to the admissions committee than the typical business background peer.

A good application strategy is to show the connections between seemingly unrelated college courses and note how those classes shaped your current career goals.

[Check out three exercises to help MBA applicants develop a personal brand.]

For example, perhaps a history class sparked an interest in a different part of the world, which led to international business pursuits. Or maybe your psychology major prepared you for working well in groups and managing the diverse personalities of a team, as it did for one client of mine who parlayed those characteristics into a strong MBA admissions essay for Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Perhaps all of those science courses fueled a desire to lead a start-up in health care. Dig a little and you may be surprised at how the connections fall into place.

With business as globally focused as it is today, MBA admissions committees are on the lookout for candidates who are fluent in a second or third language, or who have had study-abroad experiences.

We coached one applicant who had double-majored in Spanish so that she could finally have a conversation with her grandmother, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Chile as an adult and had never learned English. That’s something we knew admissions committees would like to hear more about. Business schools are very interested in these qualities, as they indicate a certain level of comfort working with an international cohort.

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Applicants who participated in several extracurricular activities while in college and still managed to maintain a high GPA exhibited excellent time management skills and a dedicated work ethic. And, if a candidate held a leadership position in any of those activities, that shows initiative with a long leadership track record. Admissions committees are impressed if you can commit to something over a long period of time, no matter if it’s a sport or hobby.

MBA programs seek to attract applicants who show curiosity about the wider world, whether through academic, extracurricular or life experiences. As you start thinking about your MBA application strategy, take note of any compelling connections from your college days you can mine from. You never know if those years on the water polo team, the minor in game design or those articles you published in the school newspaper are just the ticket to creating a standout application.


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