10 Insider Tips for B-School Admissions

Matt Symonds, Fortuna

Matt Symonds, Director at Fortuna Admissions

The ding reports on Poets&Quants are a constant reminder that a stellar GPA and stratospheric GMAT score are no guarantee of a place in the world’s top MBA programs. These quantifiable measures don’t hurt of course, but the competition for entry to one of the top schools is such that your candidacy will need to reflect more than these strong data points.

This is where experience inside the MBA admissions office makes all the difference. When you have read thousands of applications, spent Monday through Thursday morning with your admissions colleagues comparing the profiles of strategy consultants, bankers and software engineers, and made final decisions about who to accept and who to reject, you understand the breadth and depth of the myriad of small details that go into the MBA admissions process.

The coaches and directors at Fortuna Admissions have worked in admissions at 10 of the top 15 business schools, evaluating profiles with a fine tooth comb. Throughout their tenures, they have spent thousands of hours writing up their reader’s notes, discussing specific school fit, leadership opportunities, community and extra-curricular engagement, interview performance, and those small details that can make all the difference in a successful application. They have put together a series of short Insider Guides that you can download, with their tips for getting admitted.

To give you a head start, we have selected 10 B-School Insider Tips for Booth, Columbia, Harvard, INSEAD, Kellogg, LBS, MIT Sloan, NYU Stern, Stanford GSB and Wharton:

Tip #1 – It’s not all about “Economics” at Chicago Booth

There is a common perception that Chicago Booth is the “econ” school. Just like you, Booth does not want to be seen as being good at just one thing. The full-time MBA program provides a flexible curriculum, where students are expected to design their own academic experience. Even if your concentration (your academic interests) lies in economics and the world of finance, you should be well versed on what other academic concentrations are available. Know who the key professors are in each academic department and some of the key published academic research. Familiarize yourself with opportunities outside of your particular interests (such as the New Venture Challenge). The Booth MBA is a transformative experience; through your application, demonstrate to the admissions team that you have a plan, but that you are open to the possibilities and avenues that a Chicago MBA will provide. Show the Committee that you recognize the importance of a well-rounded MBA education, and that you appreciate the value of the flexible curriculum structure.

Tip #2 – Advantages of applying early to Columbia Business School

Columbia Business School operates on a rolling admissions process – both for early and regular decisions – and applications are reviewed in the order in which they are received. There are clear advantages for applying early to Columbia, as the pool will be smaller and your application will likely gain greater visibility. In fact Columbia offers Early Decision, which commits you to the school if you are admitted, or you forego the $6,000 tuition down-payment. But for a school that feels its New York location and Ivy League pedigree should make it a compelling choice for MBA applicants, they consistently lose people to the likes of HBS and Wharton. So if you want to send a signal of your commitment to CBS, Early Decision is a great way to do so. For those who have scored on the lower end of the school’s GMAT range, you may specifically want to consider Early Decision; Admissions can be more flexible at this initial stage, knowing that they can make up for this shortfall in the regular pool. Bear in mind that while the rest of the top b-schools wait until January to receive the second round of applications, Columbia is reviewing files from early October onwards, so don’t wait until the New Year.

Tip #3 – Spend time fine-tuning your resume for Harvard Business School

The resume is often the first element that the HBS file reader will review, so it needs to pack a punch. And with Harvard down to only one optional essay your resume has never been more important. Make sure that the strength of your credentials comes across very strongly. Highlight your achievements and the impact you had in your roles. Quantify your accomplishments and impact with specific numbers wherever possible. HBS is looking for candidates on a rapid career trajectory, so make sure your evolution (promotions, increasing scope of responsibility, etc) is clearly demonstrated. In general, use action verbs and remove passive sentences or phrases. Remember that people who are not from your industry may be confused by jargon or acronyms so avoid these. You may want to write a short description under each company if the admissions team might not be familiar with it; this is especially important for work experience abroad.

Tip #4 – Overcoming a “common” profile for INSEAD

There are some profiles that pour in to the INSEAD admissions office by the hundreds: for example, management consultants based in Europe, or Indian IT professionals. There are times of year when some of the INSEAD admissions staff are almost drowning under a flood of pale blue (=Indian) files. Whilst INSEAD has no hard and fast quota, they also want to create a diverse class, so in reality, the competition can be tougher for some than for others. If you have a common profile, then you need to be strong across all elements of the application, including your academic profile, your professional track record, your international experience, and your activities and achievements outside of work or study. Try to find some element to your profile that can differentiate you such as a multicultural background, an entrepreneurial side interest.

Tip #5 – Recognize that culture really does matter – and know what that means at Kellogg

As the Kellogg culture has become more deeply ingrained, the need to preserve it has heightened. Officers feel a real sense of obligation to protect what makes the school unique. Almost every aspect of the application has some component geared toward understanding if a student is the right fit. So what exactly does this culture of collaboration entail? Dean Blount expresses it as impact without ego, and that’s about as good a definition as exists. Another way to think about the culture is like this: the program will force you to work in team settings constantly. Most people can be dependable peers for an hour at a time. But what if you’re in hour 12 of an intense case analysis? Do you still have the maturity to be just as diplomatic as in hour 1? Or, if the problem with coming to an answer is that everyone in the group wants to be the leader, do you have the poise to switch roles and become the facilitator needed to get everyone on the same page? A strong applicant will show strong situational awareness and examples of how they can work in lots of different types of teams.

Tip #6 – Remember that ‘global’ is not just a word, it’s a culture at London Business School

There’s no doubt that LBS is a truly international business school. It’s based in a supremely multicultural city, and less than 10% of the class is British. But at LBS, global is more than just a word – it’s a culture that is woven through the fabric of the entire institution. The school is continually reinventing the curriculum to best represent this focus, most recently including the Global Business Experiences immersion week as part of its core MBA offering. So it’s no longer enough just to state confidently that you’ve backpacked across Europe – the admissions committee will be closely scrutinizing your application to see exactly what global flavor you’ll bring to the new class. Internationalism can take many forms. Have you worked on international projects or liaised often with international clients? Do you work on multi-cultural teams? Have you invested time in learning other languages? Are there any global secondment opportunities coming up at your company? Any and all of these things can add weight to your application. Serious LBS applicants will have worked, lived and traveled on multiple continents, so if the international aspect of the LBS experience is what drew you to the school in the first place, make sure you sell that side of yourself. Getting across your passion for travel, for experiencing other cultures and for working in a global capacity post-graduation is crucial. And if you are thinking about applying to LBS in a year or two and have not yet traveled, get out there and do it!

Tip #7- Feelings rather than function for MIT Sloan

Like many of the admissions offices at the top schools, MIT Sloan has a fairly small team to handle the many thousands of applications it receives each year. As such they have read countless applications that provide details of the tasks, projects and responsibilities of consultants, software engineers and financiers and have a pretty good idea of what those roles involve. Beyond avoiding technical jargon, avoid devoting too much space in your essays to the mechanics of your job, which provide very little insight into who you are as a person and what makes you tick. Sloan is far more interested to learn about how you thought through a particular challenge or situation, what you did to come up with an innovative solution, and how you felt when you needed to make a difficult decision. While the school clearly values numbers and analytical skills, MIT Sloan is still trying to unearth the very human aspects of your personality, and the values, integrity and passion with which you lead your life.

Tip #8 – Demonstrating your IQ + EQ at NYU Stern

Stern is proud of its reputation as a program that develops students who are not only smart but also have interpersonal strengths and teamwork skills. It’s not enough to just have strong grades and GMAT scores since Stern is looking for prospective students who will be involved in the school community and who are team players. The Admissions Committee uses a holistic approach to evaluate applicants, which includes evaluating individuals’ academic and professional backgrounds as well as personal characteristics. Stern looks for candidates who are team oriented and have strong leadership potential. You will have a number of opportunities to demonstrate your EQ and IQ, through your essays, interview and campus visit. Think about how you work on team projects and be prepared to share examples of your leadership style and team interactions. If you’re invited to interview, sign up for any opportunities to interact with current students, such as a student lunch. Stern is proud of its collegial, friendly environment and looks for candidates who seek this kind of community for their own MBA experience.

Tip #9 – Defining change for Stanford GSB

There are not many institutions in the world that can get away with the tagline “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” But Stanford might be one of them. So when it comes to defining your career goals, you should bear in mind that the admissions office is seeking individuals who are looking to have real impact, whether professionally or in society. The selectivity of the business school means that they can look beyond students whose goal is to secure a place in a strategy consulting firm or investment bank, and identify those applicants who are driven by a desire not just to excel in their careers but also to help others and have a positive impact. So as you think about your own post MBA career goals, include a longer term view about the areas where you think you can affect real change. Whether that means using technology to transform an industry, creating a niche business in the world of finance or medicine, or influencing the agenda for social attitudes in a region of the world, such a vision will carry far more weight if you can point to activities and commitments from your past and present that underpin your passion and sense of purpose. The school considers that past actions are usually the best predictor of future behavior, so your application should reflect who you are through what you have done.

Tip #10 – Demonstrating your team orientation at Wharton

One of the common stereotypes is that Wharton is an “eat or be eaten” kind of environment. Contrary to popular belief, uber-competitive Wharton is actually home to an extremely collaborative and team oriented learning environment. Learning clusters, cohorts, and teams (you may work with 15+ over your time in the program) provide a platform for collaboration and learning to lead through teamwork. Accordingly, your application should reflect your ability to actively contribute and thrive in these settings, and show that you can lead from the middle.  Candidates should look towards presenting a team-orientation and a facilitative leadership style in their application.

by Matt Symonds, Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge”, founder of Kaplan Test Prep in Europe and QS World MBA Tour

Fortuna Admissions is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, Duke and UC Berkeley Haas.

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