MBA Applicants, Listen Up: Perfection Not Required

MBA applicants

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” B-school candidate. It’s far more common for MBA applicants to have some form of “weakness” or “flaw” they must address head-on in their application. This might include:

  • Out-of-Reach School Selection
  • Standing Out from the Crowd
  • Being an Older or Younger MBA Applicant
  • Low GMAT/GRE Score
  • Mistakes Such as a DUI or Honor Code Violation
  • Failing Grades or Low GPA

Regular listeners of the B-Schooled podcast are familiar with host Chandler Arnold‘s advice to MBA applicants: be open, be real, and be daring.  Chandler believes that almost everyone has a topic they’re hesitant to discuss in their applications. Sharing these challenging experiences can be a powerful way to show vulnerability and make your application stand out.

According to Chandler, the key to addressing these topics effectively in your application is not the situation itself but how you’ve handled it. It’s about presenting the information, managing the situation, learning from it, and applying those lessons in your life. This is the true value of discussing challenges you have faced in your MBA application.

To explore and find solutions for some common problematic situations, Senior SBC consultant Caryn Altman joined Chandler for a two-episode series on B-Schooled called “Things You’re Scared to Talk About (and Why You Really Should).” 

As a former admissions officer at Kellogg School of Management and Kellogg MBA herself, Caryn read and evaluated countless applications during her tenure. “This is such an important topic,” Caryn says. “So many people think that there’s just one thing that’s going to keep them from being successful, and that’s truly not the case.”

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Out-of-Reach School Selection

This issue can come up with almost every MBA applicant. While you want a balanced list of target, reach, and safe schools, it can be hard to determine where to draw that line. What happens when you wonder if your target schools are way out of reach? 

With single-digit to low double-digit acceptance rates, getting into some programs, like Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School, is extremely difficult. There are way more qualified candidates than seats available, so admittance into one of the ultra-selective B-schools is like a lottery win for anyone. 

MBA applicants

Applicants should think beyond the brand or name recognition of a particular school. “The first thing we do is to step back and realize that there are multiple schools that can make you happy and where you can achieve your goals,” Caryn says. “It’s really important to broaden your scope.”

We also counsel clients not to misinterpret a school’s data range. For example, the HBS Class of 2025 Profile lists a GMAT range of 500-790. You might see that 500 score and suddenly think you have a realistic shot of getting into Harvard Business School. What’s more likely is that there’s only one person on that very low end—and it was someone who launched a nonprofit in Africa and was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize!

Be Strategic About Which Application Round 

If you plan to apply in the upcoming admissions cycle, consider moving that reach school into the round two-column. That way, you focus more on in-range or target schools for round one and give yourself the best chances for success in today’s highly competitive landscape. 

“It’s important for folks to apply to their dream school if it’s at all within the realm of reality,” says Chandler. “It would be a shame to go through life wondering what would’ve happened if you’d applied.” 

“But I don’t encourage folks to apply to three or four dream schools that are also rather unrealistic because that takes a lot of time away from things that are more realistic,” he adds.

Finally, we discourage applicants from putting a lot of eggs into the round three basket. If you’re applying in round three, you need a good reason why you waited until the final round. Otherwise, the school may think that they’re your last choice, and you got rejected elsewhere in earlier rounds.

Rather than apply in round three with a weaker application, we suggest applying in round one or two next season with a stronger application. Sometimes, waiting a year or longer to put a much stronger foot forward may make sense.

Standing Out from the Crowd

Every applicant wants to be memorable in the eyes of the admissions committee. But that task becomes harder for candidates from an overrepresented demographic such as consulting, investment banking, and private equity.  Demographic overrepresentation is another challenge. When talking about US business schools, that means applicants from India and China. There are so many strong applicants from these two areas of the world that it’s difficult to stand out.

In either of these scenarios, it’s vital to showcase what makes you unique in every aspect of the application. Say you’re an applicant from IBPE. The AdCom knows you have strong quantitative skills. But they might question whether you have leadership skills because it’s hard in those industries to gain that experience early on. 

Applicants from those sectors may need to refer to college or post-college leadership examples. Next, do you have any extracurriculars that you fit in after your hundred-hour work weeks? That’s especially crucial to get involved in a big way if you’re from one of these oversubscribed groups.

The strategy is the same if you come from the geographically overrepresented bucket.  You want to highlight the traits that make you different. Perhaps you launched a business in college or have a unique hobby. Think of anything outside the norm for what others with your background might present.

The third area to exploit is your post-MBA goals. “I have my applicants look at relaying interesting career goals outside of that typical IBPE path,” says Caryn. “If you’re an AdCom application reader and this person worked at Goldman and then worked at Apollo and now wants to go back and work at Apollo again, it’s very straightforward and honestly kind of boring.”

MBA applicants

Age Considerations for MBA Applicants

Business schools typically want applicants to have four to five years of work experience before applying. So, the average age of MBA students is 27-29 years. Applicants to full-time MBA programs who are significantly younger or older than that elicit different concerns. (Deferred MBA admissions programs targeting college seniors are the obvious exception.)

For younger applicants, the concern is not having enough life and professional experience to contribute to the class. The problem for older applicants is that they won’t be involved in the program outside of school. We suggest using every aspect of your applications to dispel that assumption for both cases.

“These schools want applicants with a strong point of view,” Chandler explains. “It’s very different to say, ‘I’m a younger applicant, but I’ll just try and see if I can apply three years early and hope for the best,’ versus ‘I’m a younger applicant and here are three reasons why I really need to go now instead of three years from now. It’s going to be better for me, and for my classmates, and for the program. I’m going to bring all these things.’ That’s a completely different vibe and mindset.”

For older applicants, it’s about showcasing ways you’ll get involved in the curriculum. You want to mention not only the classes you want to take but also be very specific about extracurriculars you want to do or a particular club you want to join. Also, can you bring in speakers because you have a lot of experience? It’s about using your experience as a benefit, not a detriment.

The most successful MBA applicants spend ample time articulating why the moment is right for an MBA and why it will be great for their future classmates. 

Low GMAT or GRE

Next on our list of things many MBA applicants are scared to talk about is having a significantly lower GMAT or GRE score relative to the schools they want to attend. A high test score is crucial for applicants targeting the top business schools to convince the AdCom you can handle the program’s rigor. 

If you’ve been studying independently for a year and a half and your score still isn’t near the level needed for an M7 program, it might be time to call in the big guns. 

“The gold standard, which is an expensive gold standard, is using a private tutor, Caryn says. “He or she can really zero in on those areas where you need the most help. They can do a diagnostic test and say like, ‘Okay, you’re great at understanding statistical equations, but you really need to learn more about geometric problems’.”

For applicants who have retaken the GMAT but still can’t get that quant score up, consider switching to the GRE. This exam is easier on quant, especially for people who haven’t had a lot of quant in their background.

Another newer testing option is the Executive Assessment or the EA exam, for short. Several top schools, such as Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Chicago Booth, Columbia, Darden, Fuqua, and many more, accept the EA for admission. Designed for experienced professionals to evaluate B-school readiness, the assessment measures higher-order reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

Also, the average prep time for this assessment is 30 hours. So, switching to a school that takes the EA is something to consider. “The EA tends to be a lot easier, Caryn explains. “It’s not about getting a specific score—it’s about getting above a baseline.”

Take Action in Other Ways

If you’ve done everything possible to raise your score but have yet to hit your mark, take advantage of the optional essay to address the issue. Let the AdCom know you realize your score is lower than their range. Then, explain what you’re doing to mitigate it in other ways that show you can handle the MBA curriculum. 

You could take a college-level math course and get an A to prove your quantitative proficiency. Or you may have specific work experience in an area where you’ve succeeded quantitatively. 

“You might say, ‘At work I manage a $200 million budget and I do analytical modeling on a daily basis‘, says Caryn. “Address the fact that you know you scored low and that here are the reasons why it’s not indicative of your ability to succeed. 

Mistakes Made

Perhaps one of the most difficult situations MBA applicants can face is addressing serious mistakes in their past. These could be any number of circumstances, from a DUI to an honor code violation to an ethical situation or a poor decision at work. The applicant is understandably feeling a lot of anxiety, fear, and even powerlessness as they wonder whether the issue will tank their admission chances. 

“While you can’t completely erase the anxiety, there are ways to address the subject in powerful and thoughtful ways, Chandler says. The first step is simple: own up to it and explain the incident. Here’s exactly what happened, why you were wrong, and how you handled it, and then talk about what you did and what you learned.  

Often, the additional essay space is ideal for this information. Other times, you may weave it into the overall narrative of an essay. With either method, don’t try to sugarcoat it or blame anyone else. Ideally, you own up to it in a few sentences at the beginning.

“I have seen the first drafts of essays where 75% of the essay is about the mistake and 25% is about what happened after the mistake, Chandler says. “I strongly recommend inverting those percentages. Make 20% of the essay upfront about the mistake and 80% of the essay about what you’ve done, how you grew, what you learned, how you’re different now.”

There are no guarantees, but a straightforward approach where you highlight how you grew is an excellent place to start. As Caryn notes, “Sometimes, you can turn something that seems really bad into a marketable strength that sets you apart.”

Failing Grades and Low GPA

You should absolutely acknowledge this subject in an additional essay—not within a regular prompt. As with the advice above about mistakes, spend 30% of the essay on what happened and 70% on why it’s not indicative of your ability to succeed. 

First, own up to why the grades were low. Some clients have had extenuating circumstances, such as a prolonged illness or death in the family. You may have focused too much on your extracurricular activities and didn’t balance correctly. Perhaps you were studying abroad and didn’t think your grades mattered, but they did. Or you might have overslept on the day of your final exam. 

Then, spend the balance of the essay explaining why this doesn’t mean anything anymore. You might say, “I’m in a high demanding job. I work X number of hours a week, but I still have found time to balance with this extracurricular that I’m very passionate about. Or “I’ve been successful in both taking into account what I learned when I was unsuccessful in undergrad. 

No matter the situation, you want to show how you’ve been able to grow since you made that mistake. 

If you had a low grade in one of your undergrad quant courses, consider taking a math class to show that you can be successful in the classroom today. “Calculus is a big one because business schools are really looking toward that calculus class in terms of assessing your ability, says Caryn. “I love the math for management classes taught either by UCLA or UC Berkeley online. Those are my two favorites.”

Final Thoughts for MBA Applicants

As we wrap up, we want to share an inspiring quote from the American poet Nikki Giovanni, who writes, “Mistakes are a fact of life. It’s the response to the error that counts.”

We recognize that this work is hard. But we’re here to tell you that by focusing on the challenging parts of these applications, making these answers really sing, and showcasing your authenticity, you’ll create a compelling narrative that puts your MBA candidacy in the best possible position.

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Stacy Blackman Consulting offers multiple services to meet your MBA application needs, from our All-In Partnership and Interview Prep to hourly help with essay editing, resume review, and much more! Contact us today for a free 15-minute advising session to talk strategy with a Principal SBC consultant.

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SBC’s star-studded consultant team is unparalleled. Our clients benefit from current intelligence that we receive from the former MBA Admissions Officers from Wharton, Columbia CBS and every elite business program in the US and Europe.  These MBA Admissions Officers have chosen to work exclusively with SBC.

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Meet Anthony, who served as the Associate Director of MBA Admissions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he dedicated over 10 years of expertise.

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