How to put together a successful MBA application

 In most countries, applying to university is a simple matter that requires only a day or two of thought and effort. How well or poorly you do your application has little impact upon your admission results. MBA applications are fundamentally different. They require substantial effort, and your skill at marketing yourself will be a major determinant of your admission success.

Marketing yourself

Because MBA applications require you to submit a slew of material—essays, recommendations, a resume or CV, standardized test results (GMAT or GRE), lengthy descriptions of your work experience, and so on—and probably undergo an interview, you have loads of opportunity to impress.  You can do this in several ways.  ‘Position’ yourself to get full advantage of who you are, what you’ve done, and where you are headed.  Take advantage of the opportunity to present your objective data—credentials and experience—in their most favorable light.  (In other words, consider how to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.)  And best of all, tell your story—the character arc that describes how you have gotten to where you are now, including what you’ve learned about yourself and the world, and how you are going to take advantage of what you’ve learned in your post-MBA efforts.

To ensure that all the components of your MBA application best reflect your skills, aptitudes, and story, follow the tips below.

Basic online forms

Pay attention to how you present yourself in the basic online forms (where you describe your career and educational history and respond to short-answer questions).  Take care that what you say here is consistent with how you are presented in the essays, interviews, and recommendations.  Similarly, don’t overlook the opportunity to advance your case by showing, for example, the steady increase in your responsibilities and accomplishments.

Essays

If you intend to rely on your ‘numbers’ (GMAT score, undergraduate record, salary, etc.) to get you admitted to business school, you will be missing the opportunity to dramatically improve your chances.  In fact, the better the school, the more likely it is that the objective data in your application will not determine your fate and that your essays will weigh heavily in the decision.

Admissions officers will judge you on the basis of what your essays reveal about your writing ability (including your ability to persuade, structure, and maintain a well-reasoned argument, and communicate in an interesting and professional manner), honesty and maturity, understanding of what the programme offers and requires and how well you would contribute to it, and clear (and believable) ideas about where you are headed. They will want to learn what you have accomplished, who you are as a person, and how well you can communicate.

Popular Essay Questions

  • What are your goals for the future and how can an MBA help you reach them?
  • Why have you chosen this programme?
  • What are your most substantial accomplishments?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What have you done to help an organization change?
  • Describe a creative solution you’ve devised to a problem.
  • Describe a risk you’ve taken and its outcome.
  • What have you done that demonstrates your leadership potential?
  • Describe meaningful cross-cultural experiences you’ve had.
  • What do you do in your spare time?

Thus, essays offer you the chance to show schools who you really are.  Take advantage of this opportunity.  Referees can show only a part of who you are, since most of them are employers and have thus seen you in only one context, often for a limited time.  Similarly, interviews are not under your control to the same extent as the essays, which can be rewritten and re-examined to make sure that the ‘best you’ is presented.

Your essays can and should present a clear picture of you, but they do not need to tell all.  Sketching in the main points with appropriate stories will show who you are.  In fact, whenever possible, try to tell a story rather than write an essay.  The task will seem lighter.

This is your chance to choose which parts of your past and yourself to highlight, and to determine how people should view them.  This is a precious opportunity; take full advantage of the chance to colour your readers’ interpretations.

Recommendations

Schools generally ask for recommendations from two referees.  It is usually best to obtain both recommendations from employers or colleagues, who can address most of the key issues, rather than from former professors, who can seldom add much to the picture that emerges from your university transcript.

There are three cardinal rules that should be remembered when choosing your referees:

  • Rule 1: Choose people who know you well. Don’t choose people who are famous or important if they won’t be able to discuss your candidacy and performance in detail.  Instead, choose people who can make the recommendation credible by illustrating their points with anecdotes that show you at your best.
  • Rule 2: Choose people who genuinely like you — they will take the time to write a polished, carefully considered recommendation.
  • Rule 3: Choose people who can address more than one of the key subjects: your intellectual ability, your managerial and leadership potential, your personal attributes, and your career plan.

It’s often worth scheduling formal meetings with your referees, and providing them with written information about your goals and reminders of your accomplishments.

At a minimum, explain why you are seeking an MBA, why you have chosen the schools you have, and your application strategy.  You might also give them an outline of what you want discussed, including the examples that you think best demonstrate your capabilities and performance. 

Which Essays To Start With?

If you do multiple applications, an important issue is which essay or set of essays should be your starting point.  Do not write essays piecemeal—one essay from each of several schools’ applications.  Instead, complete a full set of essays for one school before tackling another essay set for another school. 

This will allow you to:

  • Get your overall positioning strategy in place.
  • Think hard about what attributes and experiences you have to offer.
  • Make sure you are discussing the right stories and examples (those that illustrate key points you wish to make).
  • Balance the professional and personal elements you discuss (about 75/25 is a good rule of thumb for a typical applicant).

Start with whichever application requires you to write the most, but try to avoid ones that force you to write either very lengthy or very short answers to each question because you will develop habits that will be hard to break when writing essays for other schools.

Within a given school’s set of essays, consider starting with the usual ‘Why do you want an MBA?’ essay.  You are likely to be unsuccessful writing the other essays if you have not thought carefully about your future career.  It will be extremely helpful to know where you are heading—at least in a general sense—when you try to answer many of the other essay questions.  If you cannot answer this question, consider waiting before applying to business school.

Interviews

Interviews offer schools an ideal opportunity to learn much more about you.  Some things are not readily apparent without a face-to-face meeting, such as your charm, persuasiveness, presence, and business manner.  The greater emphasis upon soft skills in MBA programmes means that personality and social skills are considered more important than they were in the past.  Interviews also provide an opportunity to probe any areas that were insufficiently explained in the application.

Application timing

Most applicants underestimate the amount of time that a successful MBA application requires.  The reality is that many of the necessary steps are very time-consuming.  For example, contacting referees, briefing them, and allowing them time to write a recommendation will take weeks (or months) rather than days.  Timing is particularly important when you apply to several schools rather than just one.

Try to begin the application process a year before you would like to start at business school.  Therefore, if you anticipate beginning in September, you would be wise to start getting your material together in June of the preceding year.  Business schools generally require that applications be submitted from three to eight months before the start of the programme.  Apply as early in each school’s application cycle as you can, unless you expect your credentials to improve dramatically later in the application period.

Top Interviewing Tips

  • Establish your objectives—e.g., making a good impression, conveying your strengths, and explaining what you could potentially bring to a programme.
  • Prepare for the most likely questions. Be ready to explain why you want an MBA and why now, why you want to attend the school, and what you can contribute.
  • Know the programme and the school, and be ready to ask questions. The school wants to see that you are curious and enthusiastic about its programme.
  • Undertake mock interviews with friends who are applying to similar programmes.  Consider interviewing first with the schools that matter least to you, in order to gain experience and confidence.
  • In the interview, listen for clues as to what the interviewer values. Picking up on these values will help you to establish a report.

Conclusions

Succeeding in the MBA application process requires strategic thinking, sound planning, organizational skill, persuasive ability, and lots of hard work—in other words, it is good training for the MBA itself.

For further help in the process, contact me directly (rmontauk@aol.com) or consult my book (see below for details).

Richard Montauk is the author of How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs, currently in its sixth edition.  The book, a bestseller in multiple countries, is generally regarded as the most analytical and comprehensive guide to the business school application process.  It is based in part on his 25+ years of consulting to applicants and in part on his in-depth interviews with the admissions and career service deans at the world’s top business schools.


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