Make mention of MBA studies at work, your next family gathering, or next time you are hanging out with friends and you are likely to get plenty of advice. A quick Google search will provide plenty of additional tips and suggestions for crafting a great application and setting yourself apart on an MBA application. So, with so many resources cracking the MBA admissions code, how do great candidates get denied from top-tier business schools?
Through my experience and conversation with colleagues, I have identified five key things that will torpedo your chances.
Here they are:
Looking to check a box:
Top tier MBA programs are not interested in churning out as many MBAs as possible. The faculty and administration at these business schools have carefully curated a full experience for you to be a part of and grow from. At Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, this includes activities like the advanced leadership academy featuring sailing in the Virgin Islands, real-time consulting projects with Fortune 500 companies, career treks to New York City, and much more.
No matter what type of MBA program you are considering—full time, part-time, or executive— do not expect to get credit for just showing up. The experience at Goizueta and other top-ranked MBA programs is about engagement in and out of the classroom. You won’t get far with an admissions committee if you hint at not being invested in the whole experience or doggedly asking how fast you can get through the program.
Well, everyone else is doing it:
If you work in a traditional business industry, your peers could be spending the lunch break comparing MBA plans. And you don’t want to be left behind. Truth is, there is no one golden timeline for MBA studies. Every school out there publishes average years of work experience because people arrive with varied years of work backgrounds. Maybe you took a little longer to find your groove at your first job. Maybe you are on a really great project right now and want to see it to completion. Maybe you have a major personal event coming up—getting married, having a baby, dealing with personal or family illness. All of these are legitimate reasons to postpone MBA studies. As long as you are progressing in your career and continuing to grow, don’t rush to do an MBA because those around you are.
Each year we admit another great class, we infuse new content in the curriculum and introduce new experiential learning opportunities. We will be here when you are ready. Don’t rush or apply because someone else thinks you should. Only you know when the right time is and the experience will be better because of your discernment with when to start.
Even if you are smart and successful, applying to business school is likely to be unlike anything you’ve done before. Thinking you can work through the application, write the essays, and schedule the interview in a weekend or two is a mistake. Admissions committees read thousands of applications per year and they are fine-tuned to recognize an essay someone has spent some time on versus one someone has rushed to complete hours before the deadline. We regularly receive phone calls, emails, and additional essays about how someone could have done better on a standardized test, but they didn’t have time to retest before the deadline. Rushed applications are a signal you might not prepare for a class as you should or you won’t prepare for on-campus recruitment as you should; both are red flags for MBA admissions committees. So give yourself plenty of time for application, GMAT or GRE test, and interview preparation.
The “insert school here” mentality:
As you begin your research, it may seem that business schools are all the same. As you continue to interact with schools, differences will emerge. Business schools have different personalities and through a confluence of history, location, and faculty influence have developed unique characteristics. They are more challenging to recognize if you conduct all your research online and limit interaction with one or two people associated with the school.
Meet as many current students and recent alums as you can. Reach out via LinkedIn, ask the admissions team to connect you to a current student, and do structured and unstructured activities. Take advantage of the provided school tours and class visits, but also take the time to sit in common areas or grab a coffee on campus and watch how people treat each other. Talk to some people who are not officially representing the school. This is the best way to know if a school’s personality is a match with you. It will help you pick an environment in which you can thrive. Not knowing a schools personality or if you will fit makes your application less compelling.
Goizueta is known for its small-by-design classes. Intentionally having small classes and our commitment to collaboration means every student has to show up. There’s no crowd to get lost in here and no way to coast through. We look for people who want that type of environment and are ready for the responsibility of being a part of a smaller community. And we notice if an applicant doesn’t acknowledge that very distinctive quality of our MBA program.
Consider it just a place that will get you a job:
Goizueta does an incredible job of helping students prepare for their next career move as well as providing skills to rely on for the rest of their careers, as do other top MBA schools. But make no mistake, students get their own jobs. Career Management Centers are wonderful facilitators and can help introduce students to the right people for a job opportunity, but they do not wave a magic wand or guarantee jobs for students. The hard-working professionals in career services are counselors, confidantes, and coaches and enjoy helping students but the most successful students put in more work than their coaches. Be thoughtful about your career change and what will be involved in your next step. The bigger the pivot the more hustle required to make it happen. Admissions committees are reluctant to admit candidates who have an unrealistic idea of how much the career management office can do for them.
Applying to an MBA program is a great opportunity to reflect on your professional career to date and where the future might take you. Understanding your motivations for pursuing an MBA degree, how you will fit into your preferred business school, and what you will contribute to and get from the school will allow you to overcome some of the common pitfalls listed above.
Melissa Rapp is the Associate Dean of MBA Admissions at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. In this role, she leads the team responsible for the recruitment, evaluation, and matriculation of students across Goizueta’s portfolio of MBA programs. Melissa has worked at both small and large institutions helping to form and implement admissions strategies. Most recently, she was Director of Admissions for Full-Time MBA and MSMS programs at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas and a masters from Baker University.