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While getting my MBA at Wharton, I had the privilege of being a member of the admissions committee. I ended up interviewing nearly 100 candidates, reading over 200 applications, and even making a trip to Japan during my time with the committee. Over the years, many people have asked me how the admissions process works. If you are serious about getting an MBA from a top 10 program, it is worth knowing what happens to your application once it leaves your hands. Most MBA programs follow a similar process to the one I am about to outline.
Once your application gets to the admissions office, it is checked by someone in operations. If something is missing (a transcript, GMAT score, essay, etc.), then the application is put on hold. My advice is to triple check your application before submitting it. If you forget to include something, your application might not be looked at for several weeks by an admissions committee member. You’ll end up going back and forth with someone from operations for several days. It’s not a good first impression.
If all the information is in place, the application is independently reviewed by two members of the admissions committee. The goal is to get two separate, objective opinions on the strength of the application. Each reviewer fills out a one page summary form. The form has 5 parts: Grades, Essays, GMAT, Work Experience and References.
If you are applying to a top 10 MBA school, you should aim for a GMAT score of at least 700. With over 100,000 people applying to the top 10 MBA programs, it’s important to aim high. If a candidate has a score under 700, most committee’s look further into the application to see if the candidate took the GMAT at least twice. If you got a score below 700, take the GMAT again. Even if you don’t break 700 the second time around, it at least gives the committee a more favourable opinion of your determination. This is why I tell people to take the GMAT at least a year before you plan to apply. It gives you enough time to prepare and get a good score. If you don’t get a good score, you have a lot of time to try again.
While the GMAT score is a standardized way to compare different applicants, the admissions committee takes multiple factors into consideration when looking at your undergraduate grades. A 3.5 GPA in Engineering from MIT is quite different from a 3.5 in Economics from a State University. The better the school, the harder the major, and the higher the grades, the greater ranking you’ll be given by a reviewer.
Now, if you had bad grades in school, not all is lost. Many times candidates with poor undergraduate grades are admitted if they have shown significant accomplishments after school. However, it takes time to rack up these accomplishments. Most people accepted with poor undergraduate grades were older and had a few more years of work experience.
The third part of the review is your essays. I would say that the essays are the most important part of the application. We grade essays on how clear you are about your goals, ambitions, and dreams. Most importantly, we want to get to know you, the person. We want to understand what things in your life have bought you to this point and what you plan to do with your MBA.
Regardless of the essay questions, your goal is to give the committee a good sense of where you came from, why you want an MBA, and how you will leverage that degree in pursuit of your future aspirations. The biggest mistake I see applicants make in the essays is to focus too much on work accomplishments. Especially amongst bankers and consultants. Over 25,000 bankers and consultants apply to MBA programs each year. If you want to separate yourself from the pack, don’t waste the essays on work topics.
Your essays should be genuine, honest and of your own voice. Many times, I have seen candidates that had below average grades and GMAT scores. However, the essays were so compelling that we just wanted to meet the applicant in person, and therefore moved the application to the interview stage. For example, one applicant had below average grades as an undergraduate, but she wrote a convincing essay on the various issues she was dealing with at that time. We were so impressed that we started to look at the fact that she was able to graduate with all those issues in her life as an achievement itself!
One thing I would caution against is writing “novels.” Most schools have a word limit on essays and I highly recommend that you keep your essays as short as possible. Imagine yourself as an admissions committee member and you have just read 20 applications in one day and then you get an applicant who wrote a 10 page essay when the limit was 3 pages. How would you feel? Also, spell check! If there are too many grammar errors, committee members start to think you are sloppy or don’t care enough about getting an MBA.
Work experience is a must for admission to a top MBA program. Only a very select few people go directly from undergrad to MBA. The average length of work experience is four years. For a while, some schools starting to consider five years of work experience the average. However, corporate recruiters complained to MBA programs that they did not want MBA graduates to be too old when they re-entered the work force.
The most important thing the committee wants to see in your work experience is how you have progressed within your field. Were you were promoted more often, and given more leadership responsibility than your peers? While many bankers and consultants apply for MBA programs, it is actually quite hard to get into one of the top MBA programs from these fields. With so many applicants within the same field, it’s tough for a candidate to separate themselves from the pack.
This is one of those times where working in an nontraditional field is an asset. Every MBA program wants a diverse class. The more unique your work experience, the better shot you have of getting accepted. Now, I would not recommend that you go off and join the Peace Corps to further your chances of admission. Whatever your profession, you want to demonstrate to the committee that you were one of the top people in the field. This will become evident from your resume, essay, and recommendations.
The final part of the first review is your reference letters. Many times, people get recommendations from people they think would impress the committee. We have gotten recommendations from senators, CEOs, and world leaders. Unless the applicant worked directly for the recommender, these letters of reference are usually very vague and un-insightful. It’s better to get a reference from someone who has had direct supervision responsibility over you and can talk about your accomplishments with firsthand knowledge.
One thing I did when I was applying was take the people writing my reference letters out to lunch. This allowed me to spend one on one time with them to convey how much I valued their recommendation. I also wrote some notes for them on things I wanted them to focus on in the letters. For example, a recommender might forget to include the work you did on a particular project. This is where notes from you come in handy. Plus, it makes the recommender’s job easier.
The Interview Decision
The first major decision point in the application is when the two committee members decide to either invite you for an interview or close your application. If both committee members think you’re a good fit for the school, it’s easy. You get an invite to interview with the school.
If both think you are not a good fit for the school, your application is placed in the “Deny” pile. It will be glanced again by a third member of the committee (usually a more senior member) before a rejection letter to sent to you. This is to make sure nothing was missed. If you get a rejection letter, you at least know that three people reviewed your application before making the final decision.
However, if one committee member thinks you’re a good fit and the other does not, then the application it placed in a file for re-review by two senior members of the committee. These two members look at the feedback from the first set of committee members and also make their own judgment. At this point, with four people having looked at the application, a decision can be reached.
If you get an invitation from the school to interview, your chances of admission have improved greatly. While the admission rate in general is 10% to 15% at a top school, once you get to the interview stage, you have a 50/50 chance of admission.
You should prepare for this interview as you would a job interview. Dress professionally, bring your resume and be ready to make the best impression possible within 30 minutes.
At this point, the committee member interviewing you will know that you have the grades, work experience, and all the other qualifications needed for admission to the program. The main purpose of the interview is to determine what makes you different from all the other qualified applicants.
There are only three things you need to convince the committee of during the interview. Even if they ask you 20 questions, the real things they are trying to learn from you are:
One, are you familiar with the school, its mission, and how you will take advantage of its resources. They want to know if you really want to go to this particular school. You can demonstrate this by sitting in some classes before your interview and having a good understanding of the school’s values and history and how you fit into the program.
Second, what makes you unique from all the other applicants? This one is tough. The candidates you’re competing with for a spot are very qualified and accomplished. I suggest talking about your personal background, values and beliefs during these questions. Also, it helps to talk about the things you would do outside of the classroom while at school. You might talk about the programs and clubs you want to be involved with and how you will contribute.
Finally, do you have a clear sense of your goals in life? You want to convince the committee that you know who you are and where you are going. The easiest way to show this is to talk in detail about what you are going to do post-graduation and how you will accomplish your long term aspirations.
If you can convey these three things, you have a good shot at admission.
The Final Decision
Once the interview is over, the interview notes are placed in your file and your application is looked at again in its entirety by two other members of the committee. These are usually the most senior committee members. They are now looking to see if you are more deserving of a spot than all the other applicants at this stage. These decisions become difficult with so many qualified candidates. Sometimes, when two candidates are close, the final decision comes down to the diversity of the class. If one candidate was a consultant and the school already has admitted a lot of consultants, then they might accept the other candidate. It might not seem fair to the person being rejected, but the admissions committee has to balance the diversity of the incoming class (profession, gender, nationality) along with admitting the best applicants.
If you are recommended for admission after this review, your application is placed in the “admit” file. However, every admission has to be signed and approved by the Director of Admissions. The director will review the admit recommendations and sometimes, if they raise a concern, the application is reviewed again.
So, to get admitted to a top MBA program, you can expect your application to be looked at by 5 to 6 people. It’s not an easy path to admission, but knowing how the process works will help you better prepare your application.