You’ve made the decision that getting your MBA will be the next step in your career. But the MBA application process can be overwhelming. Where do I begin? What do I do first? In this article, we’ll review the various parts of the application:
- Essays: What is my story?
- Resume: Is this the same as my work resume?
- GMAT/GRE/EA: Which test do I take?
- Letters of Recommendation: How do I prep my recommender? What if I don’t want to tell my boss I am applying to school?
- Video: What if I’m camera shy?
- The Interview: How much time should I spend preparing?
- School Research: How important is it to visit campus? Attend online events? What should I be looking for in my school research?
The MBA Application Essay: What is My Story?
MBA application essays requirements vary widely. Some limit you to 300 words, some are 3,000 words or even more. Some ask several short answer questions. Some are hypothetical questions. Some are about your deepest passions.
Behind every one of these questions is an unwritten question that is at the front of the MBA admission officers’ mind: What has this applicant aced and where have they had an impact?
Before you begin to think about any essay question, create an inventory of your actions and impacts that relate to the core concepts you’ll see on any MBA program’s website: stuff like leadership, teamwork, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving/big data analysis, diversity, and inclusion. You may or may not have examples for every concept, but it is important for you to understand your experiences in these terms. Remember you cannot define a word by using it in the definition, it is simply not sufficient to say, “I lead xyz.” If you examine definitions of leadership, it includes “inspiring”, “motivating,” “supporting others to achieve objectives,” “sets purpose or direction”. These action verbs that describe leadership are what will want to demonstrate in the stories you tell.
Once you have completed writing out examples of your actions and impacts, you will be in very good shape to write your essay no matter what the length. You will see your strengths, where you spend your time and what is important to you. Now it’s simply a matter of picking stories from the list that fit with the prompt.
The MBA Admission Resume: Is It The Same As The Work Resume?
Most MBA applicants have a good resume… for potential employers. However, you can’t just recycle that for your application!
If you don’t tailor your resume to a business school admissions committee, you are doing the application the wrong way. A job resume is designed for an industry audience, often replete with buzzwords and technical skills that are absolutely crucial signifiers to recruiters expert in your field—and absolutely meaningless to the non-expert MBA admissions committee. The committee cares about leadership and impact, not technical acumen or modeling speed. A resume that you submit for consideration for a new job should be tailored to the specifics of that job. Likewise, a resume to be submitted as part of an MBA application should be tailored to meet its purpose.
Typically, the resume includes:
- Any post-secondary education. It is time to take your high school off your resume if it is still there!
- Professional experiences/Work Experiences/Internship. How you list these depends greatly upon how deep you are into your professional career.
- Community Service/Volunteer Work/Interests: Most admissions offices want to see something of interest beyond your professional life.
Your resume is only one part of the application. By considering the other parts, you can determine which items are most important for your resume or which items could be included in other sections. Where is each piece of information best positioned in the application? Should information on your resume be repeated in another part of the MBA application? Should items on your resume be highlighted by your recommender?
Several top schools now include a “Professional Experience” portion of the application which seems redundant to your resume. It is not! This section is an opportunity to include more and additional information into your total application, to elaborate in a way that a one-page resume doesn’t allow. In the “Professional Experience” portion of the MBA application, an applicant is typically asked for their day-to-day duties and responsibilities. This allows you to describe your job in very accurate detail, while using the resume to summarize your “greatest hits.”
Those specific actions and impacts can be directly mapped from the inventory exercise described in “The Essay” above. From this inventory of examples, you can decide which ones most clearly demonstrate the skills and personal qualities that MBA programs are looking for in their applicants. The verbs that you use to describe this on the resume should be strong and declarative and the statements should result in an impact or outcome. Impacts and outcomes should be expressed quantitatively, if possible.
Once you have completed the educational and professional portions of the resume you have one section remaining: “Additional Information” or “Other Interest.” Here you can list languages, community service, and personal interests such as sports or hobbies. One thing the committee definitely doesn’t need is all the software you have mastered. Keep it high-level and interesting.
In addition to the content of the resume, there are a few other things that you should keep in mind.
- List all items in reverse chronological order.
- Stick to one or two fonts.
- Bold or underline, or both, but be consistent with your formatting choices.
- Line-up dates on the right so the reader can quickly scan through the chronology.
- Try not to leave any time gaps in your resume.
MBA Application Test Prep: Do I Take the GMAT, GRE, or EA?
One of these three tests is generally required for an MBA Application. Typically, two-year, full-time programs require a GMAT or GRE exam. EA (Executive Assessment) is now a common requirement for EMBA programs. To summarize a complex and controversial debate, it is generally believed that GRE is a little more difficult in the verbal sections and the GMAT is a little more difficult in the quantitative sections. It is not uncommon for STEM applicants to score perfectly or near perfectly in GRE quant, so know that will be your competition if you decide to submit this score.
Most MBA programs list a range of test scores or an average test score (Often the 25th percentile, mean, and 75th percentile). Scores have tended to inch up in recent years. The “why?” of this can be attributed to the schools’ need to meet external expectations like ratings reports. Note that GRE averages can be harder to find than GMAT scores. Not every program that accepts the GRE releases GRE score ranges or updates them every year. It’s a safe bet to guess a school’s GRE averages by comparing them with peers institutions that do release this data.
How do schools evaluate test scores? They are a data point that are taken into consideration along with your academic performance. For example, if you have a GPA over 3.3 and your score is within the range of a school’s program you are probably in good shape. If you have a stellar GPA like a 4.0 and a high test score, once again you are in good shape. If you have a high or low GPA and very low test scores, then you will probably have some explaining to do. If you have a low GPA and a high test score, you probably have some explaining to do. Depending on the severity of this disconnect and the reasons for it, you may choose to do that in the optional essay (usually a prompt something along the lines of “Is there anything else that we should know about your candidacy?”).
Letters of Recommendation for your MBA Application
The type of letter of recommendation and the source of that letter can vary depending upon the program. Some schools will require an immediate supervisor, some schools require at least a peer or colleague, and some programs may require a letter of recommendation from a former professor. It is important to understand the requirements early, because soliciting recommendations from busy people can take a while.
The purpose of the letter of recommendation is to get a third-party evaluation from a person who has observed your work. Once you have chosen your recommenders, it is important to meet with them to remind them of your past performance, highlights, goals and why you are seeking an MBA. This is best done after you have completed your inventory and your resume.
Top MBA programs share a common letter of recommendation process. However, most schools include at least one specialized question. Prepare your recommender by knowing what the questions are for each school and discuss the range of possible answers.
If the recommender is amenable, you can guide them on the specifics that you would like emphasized by giving them a list of bullet points. Inexperienced recommenders often gush without details, which won’t help your candidacy as much as detailing specific contributions and the challenges associated with each. Think of a story that “shows rather than tells.” That same logic applies to the LOR. Help your recommender show rather than tell by giving them the raw data to “show.”
Note of caution: It is well known that recommenders, particularly outside the U.S., sometimes ask applicants to write their own letter of recommendation. It is important that you refrain doing so. Admissions committees are aware of this practice and on the lookout for it. You want the Letter of Recommendation to be written in a different voice (different word choice, sentence construction, etc.) than your essays. The only way to guarantee this (and to make sure that your LOR isn’t flagged by the committee’s software) is to make sure that somebody else writes your letters of recommendation. Choose recommenders who are interested in your success and will not put you in this position.
The Video Component of an MBA Application
Videos are now almost a standard requirement in MBA applications, especially for highly ranked schools with lower yields. Yield is the percentage of accepted applicants who decide to attend the school. Because yield is an important metrics for rankings, schools with lower yields seek to improve it by selecting students that are likely to attend. While the basic personal statement essays often contain content recycled between schools, idiosyncratic video prompts require concerted school-specific effort. Applicants who “mail in” a school’s video prompt are effectively signaling to the Admissions Committee that their program isn’t worth the time/effort costs associated with a really slick application. This is useful data for the Admissions Committee seeking to improve their yield. The most important work that your video essay should do for you is signal to the school that you are enthusiastic and will attend if accepted.
The requirements for videos vary from school to school. They can range from a personal 1-minute direct-to-camera production on the topic of your choosing, to a series of randomly selected questions that you answer within a specific time frame.
A one-minute video can be thought of as a one-minute commercial. It should be focused, succinct, and any images should reinforce your message. The requirement of this format allows students to present themselves verbally, which may offer them an opportunity to highlight something that portrays itself well visually. A clean, well-delivered video can also convey confidence, language ability, and presentation style.
When crafting your one-minute video it is important to prepare a script of no more than 135-150 words. Deliver your message standing up—speaking with your full diaphragm will have more energy than a message delivered sitting down. Pay attention to what is in your background, your clothes, and the position of the camera.
If you are preparing to answer questions on a timed video, you can approach it the same way that you would prepare for an interview. Practice answers to random questions like: Why the MBA? What are your post-MBA Goals? Tell me about a time when you solved a critical problem for your team. Tell me about a time you failed.
Timed video platforms present a question, and give you a set amount of time to think about the answer and a set amount of time to answer the question. Familiarize yourself with the time constraints of the platform and practice answers that will meet the time limit.
It is best to dress professionally, avoid distractions in the background and position your camera properly; typically, the camera should be even with your forehead. Remember they want to see a little of your personality so don’t be afraid to smile or gesture.
The MBA Program Interview: Do I Need to Prepare?
Interview invitations are generally extended after written applications have been evaluated; some interviews are available by request. Interviews can be conducted by an individual basis with admissions staff, students, or alumni; or in group “team” interviews. Interviewers can conduct “blind” interviews (where the interviewer has only read your resume), or “non-blind” interviews (where the interviewer has read your whole application). Most interviews will be blind because students and alumni don’t have time to dig into a full application.
Blind interviews are often “fit” interviews. Since the interviewer doesn’t know what is in your written application, they may ask you questions that you have already answered. Be prepared to:
- Walk them through your resume
- Elaborate your short-term and long-term goals
- Demonstrate that you have a good knowledge of what the school’s program has to offer you and how you plan to take advantage of those opportunities.
- Offer examples of your leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills
The non-blind interview is usually with a member of the admissions staff. They have thoroughly read your application and are seeking additional information. Be prepared to:
- Elaborate details on essays that you have already submitted.
- Provide additional examples of your leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills beyond what you provided in your written application.
- Link your short-term and long-term goals to the offerings of the school’s MBA program.
- Demonstrate your knowledge of the program
Thus, the importance of school research.
How to Conduct Effective MBA School Research
Admissions staff look for evidence of an applicant’s knowledge of their MBA program. Many of the schools to which you are applying have a strong reputation or strong rankings; this is the low-hanging fruit. You need to demonstrate explain how you will take advantage of the many opportunities that will be available to you once you arrive on campus. It is also important for you to listen carefully in presentations, webinars, lectures, or individual conservations with students/alumni, etc. to find that one special thing that resonates deeply with you.
Connect with alums through your professional network or cold emailing to learn more about specific offerings at the school that are tailored to your background/aspirations. If you are solely relying on the school website for the content you use in your “why XYZ school” application essays, you are going to end up using the same content as many other people. That’s the low-hanging fruit. In business, extroversion and networking is rewarded. Signaling that you can cold network and mine your professional network for the best school-specific information bodes well for your ability to network your way to a top job during the fiercely competitive MBA recruiting process, and Admissions Committees are selecting for these traits.
The MBA application process is a rigorous, deep exploration of your skills, talents, and future ambitions. Throughout the process, it is important to keep focused on not just what you have done but how you have done it. There is no formula or specific path that the admissions team seeks. They are looking for individuals who have the academic horsepower to complete rigorous coursework, the professional experience to succeed in their target industry, the self-awareness to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and the kindness and sense of humor to be a good classmate.
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