This post originally appeared on Stacy’s ‘Strictly Business’ MBA blog on U.S. News
When you apply to an MBA program, particularly at a prestigious business school, the admissions committee will scrutinize every element of your background to determine how well-rounded you are and whether you’re up to the program’s academic rigors.
Of course, not every applicant has a sterling backstory, and you may find yourself concerned that something in your past will hurt your chances at your dream school.
Understand, though, that you have time in advance of applying to address blemishes in your past. Here are three common challenges for MBA applicants and ways to overcome them.
• Nonrigorous undergraduate academics: Your ability to handle the MBA coursework is paramount to your academic success – the admissions team will notice if your undergraduate degree is from a university with a party school reputation or if you have a high GPA but the majority of the classes you took were deemed naturally easy.
While reviewing your application, the admissions committee will assess any up and down trends in your transcript and will look for your exposure to and performance in quant classes.
If your undergraduate academics are lacking and you’re a few years removed from student life, your best course of action is to show awareness of these weaknesses and enroll in a calculus or statistics class at a local community college.
You want to show that you can handle the heavy math right now, despite what your transcript may lead the committee to believe. As a busy professional, adding to your workload in this way shows your ability to multitask – a strength worth highlighting.
Also ask your recommenders to specifically emphasize your quantitative abilities in their letters of recommendation. The three-pronged approach – adequate GMAT or GRE score, supplemental college coursework and a sponsor vouching for your skills – should convince the admissions team that your non-rigorous undergrad academics won’t hinder your performance in business school.
• Lack of extracurricular activities: This is a significant red flag for admissions committees that you need to address before applying to business school, especially if you are aiming for admission to the most elite MBA programs.
Part of what makes business school such an enriching experience is the personal and professional growth that occurs when a diverse group of people come together. Often, an applicant’s hobbies and interests outside of work will intrigue the admissions team so much that they have to meet the prospective student.
If that doesn’t sound like you right now, it’s time to make an investment in nurturing another side of your personality.
If you’re struggling to figure out where to spend your time and energy in a way that feels authentic, think about your past passions and interests. Activities or causes that excited you as a teen or child can remain – think of ways to incorporate those interests into your life outside of work and build upon them.
Even if you have a grueling work life that involves a lot of travel or leaves you with an unreliable schedule, find an activity to do on your own.
I have a client who reached out to the career services department at his undergraduate university and offered to mentor students who wanted to follow his similar career path. This was something he set up on his own and could do while traveling, as needed.
If you’re planning to apply to business school for the upcoming admissions season, you may think it’s too late to do anything about scant extracurricular or volunteer work. However, in our experience, even less than a year before your application deadlines is still enough time to address any shortcomings in your involvements outside of work.
• No teamwork: The MBA admissions committee seeks applicants who are both individually capable as well as able to work well with others to reach common goals.
Teamwork is a hallmark at many elite business schools. Some – such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business – even require a team-based discussion or exercise as part of the application process so they may directly observe applicants’ skills in this area prior to offering admission.
If your professional experience thus far has included little to no work in teams, you’ll have to dig deeper to find examples you can share with the admissions committee. Luckily, teamwork appears in many forms.
Think back to your college days for experiences within a sorority or fraternity, participation on a sports team, volunteer missions or case competitions. Next, consider your activities after graduation from college. Can you find examples from a volunteer, hobby or community service setting or a time when you took an active role in a political organization or a local campaign?
Understanding the importance of collaboration and teamwork is vital to growing and learning at b-school. Make sure your application contains examples of your ability to play the roles of both leader and team member effectively. The key in your application is to speak to all of the individual attributes that make you a strong candidate and reveal how you will be a great fit once admitted.
If you’re still concerned that your efforts to improve in these three areas will not sufficiently sway the admissions committee, emphasize within your application and during your interview that you have a plan for further improvement during your time at business school through class work and extracurricular activities. This self-awareness and dedication to continual growth will be noted and appreciated.