We asked this year’s crop of MBA graduates what gave them an edge in gaining their acceptance into a top business school. We posed this question not to just any MBA graduate but to the grads singled out by their schools as the best of the bunch.
Their insights provide invaluable context into what it takes to complete a successful MBA application for schools that routinely reject the vast majority of their applicants. And no matter where they applied or where they ultimately went, their answers provide a roadmap of sorts for anyone’s journey to business school.
The question was as direct as it could be: What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose?
How I Got Into A Top-Ranked MBA Program
While the answers were as varied as the students’, several common themes emerged. One was doing due diligence on each school targeted by the applicant. “I made sure I knew those programs like the back of my hand,” says Sam Buck who graduated in the Class of 2022 from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “I could rattle off the names of professors I wanted to do research with, clubs I hoped to join, and classes I couldn’t wait to take. I didn’t select the schools I applied to based on rankings; I selected them based on fit.”
Luke Elder took a similar approach in applying to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “I took a deep dive into Kellogg’s professors, course catalog, extracurriculars, and more to give myself a real-life picture of Kellogg as well as to understand the types of prospective students that Kellogg was interested in admitting,” he says.
Several graduates spoke of the need to be authentic and not to create a persona that you think might be attractive to admissions. “I was unabashedly myself,” says Ryan Blackwell, a classmate of Elder’s at Kellogg. “I think many prospective students spend more time than they should trying to tell schools ‘what they want to hear.’ Having spoken with many former, current, and prospective students, I’ve found that each of us has our own unique angle, our own specific motivation, our own ‘secret sauce’ that makes for a good B-school candidate. Stay true to that.”
Here’s exactly how each MBA graduate responded to the question:
“The journey to MBA starts before the application process because it encapsulates the candidate’s 20+ years of life experience. There is no one thing I did during the application process that gave me an edge – if I started right before applying, it would be too late. I believe the biggest differentiator is my story. I spent an inordinate amount of time on my essay and crafting my narrative. I poured my heart and soul out to explain why video games mattered so much to me, the lessons I learned from playing video games, the work and impact I had at Activision Blizzard, and how video games are the perfect medium for change. I believe that my story, vision and unique profile (there are less than five people from the gaming industry in my class) made me stand out. —Sophia Weng, Stanford Graduate School of Business Class of 2022
“I knew GSB would be a great fit for my particular interests, so I emphasized those in my application. I spoke to many GSB students about what the school really stands for to see if it really aligned with my next step in life. When I found a match, I decided to apply with certainty that this would be an incredible experience waiting.” — Suhani Jalota, Stanford Graduate School of Business Class of 2022
“My application process started back in 2016 when I had only two years of work experience. I had felt part of the Wharton community when I first visited this school six years ago, and I was determined that I wanted to come here. Thus, I applied to Wharton and only one backup school; unfortunately, I was not admitted into either of these two schools back then. I recognized I had failed, and I had the option to apply to other business schools in later rounds, but I was obstinate with going to Wharton. Thus, I chose to wait until I strengthened my candidacy instead. It took three years for me to finally feel that my candidacy was strong enough. I had been continuously exposed to C-Suite level clients at work and had gained a more global perspective by traveling across the world. Most of all, my career goals were now clearer than ever before. I was ready to apply again, and so I did during the Fall of 2019, with the fascinating news that I got admitted into Wharton in Round 1. Patience is indeed a virtue, and that was the cornerstone of my admittance into my dream school!” — — Jorge Cardenas, Wharton School Class of 2022
“I believe interest in fintech and regulation resonated strongly during the admissions process. Wharton’s Stevens Center and close partnership with Penn Carey Law helped to make my narrative compelling. While I admit I am interested in a fairly niche professional intersection, I believe my interest and experience gave me the potential to add unique texture to the classroom. My interest in a joint degree, MBA/Master in Law, was proof of my passion and interest in the subject matter. Overall, I think this unique facet of my application gave me an edge in the application process.” — Malcolm Leverett, Wharton School Class of 2022
“I did a lot of research before applying. By the end, I had a deep conviction that Booth was the best fit for my personality and experience. I really tailored my application to answer the fundamental questions: Why MBA? Why now? Why Booth? I tried to thoughtfully emphasize what specifically about Booth was right for me and vice versa. The two main items were the school’s culture, captured by the mantra “Ideas compete, people collaborate” and the flexibility of the curriculum, which would accommodate my unique needs. ” — Ryan Hall, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Class of 2022
“Prior to starting my application process, I spent several months reflecting on why exactly an MBA was the best next step in my career journey. That reflection gave me clarity on my post-MBA goals (early-stage venture capital), which ultimately informed my school selection criteria. As such, I took a highly targeted approach in my outreach efforts to current MBA students, speaking to those who had similar non-traditional career backgrounds and were interested in venture capital post-MBA. One first-year student I reached out to cold via Booth’s “Connect with a Student” digital tool was so helpful during the application process and her path into Booth and at Booth served as a blueprint for mine. Gaining that first-hand knowledge of someone who had pivoted from a consumer background into venture capital using Booth’s resources helped me to better illustrate what my path would look like at Booth, which enabled me to envision how I would fit into the class. Ultimately, this also helped me to stand out as a candidate. Funny enough, the internship she held when I first reached out to her as a prospective student became the same internship I worked my first year at Booth a year later — a true testament to Booth’s pay-it-forward culture.” — Amira Khatib, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Class of 2022
“During the application process, I made it a point to visit the campus and interact with current and previous students as much as possible. I wanted to learn about aspects of the program that can’t easily be found on the website like alumni engagement, campus culture, and class expectations. I believe my edge came from the fact that I could answer “Why Sloan specifically?” based on what I learned.” — Taylor Facen, MIT Sloan School of Management Class of 2022
“I was unabashedly myself. I think many prospective students spend more time than they should trying to tell schools “what they want to hear”. Having spoken with many former, current, and prospective students, I’ve found that each of us has our own unique angle, our own specific motivation, our own “secret sauce” that makes for a good B-school candidate. Stay true to that. I was candid about my own life experiences and, in particular, how my Christian faith plays into my decision to drive change in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds. I think Kellogg appreciated that honesty and authenticity. This school has a special way of looking at the whole person, getting a 360-degree view of their experience to date, bolstering their weaknesses and polishing their strengths to create brave leaders with a passion for changing the marketplace and surrounding communities.” — Ryan Blackwell, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management Class of 2022
“In short, it was doing my “homework” on Kellogg ahead of applying. Specifically, I took a deep dive into Kellogg’s professors, course catalog, extracurriculars, and more to give myself a real-life picture of Kellogg as well as to understand the types of prospective students that Kellogg was interested in admitting. When I understood that my values and interests matched, I was able to position myself and my essays accordingly. As such, I highlighted experiences, values, and post-grad ambitions that aligned with Kellogg’s mission and my interests. Further, this “homework” allowed me to refer to specific professors and programs that were of particular interest to me. Ultimately, I wanted Kellogg’s admissions team to know that I wanted to come to Kellogg for a reason and why I thought my admittance would be additive to the community. I believe this approach added significant value to my application, and I would strongly recommend it to others.” — Luke Elder, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management Class of 2022
“When speaking with current students and alumni during my application research, I asked them all to share their favorite CBS clubs and classes. From their responses, I drew together a specific list of resources I planned to take advantage of at CBS and interwove these into my essays. I conjecture that this specificity demonstrated my commitment to Columbia – and I am certain it helped me chart my course once I got in!” — Katherine Boorstein, Columbia Business School Class of 2022
“I was very intentional in understanding the core mission of the school I chose, so I took special care to highlight aspects of my journey and career that aligned with the school’s core mission. I also spoke in very specific terms about the goals I wanted to accomplish with the degree and how those goals aligned with the school’s mission and specific offerings. I would highly encourage specificity in putting together applications.” — Kelechi Umoga, Yale School of Management Class of 2022