Every year, we hear of MBA admissions offers going to Olympic athletes, NASA scientists, and former White House aides. While these profiles grab the headlines, they can discourage candidates without a flashy personal or professional story. Business school applicants can’t help but fret over what their target MBA programs want to see in a candidate. In truth, the admissions committee focuses on four specific areas when evaluating your MBA candidacy. The welcome news for applicants of all stripes is that standing out in these aspects can happen no matter where you’ve worked before or what background you have.
Work Experience and Professional Goals
In general, the admissions committee likes applicants to have three or more years of work experience before applying. But the quality of the overall experience matters much more than length.
Have you worked within flat organizational structures, where you’ve had the same title for years? You can still differentiate yourself by highlighting substantial professional growth and quantifiable achievements. Or, by showing examples when you embraced new challenges and took advantage of learning opportunities.
Whether your pre-MBA experience is at Goldman Sachs or your family’s business, the admissions team will look for steady progression.
Business school is the ideal place to refine your career goals through the study of new disciplines, discussions with students and professors, and the pursuit of entrepreneurial projects. That said, you do have to make some choices and explain your areas of interest to get admitted. Make sure to include a definite role you envision for yourself in the future. Explain the kind of impact you want to have in the business world and on society.
Successful essays won’t include the statement, “I look forward to figuring out my future career path in business school.”
Finally, remember to convey realistic post-MBA career goals. Consider the application process from the school’s perspective. MBA programs want to launch graduates who will go on to become successful in their careers. Grads also serve as vibrant members of the alumni community. Don’t forget to sell them on your employability. The admissions team should feel confident you’ll find a great job quickly upon graduating.
Business schools strive to create the leaders of tomorrow. The admissions committee wants to see that you have a framework already in place in this all-important area. Lots of applicants worry about how the admissions team will perceive their leadership skills if they’ve never actually held a management position.
However, your leadership examples don’t need to be your most extraordinary life or professional achievements. Applicants can call upon times when they’ve lead sports teams, student groups, etc.
Successful leadership examples should show how you motivated other people. Did you bring out their passions? Or, did you educate and help them see organizational priorities in new ways? The work of a leader energizes or improves the work of others. Find anecdotes from your professional and extracurricular background that illustrate this kind of behavior.
Define the leadership challenges you faced, not the management ones. Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leader. However, helping a team overcome significant challenges does.
When evaluating your MBA candidacy, keep in mind that in the adcomm’s view, your past is a strong predictor of how involved you’ll be on campus if admitted. Ultimately, leadership examples from college, on the job, and during your time at business school signal to future employers how you would perform in their organization.
Creativity and Intellectual Aptitude
When some Type-A personalities see the word creativity in this context, they freak out and assume we’re talking about something artistic. Really, we’re referring to expressing creativity by showing when you have solved problems at work or in your volunteer activities by thinking outside of the proverbial box.
Some business schools use creative MBA essay prompts. Think Duke Fuqua’s 25 Random Things About Yourself. Or the cover letter and video statement at MIT Sloan School of Management. When evaluating your MBA candidacy, admissions teams will look for evidence in responses that show you have a unique perspective that will add something new to the classroom. So, think beyond your obvious achievements. You can differentiate yourself by highlighting the most compelling, memorable stories and experiences.
Intellectual aptitude, meanwhile, will be judged based on your submitted GMAT or GRE scores as well as your undergraduate GPA and major. A solid 3.2 overall GPA from an Economics or Chemistry major will weigh more heavily than a 3.8 GPA in the Arts or Humanities.
However, admissions committees actively seek a diverse class that includes those so-called “poets of b-school.” That’s where a strong GMAT score, or taking additional college-level math courses that prove you can handle the academic rigors of the program, comes in.
Interpersonal Skills and Fit
The admissions process at a growing number of business schools now includes video essays, team-based discussions, and group interviews. These additions ensure the applicant has the appropriate interpersonal skills for success and will fit in well with the program’s culture.
Business schools want students who will play nice with others. Watching how someone interacts with peers before anyone’s even admitted can be very telling. Your application and interview should support those individual attributes that make you a great candidate and person overall. They should reveal your understanding of the school’s culture. Finally, they must convey that you will be a terrific fit if admitted.
At some schools, fit and knowledge of the program matter as much as concrete qualifications when evaluating your MBA candidacy. Of course, you still need to have those qualifications. But without a full understanding of the many terrific facets of the school, you could find yourself on the rejected applicant pile.
Round two application deadlines are just around the corner. By evaluating your MBA candidacy in these four areas, you’ll boost your chances of making it to the interview stage and beyond.