Mistakes To Avoid In Your MBA Application

application mistakes to avoid

Matt Symonds (right) leads a panel of admissions directors from leading schools. Pictured from left to right are Virginie Fougea (INSEAD), Tina Mabley (Texas McCombs), Kirsten Moss (Stanford GSB), and Kurt Ahlm. Photo by Nathan Allen

Make no mistake, the seasoned Admissions Director has shrewd instincts for discerning your commitment, confidence or any hint of discrepancy across your MBA application. Just as they know what they’re looking for in an candidate to their program (see my first in this series, What MBA Admissions Really Want), they’re also savvy at spotting common mistakes.

In this second feature of our round-up series, which highlights the gems from our panel discussions with Deans and Admissions Directors from the world’s top business schools during the 2017 CentreCourt MBA Festival, I’ve zeroed in on the most common pitfalls.

Here are seven top tips directly from MBA Admissions Directors at Stanford GSB, INSEAD, Kellogg, Booth and IMD on the most common mistakes to avoid in your MBA application:

1. Beware of inconsistency

“As you put the application together, all the pieces should tell the same story or tell pieces of the same story, because failing to do so is a big mistake we see people make,” says Tina Mabley, Assistant Dean at UT Austin McCombs. “Your recommender will say ‘so-and-so wants to go into marketing’ and your essay will say something different. Or maybe somebody changes their mind by the time they interview, and is saying something very different from their resume. So if your application doesn’t hang together or tell the same story or contribute to that story that can become a problem.”

Paola Eicher, MBA Recruitment Manager at IMD, puts a fine point on the importance of offering a clear and coherent picture of you are and what you’ve achieved. “I think inconsistency for me is the biggest flag when I read an application. He says he’s outgoing and then he says he’s an introvert, and it depends on the day, and he’s trying to find if he should be an extrovert or an introvert.”

2. Don’t waste valuable real estate

“I think one of the really classic mistakes is spending the precious time that you have to talk about yourself and who you are and what you bring to the table… to talk about why your target school is great,” says Niki da Silva, Managing Director of the Rotman Full-Time MBA. “A lot of candidates use that time in the essay to regurgitate some of the things we articulate as a school about what differentiates us, and what I would say is that’s kind of implied by the transaction of you submitting your application to the school, you believe that this is a good place for you.”

Da Silva emphasizes the importance of discernment in both content and presentation. “Being mindful of the time that you spend, whether it’s words on the page, or on a camera, and focusing actually on bringing you as an applicant to life avoids a classic mistake,” she says.

3.  Walk the line between confidence and self-awareness

“I think for us it’s about candidates who strike a good balance between talking about ‘I’ all the time and ‘we’. And what I mean by that is a risk line for us is someone who just keeps talking about themselves; ‘I did this, I did that’,” says Conrad Chua, head of MBA admissions at Cambridge and the Judge School. “On the other hand, if you only talk about your team or the achievements of your team, it does become difficult to tease out what to do, because we’re meeting an individual, not a group. So I think candidates, whether it is through the application, or through interviews, have to strike a good balance.” Chua emphasizes that this discernment has a lot to do with school fit. “So for us, we emphasize a lot on collaboration and teamwork, and that’s why we look for such things.”

“There’s so many facets in the application which I think a lot of people underestimate,” says Kurt Ahlm, Chicago Booth Associate Dean of Admissions. “The authenticity naturally comes through, in essays, interviews, in everywhere else – so I think you’re just going to have to find the balance for yourself.”

4.  Don’t expect to one-shot your application

Kristen Moss, Stanford GSB Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions, emphasizes to focus on what you can control – doing your research and reflecting deeply on your own goals and motivations to discern which programs are truly a good fit. “What are the classes, who are the faculty, what’s the club, who’s an alum that’s done something interesting to you? Put it into that essay so that I know that you really care and you really want to come to my school. Probably that’s the best advice I can give you,” says Moss. “Take the time to connect the dots: what you value, how Stanford will help, and what your dreams are. That whole piece. And the only way you’re going to do that is to get out there and research, and not just sit down one night and crank out an essay.”

“My default is you should apply when you feel your application is absolutely at its best,” says Ahlm. “A lot of people were driven by concern to send their application in quickly in some way we’d start reviewing early… I think the more you’re able to do your due diligence and think through things, the stronger your application is going to be, and that outweighs the timing more so than trying to get it in for a certain round.”

5. Don’t expect to ace the GMAT on the first try

“One thing also we see is that people rush and take a GMAT last minute,” says Virginie Fougea, INSEAD Director of MBA Recruitment and Admissions. “It’s usually really important to you and to your application so give yourself a little bit of time, even if that means applying round three or round four that’s fine.”

“I’ve been at Kellogg for years: the talent pool that is applying to us has really risen, and what’s happening is we’ve seen a reflection of that, and the [GMAT] scores are reflected on that sample,” says Kate Smith, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Northwestern Kellogg. “We do know that every program has a wide distribution, and my counsel is never rule yourself out… I want everyone to be aware of it, and yes, put your best foot forward.”

6.  Don’t script your recommenders

Moss underscores the fine line between empowering recommenders to be your outspoken champions by talking with them about your qualities and achievements, versus feeding them ideas to regurgitate in their letters of support.

“Have conversations with your recommenders – it’s an important piece of the puzzle – but do not give them potential answers they might want to give to the admissions committee,” says Moss. “The saddest thing I think, for me, is when I’ll get an applicant who looks phenomenal, their story is awesome, and then I’ll get to their recommendations, and there will be cut and pasted the same paragraph. The recommender was thankful for what you gave them and was cutting a corner, but it then brings up all kinds of questions about your integrity and others because how do you really know what happened there?”

7.  Know thyself

“I think if you don’t fully know why you’re doing it, you’re not truly committed to that experience, that it does come out on the application process and is something that allows us to discern between thousands of applicants,” says Ahlm. “It’s valuable attending events like [Centre Court], and just going through a period of being really reflective so that you understand this really is a big investment of time, and everything else.”

“What I’ve noticed is there are all levels of applications in terms of how much preparation, how much time, how thoughtful and cogent the argument is, and the ones that are going to rise to the top are the ones that have taken that time,” says Moss. “You can’t control what I’m going to do with your application. I’m going to read it, and the committee that I work with, in a very different way than any of these [other] schools and you have little insight into it. But what you can control is the story that you want to tell each of us.”

Read the first article in this round-up series, “What MBA Admissions Really Want,” and stay tuned for future installments.

Learn more about attending CentreCourt 2018, which is taking place in nine cities next year.


 Matt 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.