10 biggest mistakes b-school applicants make

As the fierce business school application process gets underway, many applicants will make fatal mistakes. How to avoid them.

By Rob Kelley, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — The application process for business schools is beginning, sparking the annual frenzy of activity – and copious questions. Do you need a business resume to get in? How many years of work experience do you need? How much is a b-school education going to boost your salary?

Two-thirds of MBA programs saw application levels rise for 2006, according to a new study by the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

The admissions process is hugely nerve-wracking, with top schools like Harvard and Stanford rejecting over 80 percent of applicants.

And students are well aware that the school you attend can tip the scales on a post-graduation job, enough to breed apprehension in even the most qualified young investment banker.

Stacy Blackman Consulting, which guides b-school applicants through the process, has compiled a list of the 10 most common mistakes that applicants make – and how to make sure you avoid them.

1. Relying on rumors rather than talking to the school’s students and faculty.

“There’s a lot about schools on the Web now, but message boards can really spread misinformation – about certain things you have to do or scores you have to beat,” says Blackman. “Call the admissions office or get in touch with a current student instead – first-hand research is so important.”

Planning a campus visit will really provide a real payoff, she says. And school alums can talk about both the school’s curriculum and career counseling services.

2. Trying to fit yourself into a preconceived business-school mold.

If you think that only consultants and bankers get into top schools, you’ve never seen a freshman b-school class. There’s no perfect MBA candidate, so don’t try to be that person on your application.

“A background in finance isn’t necessary. This isn’t a degree in finance – it’s a degree in management,” says Blackman. “You don’t have to have business experience, but you do have to demonstrate that you can handle this kind of curriculum.”

3. Focusing only on career achievements to the exclusion of your other passions.

Your average admissions officer is going to read about the professional lives of thousands of candidates. But your life doesn’t end at 5 pm each day.

“Admissions people are looking at somebody who may have worked in a large company for two or three years – it may be easier to show all your values and goals through other activities,” says Blackman.

“At first I was going to write about my career,” says an international student starting at Columbia Business School (he asked to remain nameless because he had used admissions consultants.) “Instead I described how business issues are different in a developing countries, which I think helped me.”

4. Failing to address weaknesses on your record such as a low GPA.

You don’t have to be the perfect candidate, but don’t think you can gloss over shortcomings on your record. An admissions committee is willing to accept a few chinks in your armor, as long as you have a reasonable explanation for them – and no excuses.

“Address things head-on,” says Blackman. “Don’t let them come to their own conclusions about your record.”

5. Having too many people look over your application essays.

Yes, the essays can be the most powerful part of your application process, and everybody has something different to contribute to what you’ve written. But have your essays read by a few people who know your strategy, says Blackman.

“You’re going to be pressed for time during this process, and if you have too many people review it, you’re never going to come to a finishing point,” says an MBA student who’s starting at Dartmouth’s Tuck School this fall.

6. Failing to actively manage your recommendation process – and make it easy on your recommender.

If you’re tempted to hand off a blank recommendation sheet to your college professor and be done with it, you’ve got another thing coming. Your recommender is probably time-strapped and doesn’t remember those three amazing examples of your leadership.

Show him your essays and an outline of your strengths, says Blackman. Take him out to lunch and talk over your goals. If you make it easy on them, they may even be more complimentary.

7. Sacrificing the quality of your application to get them in earlier.

Yes, b-school applications come in rounds, and some are better than others. But admissions officers don’t want to read a rushed app.

As for the rounds, there’s no evidence of a big difference in admissions between the first and second. “Submit when you’re ready,” says Blackman. “I haven’t found any evidence that submitting in Round Two hurts you.”

She cautions against the Round Three deadline (usually in March), however, when the majority of that year’s class will already have been admitted and space is tight.

8. Not preparing enough for the admissions interview.

“Applicants have slaved over essays and think they’ve already explained why they want to go to this school,” says Blackman. “But you need to practice out loud.”

Get your friends to do mock interviews with you, says Eric, a first-year student at the University of Chicago’s business school who asked that his last name not be used. “Figure out some likely interview questions, and get a candid opinion about your presentation,” he says.

9. Not being realistic about your own abilities.

Reading that you work 100-hour weeks while raising 10 orphans and running your own business will only raise eyebrows at schools.

“If you present too rosy of a picture, you lose credibility,” says Blackman. “Schools are looking for people who are really self-aware.”

10. Giving canned responses to essay and interview questions.

Assuming what people want to hear is a great way to get burned. And imagine the number of people who try to tell the admissions committee just that.

“Be confident in what you’ve done,” says Blackman. “Don’t assume that your extracurricular activities aren’t an important part of your app.”

Your application is a huge opportunity – but not just to struggle to fit a school’s bill. It’s to explain who you are and who you’ll be – in the classroom, around campus, and beyond.


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