The 30 Commandments Of The MBA Admissions Game

A Prophet I am Not

Despite the nature of heavenly event #1, heavenly event #2 and heavenly event #3 in my journey to an elite MBA, I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on the subject of getting into top business programs. In fact, the only true experts are the adcoms themselves (because they make the actual decisions) and, perhaps, admissions consultants (especially if they have dealt with hundreds of applicants over time).

One of many defining “aha” moments for me during this journey came back in March of 2011 during my Stanford visit when one of the senior members of the GSB’s adcom said to a group of us (in so many words–gross paraphrasing alert!) “…and for those of you who are asking current students and recent graduates for advice on ‘how to get in’, here’s the thing: THEY don’t even know why they ‘got in’ “.  While I feel strongly that the advice that I received from successful admits on my own applications was invaluable, I’ve always kept this idea in mind.

Lack of expert status notwithstanding, my performance in this process does imply that I at least have a pretty good idea. The premise upon which that implication is based is similar to those of my friends who were gracious enough to impart some wisdom to me just a few short months (or weeks; or days) ago when I was losing my mind (like many of you are right now).  Multiple admits is  never an accident; and a set of best practices can generally be gleaned from the journey of one with such fortune.

I’d like a share my personal take on some of these best practices for the sake of current and future applicants. This is neither the first nor last word or opinion on this topic; but it is my small contribution to the mountain of op-ed that one can find in about a bazillion places around the internet.

My 30Something Thesis on Top-MBA Admissions (and Beyond)

  • Thou shall play to win: You’re in the big leagues. Why even bother if you’re not going to play full out? A lot of your results (good, bad or in between) will have to do with execution (GMAT, essays, positioning, interviews). Plan on putting forth your maximum effort if you really want to play at this level.
  • Thou shall respect the elite MBA application process by starting early:From beginning to end, this process is a TON of work. From school research to GMAT prep (and retakes) to essay writing each phase from day 1 til day last will seem more arduous than the next. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by waiting until the last minute to get everything done. This is not like high school where there are only a handful of folks who are a lot sharper than everyone else. 70-80% of your competition is more than qualified to take your spot at any school you could name. Respect that and give yourself enough time to make sure that every answer choice, essay paragraph and recommendation serves you well.
  • Thou shall respect the GMAT and take it seriously: Most people who’ve tried to cut corners on the GMAT have ended up marching to their own funeral on test day. If you want a spot in an elite MBA program, it won’t be enough to just do well. You’ll need to do better than the vast majority of people, which means getting as close to the 90% percentile or better, if at all possible. Unless you’re a natural whiz on BOTH of the major sections, don’t kid yourself by trying to be cheap and skimpy on your prep. Buy the books. Take the classes. Put in the long hours. Do whatever you need to get into your target schools’ middle 80% percentile of scores or better. The GMAT won’t get you into your dream school, but it will definitely keep you out of it if your results communicate that you may possibly be incapable to handling a rigorous first-year curriculum.

  • Karel Paragh

    Absolutely true! Karel Paragh

  • GMAT Essay is the important section for GMAT Exam so students should focus on it.

  • Thanks for the shout out! And the wonderful article. Great advice.

  • Rankings were brought up in this post purely to make a point
    about taking the advice of admissions consultants with a grain of salt. I
    offered a personal example of gaining admittance to schools that consultants
    were not 100% in support of my even applying to so that other people might be
    inspired to go with their gut and apply to whatever dream school they had in
    mind (as long as they are decently within stats range) regardless of anyone’s
    advice. Your attempt to make it more than that comes across as a bit petty.

    Additionally, when it comes to rankings (source, that is) I
    personally tend to follow US News – largely because they tend to be the go-to
    source for rankings in all fields–not just business. Over the years they have
    generally established themselves as a standard for rankings for most
    professions; so I tend to defer to them. They also tend to be more inline with
    program reputations, which generally carry more weight than many published
    rankings systems (.e.g Cox could be named “#1” today and I doubt that
    would change their yield or recruitment numbers much). The actual data that I

    pulled from is here ==>
    You speak as if I made it up (“based on what rankings”?)

    Lastly, people who know the material from my blog also know that
    my original #1 choice was USC Marshall (#21-#25 depending on the year). I only
    dropped them from my school list because I discovered that other schools had
    eclipsed their entrepreneurial activity (that did not use to be the case) and I
    had a bad experience there during a visit. I’d also choose them over UCLA
    Anderson (~#15 or so) on any day of the week based on alumni network and
    strength alone. Pretty clear example my respect for great schools based on more
    than just their rankings. Knowing the full context of that which are you
    referring to often helps.

  • SJS

    Frankly, I can accept a little arrogance from someone who has achieved what he perceives to be success. IMHO, there is a very fine dynamic line between arrogance and confidence, and depending on your achievement it can stray a little bit.
    The way that I read it, the author does not discredit the rankings but merely discourages using the rankings as the primary tool for making application or acceptance decisions. I think this is a sensible approach and a often recommended by people who have gone through the process.

    Also, it isn’t exactly outlandish to suggest that Wharton and Booth would fit most people’s idea of a top 5 school. For all real reasons, MIT and Kellogg can be considered a tie at position 5. So while the author may be constructing his own ranking (he could well pull out some ranking that will prove him right) to make himself look good, the claims are hardly off the charts in terms of believability.

    If this little craft evokes a response like “MBA’s….what am I getting myself into?”, I recommend you really reconsider your decision. If you make it to a top school, chances are that majority of your class will comprise consultants, bankers and marketeers, and they made a living out of telling porkies to clients, public and government on a scale that would blow your mind off.

  • hbsguru

    Thou shall consider being reviewed by Sandy Kreisberg on Poets&Quants:

    Great advice, and his website is also worth looking at

  • Bob Dole

    Gay urm. Surprised that didn’t get him into Stanford and Harvard.

  • Logan J

    What’s funny to me is how the author of this has said many times that he doesn’t base his decisions on the rankings….he applied the schools he was best suited for….yet he always brings up the rankings and uses them as a bragging mechanism for what he has done.
    I like a lot of his posts but also feel plenty of arrogance coming over many of them.
    3 of the top 5 based on what rankings? The ones that are most convenient to make this seem more impressive.
    MBA’s….what am I getting myself into?