How I Totally Underestimated The MBA Admissions Process

When you’re in undergrad and your major is engineering, you’re taught two basic mantras:

1) Unless they are studying pharmacy or some variation of natural science–everyone’s major is exponentially easier than yours.

2) Especially the business majors.

So for years, both during and after undergrad, I unwittingly subscribed to this insidious, elitist idea and accepted it as the gospel without question. However, years later when it came time for me to apply to b-school I was in for quite the rude awakening. Like a 700-level GMAT math question, I missed a small but critical piece of logic that was throwing off my entire equation for this topic.

When I first began looking into applying to B-School, I turned to the closest thing that I had experienced to this sort of a process as a reference point: my bid for a spot at a top 10 engineering grad school some 13 years ago. I remember devoting 6 or 7 weeks to studying for the GRE exam during one of my summer internships. For some reason that I cannot remember, I neither took the exam nor looked at the exam material during the following semester that fall. In fact, I didn’t take the actual test until February of the next year–right before all the deadlines to apply to schools and fellowships; how careless and reckless was that? Ah, youth.


Since I was in engineering classes each day my quant aptitude hadn’t suffered that much during the interim. And when I was 21/22 I had this weird philosophy about standardized exams where I only believed in studying for the math. Don’t ask me where I got that BS from because I haven’t the foggiest idea. Anyway, I had this (completely unfounded) superstition that English skills were so inherently cumulative that they were a waste of study time when preparing for standardized tests.

I felt very strongly that your verbal aptitude on tests like the GRE were a strict function of your exposure to classic novels, newspapers and having people around who had strong vocabularies. I thought my little self-appointed universal law (and excuse to avoid studying vocabulary words) was brilliant.

On exam day, I came down with the flu and remember going into the test with a ringing sinus headache and a handful of tissues. Ultimately, I ended up scoring well enough to gain admission to my top 2 choice schools–Georgia Tech and Michigan–both top 5 programs at the time. I also was able to land a full ride.


Though I never showed up at either institution (that story is for another post), I felt that I had learned a lot from the process and planned to transfer that learning into the MBA admissions process. I was completely unprepared for what would actually end up happening–about 18 months of my life being devoted primarily to pursuing a top-tier MBA–and that’s before matriculation. There will still be two years of actual school to go through after my admissions neurosis comes to a dramatic (or anticlimactic?) end.

So here’s where I forgot to carry the one:

While engineering is a tough degree program, its rigor actually works in your favor should you decide to continue your education. Why? Because engineering programs, by design, are constantly weeding out students. Classes like circuits, physical chemistry, organic chemistry and thermodynamics usually send the first wave of refugees running for cover (and switching majors) by the end of sophomore year.

Then, for those who make it through the program, more than half of them will scatter to other professions (like I did; sales, anyone?), licking their wounds, fanning the flames of intense battle and glad to be done with diodes and turbines forever. So you see, as you matriculate through advanced degrees in engineering your pool of competitors thins out more and more the higher you go.


Interestingly, business school seems to work opposite to that. When MBA time comes, the best and brightest students from a multitude of undergrad majors–including engineering–suddenly become your competition for just a handful of coveted admissions slots. This circumstance is then exacerbated by the fact that 90% of the most capable applicants are all aiming for the same 10-15 schools (hence schools like Stanford getting 18 apps for every available seat; madness!).

Oh, and did I mention that just about everyone has tons of personality, superb communication skills and knows how to present/sell themselves extremely well (rendering these attributes–considered rare, differentiating gems among engineers–entirely common and unimpressive)? Not to mention that it takes 6 months to a year just to be adequately prepared to submit a strong application; and that MBA adcoms are hyper sensitive to so many discrete nuances about your application beyond your grades and scores (which is mostly what engineering schools look at). And that test; that damn GMAT test. Its adaptive, so none of my old tricks from the paper test days apply. I’m a vampire sitting by a sunlit window.

Honestly, I have no idea how this whole thing will turn out, but I know one thing for sure: until I get accepted or dinged by every school on my target list, I’m OWNED by this grueling process.

MBAOver30 offers the perspective of a 30-something, California-based entrepreneur who is applying to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, Northwestern, Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Southern California. He hopes to gain acceptance to the Class of 2015 and blogs at MBAOver30.

  • Good luck!

  • Pal

    I recently submitted 4 apps (HBS, Kellogg, Columbia, and Booth). Submitting Sloan shortly for R1. I devoted about the same time, maybe a little more driving my girlfriend crazy, not socializing, dreaming of this…uncertainty is killer. i can totally relate!

  • Guest

    In our school we touted ERTW – Engineers Rule The World. 😀 

    In Canada, Eng graduates are further singled out by getting an “Iron Ring” that we wear on our pinky finger (tradition says that the iron ring represents a fallen bridge that killed a lot of people in the early 1900s due to an eng failure/error).

  • I hear you. Have you subscribed @ ? There will be more content where that came from.

  • Over 30 Guest

    Good to know I’m not the only 30-something applying for a seat in the class of 2015 this fall! 🙂

    As an engineering major, I completely agree with you that gaining admittance to those graduate programs is fairly easy.  I used the same statement of purpose for three different schools making only minor changes, and got accepted to all three.  Furthermore, if you don’t get a full-ride to an engineering masters/PhD program, it’s probably not worth it (as you well know, you’re fellowship is in exchange for research you do for professors).

  • Yeah, I think that the issue is that engineering programs–though fantastic for developing quant prowess, tend to promote/favor development that can be one dimensional. To get into a great business program its necessary to have quant skills as a given but also have highly developed communication and interpersonal (soft) skills.

  • Guest

    I shared the same sentiment re: comm/business undergrads (I gradudated in Eng as well; software eng).  To that end, I took my first GMAT over spring break without studying in my final year (over 8 yrs aga) and scored 550 lol.