The Early Bird’s Guide to Applying to MBA Programs

Perhaps you’ve had your eye on becoming an investment banker ever since you saw Wall Street, so getting an MBA has always been in your future. Or perhaps you intend to get a job in engineering after college, but there’s a chance that you might want to start your own tech business some day.

Maybe you feel called to work in the social sector and envision leading a high-impact cause-related organization. Or like many students, you may have no idea what you want to do for a career, but you’d like to cover your bases.

Whether or not you ultimately decide to pursue an MBA, you can gain an enormous advantage by taking certain preparatory steps while you are still in college—steps that will not only enhance your chances of admission to top business schools, but also give you an edge in applying to other graduate programs and building your career in the future.

In brief, business schools are seeking candidates with intellectual horsepower, curiosity, passion, drive, and leadership capacity. They value strong teamwork and interpersonal skills, a track record of contributing to and making a significant impact on the organizations to which they belong, self-awareness, maturity, and an orientation toward learning from life experiences. Below you’ll find actions that you can take now and in the next few years that will help you build a winning profile.

Study Whatever You Enjoy, but Add Some Math to the Mix

To get into a top MBA program, you do not need to major in business (finance, accounting) or economics during college. However, you should take some analytically rigorous courses (at least through basic calculus). Studying statistics is also a plus. I had originally intended to major in physics, so I had three semesters of heavy-duty math and physics under my belt before I ended up majoring in French language and civilization. This definitely helped me when I was applying to B-school.

Keep Up the Grades

You need to demonstrate that you have the intellectual capacity to handle a challenging MBA curriculum. The average (or “mean” for you statistics geeks) GPA for students attending top-10 business schools is in the 3.5 range (with the middle 80% of GPAs falling between 3.05 and 3.95). That said, be aware that if you are pursuing a very rigorous course of study (e.g., majoring in physics or engineering) or are attending a very competitive undergraduate program, admissions committees will be more forgiving of a below-average GPA. They also “give points” to students who pursue a more well-rounded education or stretch themselves academically, so if you’ve been hesitant to dilute your 3.9 GPA but really want to learn Chinese or take that graduate cosmology course, go for it.

Rub Elbows with Your Professors

Get to know at least one of your professors really well, perhaps through doing research or TAing for him/her. Most business schools ask you to submit two or three recommendations, and if you apply to an MBA program while still in college or within your first year or two out, you may not have had many people closely supervising your work. In these cases, a professor can vouch for you. Having worked closely with my senior thesis advisor while in college, I asked him to be one of my recommenders.

Get Involved

Extracurricular activities provide an unparalleled opportunity for you to demonstrate your leadership (vision, ability to mobilize others, planning and implementation skills, etc.) and teamwork orientation. I suggest exploring whatever extracurriculars interest you in your first year or two, but in your remaining time, focus on one or two organizations about which you are very passionate, finding a way to take a leadership role or spearhead new initiatives for them. If you are already involved with one, think about how you can have a greater impact. For example, if you are on a sports team, see if you can become captain—barring that, informally serve as cheerleader/coach for your peers. I had one client who had made it onto his college tennis team, but he was the worst player. His greatest contribution was helping out his teammates, offering to hit practice balls with them so they could improve their game and helping them academically (often by going with them to the library to make sure they studied and kept up their grades).

Business schools increasingly value community service/volunteering, so if you are moved to get involved in this way, please do. And when you start working, stay involved. ( and are good resources for finding opportunities, whether you are in or out of college.) Instead of just putting in a couple of hours here and there, explore how you might have a greater impact or take a leadership role, considering the tangible skills you have to offer. For example, if you’ve studied accounting, you could offer these services on a pro bono basis to a local nonprofit whose mission grabs you.

Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. A Princeton graduate and Stanford MBA, Deborah has been helping promising MBA candidates get into top programs since 2004. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, she has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.