Challenges and Opportunities for Female MBA Applicants

As a female MBA and entrepreneur and businessperson, I know that women can more than handle business school and the application process just as well or better than anyone.  Stereotypes do persist, however, and the reality is that women pursuing graduate management education are still an underrepresented demographic on campus.

Thankfully, the outlook has improved over the past decade. Women now make up 41% of Harvard Business School’s Class of 2016; they represent 40% of the incoming class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and Stanford Graduate School of Business reported a record female enrollment of 42% for the Class of 2016.

Business schools have really ramped up their efforts to recruit and groom future women leaders, so if you’re a woman planning on pursuing an MBA, make sure to take advantage of every available opportunity. During the school research phase, a great place to start is at a workshop event for women hosted by the program you’re considering.

While you’ll also want to attend general information sessions, these diversity events allow you to meet and network with other prospective students, current students, alumni, and faculty, as well as provide a chance to listen and ask questions about the specific opportunities for woman in the MBA program.

When putting their application together, female candidates have to make sure that they exude confidence. The admissions committee shouldn’t have any doubt about whether the applicant will raise her hand and contribute to the classroom discussions that form a crucial part of the MBA learning experience. Essays, interviews and recommendation letters should indicate a high comfort level with speaking out, defending points of view, and collaborating with all types of people.

Another area of potential weakness, particularly for women who majored in the liberal arts for undergrad, is demonstrating strong quantitative skills. The admissions committee wants to make sure you can handle the MBA course load, so a solid GMAT score, supplemented by additional finance, calculus, or statistics classes taken at the local community college, will go a long way toward proving you have the bona fides to succeed.

Try not to become intimidated by all of the amazing things your fellow applicants have accomplished and second-guess the value of your own strengths and experiences. Focus instead on what makes you unique, and how you plan on contributing to the MBA community once admitted.

During the MBA interview, female candidates frequently begin their answers with a disclaimer that reveals their insecurities and detracts from any positive information that follows. Don’t downplay achievements for fear of coming across as bragging. There’s a difference between boasting and conveying your skills and accomplishments with pride. Confidence without attitude is what you’re aiming for.

Finally, women shouldn’t let the financial expense of business school be a barrier to pursuing an MBA degree. Look into all of the resources—loans, scholarships, employee sponsorships, fellowships, work-study options—that can offset the high cost of an MBA, and take a long view of the return on investment your target schools provide.Many candidates find they can pay off their student debt within five years of graduating, so with the right financial aid package, it’s possible to attend almost any business school.

Despite some barriers, real or perceived, women considering business school should know the MBA degree truly is the one of the best ways to transform their career by giving them the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful.


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