What MBA Admissions Really Want: Tips From Top Schools

What MBA Admissions really want

2017 CentreCourt MBA Festival, San Francisco

“I don’t want unicorns,” says Stanford GSB Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions, Kristen Moss. “Leadership doesn’t come from a socio-economic status, it doesn’t come from being a Harvard undergrad or an institution, it doesn’t come from the fact you were in private equity… Your job is to show me how you are a leader and is defined precisely by the impact that you have had on your community. If you can tell me that then we’re both going to be aligned because that’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Moss’s remarks on the qualities she seeks among Stanford’s MBA candidates were among the gems that emerged during the 2017 CentreCourt MBA Festival, a three-city tour that featured panel discussions with Deans and Admissions Directors from the world’s top business schools, including Stanford GSB, Chicago Booth, INSEAD, Kellogg, Berkeley Haas and others. I had the privilege of moderating these panels in New York, London and San Francisco, probing Admissions Directors for insights and industry trends that would support MBA candidates in the application process. Several key themes emerged across cities and discussions, which I’ve culled into a short “round-up” series by topic.

Here are nine top tips directly from MBA Admissions Directors on what they are looking for:

  1. Avoid perfection and show you’ve bounced back from failure.

Cambridge Judge head of MBA admissions, Conrad Chua, looks for evidence of self-reflection, and, in particular, where students have failed and bounced back from it. “We want to see how you’ve bounced back from failure because when you’re on the MBA it’s going to be tough,” says Chua. “And that’s becoming quite difficult to see because a lot of the younger generation really seem to have this drive towards being perfect.”

Chicago Booth Associate Dean of Admissions, Kurt Ahlm, echoes the mistaken idea of trying to be the perfect candidate. “Some applicants are trying to show they’ve got no weakness, or almost too narrow a focus into a career,” says Ahlm. “Don’t try to out-game the system, just give what is specific to you.”

  1. Be your authentic self.

A common pitfall in the name of perfection is trying to project someone you’re not. “Be yourself is my best advice,” reiterates Virginie Fougea, INSEAD Director of MBA Recruitment and Admissions. “Where is the person behind these essays? Make them true, genuine, honest. We read thousands of essays so just talk about you and that will be interesting enough.”

“We are really trying to get at authenticity,” says Booth’s Ahlm. “Ultimately it comes down to this pretty simple answer of why you want to go through this two-year experience in a place like Booth? A lot of the application is designed to get at those authentic responses, our processes are designed to really get at that authentic sense of self.”

  1. Don’t be misled by the Incoming Class Profile

Avoid the tyranny of the Incoming Class Profile, which can mislead or discourage candidates from seeing themselves at their dream school. “This is one of the worst things I think applicants do, they anchor on these profiles and say ‘ah, I’m not this person, I’m not good enough to get into this school.’ The challenge with these aggregate profiles is there is no perfect person that is that data point in the class,” says Niki da Silva, Managing Director of the Rotman Full-Time MBA.

Da Silva explains her school’s practice of publishing the range of GMAT scores achieved by 100% of Rotman’s incoming class, and then – as is more common practice among MBA programs – showing the score range achieved by the mid 80% range of students, which gives candidates a sense of where admissions is setting the bar. De Silva describes the practice as a useful way of helping candidates gauge their competitiveness, or discern areas they may need to convey in their application given any potential gaps. “I think it’s a great tool, and we disclose that because we want to showcase the diversity.”

  1. Balance self-confidence and self-awareness

Booth’s Ahlm deepens his emphasis on authenticity by distinguishing between self-confidence and self-awareness. “If you don’t have self-awareness you can’t fake it in an application process. If you are naturally very high on self-confidence – to the point where you’re very cocky and arrogant – that’s going to come through in some way,” he says. “Self-awareness is a lot about, ‘when do I advocate speaking up in a way that shows that I’m making contributions to my organizations and impacting my people?’ …part of that balance of self-awareness is really understanding when am I appropriately telling a story in a correct way and using ‘I’ in my contributions versus the ‘we’. There is no formulaic answer.”

  1. Show your intellectual vitality and leadership potential

Stanford GSB’s Moss wants to know if you’re a curious learner and how you’ve touched people’s lives. “At the end of the day – and this is for Stanford but I bet some of this is shared – number one is intellectual vitality. And what does that mean? It means your curiosity,” she says. “Sure, I’ll see your transcript and what you studied, but that’s not really telling me whether you’ll be an energizer in the classroom who is really here to learn.”

On leadership, Moss reminds that “one of the things that has been proven over and over in research is that highly inspirational leaders who get the highest level of performance from their organizations really know what drives them, and they are thinking beyond themselves to the problems they can make change and have an impact on. So in our application one of our key questions is ‘what matters most and why?’, and it has been an iconic question for a long time. Taking the time to understand what matters to you will be your true north as a leader no matter what school you go to in the rest of your life… You will be one step ahead of the game in terms of being able to motivate others.”

  1. Carefully consider and convey your fit with the culture.

    Given the massive pool of quality candidates, Booth’s Ahlm offers that sometimes a ding isn’t a judgement on you but rather a case of poor fit with the school. “We spend a lot of time trying to assess a sense of fit with our culture and we look for people who are really strong thinkers, they apply a very analytical approach to how they make decisions, how they think through problems,” says Ahlm. “You could be a better fit in another school. An MBA is not the be all and end all: there’s quite a wide range of top schools. I think it’s a great point – that people think about what is the right fit for them in terms of who they are, what kind of experience they want, and what they want to get out of it. So if you can convey that in an application, in the interview, I think you will go far.”

  2. Let your uniqueness shine.

UT Rotman’s da Silva invoked her program’s insider language for sussing out distinction. “We call it the ‘spike factor.’ — it’s what else do you do?” she says. “So maybe a software engineer from India might have started a not-for-profit in their hometown; we have a student who started the largest podcast in India. It’s what else do you do that makes you interesting and unique that isn’t traditional and isn’t what you do for your 9-to-5, but that’s actually going to bring you as a person to life.”

  1. Avoid redundancies by being strategic across your application

Ahlm emphasizes the importance of being strategic in your storytelling across the MBA application. “There’s fixed real estate for you to be able to tell these authentic stories, and share who you are, and that takes some time and it takes a level of strategic thinking that I think is often missed,” he observes. “People go through and they fill out the materials and they get the application form, and oftentimes because they do that there are redundancies that naturally come up. You lose space because you’ve said the same thing multiple times. You forget that the resume itself tells a story. So, I think you have to be smart about the exercise itself as an exercise about how you strategically think and oftentimes that’s missed. It’s one thing to know your story and what it is you want to convey, it’s another to be able to do it effectively in the applications that you’ll be filling out, and there are differences.”

  1. This is all about you

“Attend events like CentreCourt to see what we say about business school,” quips Tina Mabley, Assistant Dean at UT Austin McCombs. “The reality is, this is all about you. And the time that you take and the introspection that you do – a wonderful application will fall out of [it], and so the important work is now.”

Reflecting on self-awareness and discernment, Mabley adds, “You have to do the tough work of self-reflection and figuring out what matters to you, and not what matters to you to sound good to get into school, but what really matters to you and why do you want to go to business school? We have read a lot of applications and yet, still, every application is a story. And what really works is someone who knows who they are, knows what they want to do, knows what they don’t know – you’re coming to business school for a reason – and puts that together in a coherent fashion. Part of what we review is your judgment, and your judgment about what you put in… You can absolutely see that personality in an application.”

Stay tuned for future installments of Fortuna’s “round up series.”


Fortuna AdmissionsMatt Symonds is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools. He is the author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge,” and founder of Kaplan Test Prep in Europe and QS World MBA Tour.


Watch now:  CentreCourt MBA Festival 2017 Live in San Francisco MBA Admissions Secrets

  • Great post Matt. If there is one major take away here for me, it’s that Business Schools are really looking for that next generation of leaders that demonstrate creativity, resourcefulness and tenacity (aka “hustle”). I’m pleased to see the MBA programs are looking for applicants that go beyond the traditional “check the box” approach. I think this is very much a function of where many grads want to work – it’s clearly less about getting a job with the big, traditional “white shoe” firms and more about entrepreneurship so a different set of skills and traits are required. From our work with many of the Top25 Business Schools we’re seeing a huge interest in showcasing faculty in more engaging and approachable ways to adapt to this shift. Deans, Admissions as well as Advancement departments want to more clearly demonstrate their faculty can teach MBA’s these new rules. Thanks for sharing this really comprehensive post. Great insights.
    Peter Evans – Founder & CEO, ExpertFile