This article first appeared on LinkedIn.
Getting into a top MBA program has always been difficult. And with applications rising each year for the same number of limited spots at the world's leading business schools, it's getting even harder.
According to Poets and Quants, applications to the top 25 schools were up by 2.5% to 84,879 last year, the third consecutive year of increases. Those increases drove the overall acceptance rate of the schools in the top 25 down to 20.3%, from 20.7% a year earlier.
It's especially frustrating for the tens of thousands of applicants who clearly have the work experience, academic ability, and leadership skills they need to be successful in business school. "Admission officials at top MBA programs concede that as much as 80% of their applicants are fully qualified to attend and successfully complete an MBA program", according to Poets and Quants.
Despite the intense competition for spots at top programs, the number of applications continues to swell, driven by strong demand for MBAs among employers. In a new survey of 104 business schools by the MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance, 51% of respondents indicated an increase in on-campus recruiting activity compared with last year. Much of this increase was driven by a surge of recruiting from the tech industry.
Getting into your "dream school"-- however you may choose to define that term -- may be hard, but there are actions you can take to increase your chances of getting accepted.
Since the application season for many MBA programs is about to kick-off, I'd like to share four things I know about the process:
1. It's never too early to start preparing your application.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received for applying to business school came from someone who had graduated from a top school himself. It was 25 years ago, I had just picked up a graduate degree in East Asian Studies, and I was embarking on a search for my first full-time job. I had reached out to him with the hope that he would have an opening for me in his boutique consulting firm.
Unfortunately, he didn't have a job for me. But since I had told him I was planning on applying to business school after getting a few years of work experience, he shared some advice that helped me shape my business school application journey.
He told me to get the applications from the business schools that I was targeting so I could look at their essay questions. Next, he said I should start thinking -- now -- about how I would answer these questions. Finally, and most importantly, I should start building the career credentials I would need to answer their questions and position myself to be the type of applicant they were looking for.
2. Do your due diligence on your target schools.
Admissions officers understand that you're applying to several schools. But they want to know whether you've done your due diligence on their school. Because, from their perspective, they are the superior choice, and they want to see if you have spent the time and effort to really understand what sets them apart from their competitors.
Study the schools you're applying to closely and identify what makes them stand out from other institutions: The strength of their entrepreneurial studies department, the quality of their finance faculty, their global alumni network. Incorporate that into your application.
3. Write a kick-a** essay.
Undergraduate GPAs and GMAT scores paint only a partial picture of your potential to succeed at business school. That's why admissions officers look carefully at your essays to understand why you're applying to their school, and how you'll make a unique contribution to their community.
That's why you need to invest time in writing well-crafted essays that will help admissions officers see beyond your stats. Make the extra effort to write essays that are tailored to each school you're applying to, and which tell something about yourself that a number can't.
Wondering what kinds of questions to expect? Poets and Quants compiled a helpful "cheat sheet" of application essay questions from leading MBA programs to give you a head start.
And be sure you edit your essays thoroughly so they read well and contain absolutely no grammatical mistakes. (Here's my process for editing prose of any kind that you can follow as you write your essays, and some of my advice for avoiding common writing mistakes. And if you'd like to read the story about the essay that helped me get accepted to business school, check out my post, "The Essay that Got Me Into Wharton.")
4. Prep hard for your interview.
Business schools get thousands and even tens of thousands of applications for the limited spaces they offer. No matter how good you look on paper, standing out from the thousands of capable candidates vying for seats in their lecture halls is going to be tough unless you do something that personalizes your application.
One of the best ways to do this is through an interview. While these are often conducted by alumni of the school, you may get the opportunity to be interviewed directly by a representative from the admissions committee. When I applied to business school, I was interviewed by the director of admissions from my top choice school. I believe that in-person conversation -- in which I had the chance to tell my story about why I wanted an MBA, and why his program was my top choice -- may have contributed to my offer of admission at the school.
Not all business school applicants are granted interviews. But if they do offer one, be sure to set one up, and prepare intensively for it. Having sat on the other side of the table as an alumni interviewer for my school, I know the impact a candidate's interview performance can have on the probability of getting admitted.
Getting into a top business school is competitive, and the application process can be frustrating. But if you plan ahead and prepare carefully, you can increase the chances of getting accepted to one or more of your preferred schools.
Essays are an incredibly important part of the application process, says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant. Seemingly straightforward questions require a great deal of introspection. Make sure you budget time to draft and redraft, try new approaches and carefully edit so that each line packs the maximum punch
1 As soon as you know that you are going to apply to business school, you can start to prepare in a low-stress way. Keep a notebook and jot down anything interesting that comes to mind. An inspiring lecture, a disappointing performance review, an enlightening conversation with a friend, a travel experience, running a marathon, a stimulating book—all of these can be terrific material for your essays. Don't agonise over whether it will make a great topic, just jot it down. You will find that you quickly have a plethora of material to choose from.
2 As you begin to approach essay-writing time, consider putting together a “brag sheet”. Write down all of the things about you that would not necessarily appear on a résumé: languages you speak, all extracurricular involvements, family traditions and more. This can also be mined for essay content.
3 Once you have the essay questions in hand, there may still be a few stumpers. Even with lots of content, when you are faced with answering a question such as “What matters most to you?” it is difficult to decide. Here is an exercise that stops you from over-thinking: set your alarm clock for 3am. When you wake up, ask yourself the question. The first thing that comes to mind might surprise you. Do this for a couple of nights and you may come up with a few options or find that you are building a consensus around a certain topic.
4 Before you actually write the essays, take the final step of mapping out the general topics you will cover in each essay. As you map a topic to a question, check it off on a master list of stories you want to cover. This way, you can make sure that a given school is receiving all of your key stories, and that you are spreading out different stories across an application and not being repetitive.
5 Everyone works in different ways: some work best first thing in the morning, others are night owls. Some need to outline concepts on paper, others go straight to computer. So develop a plan that supports your individual style. Many find that the first application can take around 40 hours of work—brainstorming, drafting, editing, refining. As you approach this process, make sure you have the time. Tackle one application at a go. Do not take work leave or attempt it in a single week. Essays require time to gel. Therefore make sure that you have plenty of time to do it right. You may require six weeks, or you may even want 12.
6 Many applicants are inhibited by perfectionism. They can sit at the computer for hours, unable to generate that “perfect” essay, rewriting so furiously that they don't get past the first few sentences. It is often easier to edit than to write. So just type. A page full of so-so text is less intimidating than that blank page.
7 It is essential that you research your target schools and understand how to appeal to each of them. Each will have a slightly different ethos and look for something different in their students. But…
8 …you can also save yourself a bit of work. There are certain qualities that all business schools want to see in a successful applicant:
- team skills
- communication skills
Just saying “I am a strong leader” is not enough. Every claim you make must have supporting stories that help the reader believe you. You do not need to check off every quality on the list. Select a few that apply to you and reinforce those in an honest and compelling way.
9 Nobody is perfect. The schools know this and you need to show them that you are realistic and self-aware. Revealing your humanity—in the form of quirks, weaknesses and flaws—can often help the admissions committee to like you. A story about how you learned from a failure, improved upon a weakness or struggled with challenges can be compelling. The other side of this is the ability to demonstrate that you can really benefit from the MBA degree. If you know everything already, an admissions committee may wonder why you want to return to school.
10 Get some help. Even the most meticulous writers benefit from a second or third set of eyes. Ask someone to review your essays, look for typos and tell you if you are hitting all of the points in the right way. Is your attempt at humour coming off correctly? Do you seem too humble, too cocky, too serious, not serious enough? After you have been buried with your essays for weeks, a fresh perspective can often help you see the application as an admissions-committee member does: for the first time. Enlist someone who knows about the application process and make sure they are not just reassuring you that all is well, but are actually giving you some quality feedback.
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