What Matters Most in MBA Admissions?

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA blog on U.S.News.com

Almost every day, I receive E-mails and phone calls from new clients that go something like this: “I have a 2.9 GPA, 680 GMAT, and four years of work experience in consulting. I’ve been promoted twice; I have good extracurriculars. What are my chances?”

MBA hopefuls then want to find out what is the most important part of the business school application. Is it the GMAT score, undergraduate transcript, essays, interview, letters of recommendations, or something else entirely?

Everyone wants to know what to focus on in their application, and how their personal circumstances rate. Top business schools don’t admit you based purely on your statistics, though.

It’s true that solid numbers can help your application be considered. While a 550 GMAT or a 2.5 GPA will raise a red flag at an MBA program like the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, a 700 GMAT and a 3.6 GPA make you a solid candidate. But even an 800 GMAT score and a perfect GPA can be rejected at an elite MBA program.

Ask most admissions committee members and they will tell you that it’s the sum of many pieces””there is no one “most important” part. The top schools want to know who you are, and statistics and a résumé don’t tell them that. It’s the essays, interviews, and recommendations that ultimately reveal the person beyond the paper.

Compelling essays, recommendations, and interviews can provide context for a low GMAT score or GPA””but the reverse is not true. Strong numbers will never make up for weak essays or a disorganized, negative recommendation.

Some say the most important part of the application is your so-called “weakest” part””one weakness could completely change how admissions committee members perceive your application. In fact, in a recent blog post, Yale School of Management‘s Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions Bruce DelMonico urged applicants to be up front about their weaknesses.

“Everyone has weaknesses,” he stressed. “We’ll see them, so you’re better off acknowledging them and incorporating them into your application than hoping we’ll miss them.”

While I doubt that any business school admissions committee would formally support this statement, I would have to cast my vote for essays as the most important part of your application. The essays allow the admissions committee to truly discover who you are. It’s where you write why an MBA makes sense as the next step of your career path, and how you differentiate yourself from all of the other individuals who also scored in the 700s on their GMAT.

The essays are your opportunity to present your strengths, explain your weaknesses, and generally convince the admissions committee members that you have a lot to offer the program and that you belong in their class.

The essays are also consistent among all applicants, so in that way they are less difficult to evaluate and compare. All candidates are given the same set of questions, and are reviewed by the same group of admissions members, creating a level playing field that can simplify the review process.

[Learn to strike the perfect tone in MBA essays.]

Interviews are very different; some are conducted over the phone, some at the business school, and all are handled by different types of individuals with different approaches.

Recommendations vary as well. While all applicants do their best to find great recommenders, some individuals work with MBAs who understand the process. Others work with people who have no idea what to write.

The essays are each individual’s opportunity to talk about their true self. You should know that most applicants to the top schools are qualified, in the sense that they would be able to handle the curriculum and benefit from the program.

However, to be admitted, you need to demonstrate that you are more than merely qualified. It’s the story that you put together about your goals, passions, and prior experience””and how business school fits into the mix””that will make the difference for you. Once that story is assembled, I can better answer the question: “What are my chances?”

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