Business School Admissions: Answers for the road to your top ten MBA application

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Business School Admissions: Twenty two answers for the road to your MBA application

I wrote these answers 10 years ago. I had just started at business school and the pain of the business school admissions process to a top ten MBA program was fresh in my mind. Other business school applicants were now asking the same questions, I had asked myself a few months earlier.

A decade and change later I can still look back to the days leading to the decision to apply to business school, the application process, the dreaded GMAT CAT, the unending editing application essays cycle, the last three days that stretched into hours of stress, tension and last minute crisis before the applications were Fedexed to New York, Boston and Philly. I also remember the letters of rejection, the waitlist decision from Columbia, the US embassy’s denial of my F-1 visa application in London, our first day on campus in New York, day one of orientation and the exhilaration of taking my first MBA elective course at Columbia Business School.

Admittedly the world around us has changed. Ten years later I now teach at business school, mentor prospective students and business school applicants, interview candidates on their way to a top ten MBA program, hire graduates coming out of the MBA program and run businesses into the ground for a living. While the relevance and sanity of all of these answers is not guaranteed, some of these answers are still worth looking into. I don’t think they will ever be dated.

Still you are a grown up kid now. You should know when to trust complete strangers who name themselves after disgusting insects and when to listen to the voice inside your head.   If you do hear a voice inside your head there are some excellent self help books available for people with self contained AM/FM stations within their cranium.

1. What is an MBA?

2. I am thinking about an MBA. What do I need to do immediately

3.  What does an average candidate to a top ten MBA program looks like

4. What constitutes a strong application to a top ten business school

5. What are my chances of admissions to a top ten business school

6. How can I improve them

7. Any recommended reading that may give me an edge in my applications to a top ten MBA program

8. How many business schools should I apply to

9. Does it make a difference if you are an international student

10. Which business schools are currently ranked in the top ten business school list

11. So which business schools do I choose

12. Should I apply to Harvard Business School? What are my chances

13. What attributes does the MBA admission committee looks for in candidates

14. How do I finance my MBA

15. Is it really worth spending all that money on a 4 semester program

16. How are the MBA programs in Europe different from the programs in US

17. What do I need to know about the GMAT

18. What do I need to know about TOEFL

19. Should I apply early or late to a top ten MBA program

20. I have sent in my business school application, what do I do now

21. I have been waitlisted by the admissions committee

22. I have been rejected by the admissions committee

1. What is an MBA?

It’s a graduate degree in Business Administration. Could range from a year to two years, 15-22 courses and a tuition bill anywhere between US$ 40,000 (some good schools in the south) to US$ 100,000 (the expensive ones in the north east).  The business education normally covers 10 courses in core subjects such as Accounting, Finance, Management, Economics and Management Science. The remaining 5-12 courses are electives that a candidate selects depending on what he plans to do in life immediately after his MBA.  The course derives its value form the strong Alumni Networks (at some schools), the strong (but cyclical) demand for MBA graduates, their rising salaries and a very market oriented (or focused) education.

Folk wisdom (as found on the internet and at some of the top BSchools) indicates that if it is worth doing, its only worth doing from one of the top ten (if possible) or the top thirty (if not) programs in the world. Hence the business school rating game. Every year (or alternate) any publication worth its cover publishes a rating of MBA programs. Over the past 15 years the ratings have turned into a really big show. Results are eagerly awaited and Deans have been asked to stay or leave office depending on their success in maintaining or improving their school’s position.

What is the return on your investment now? 10 years ago, tuitions were about half 2010 levels and first year MBA salaries were about 15% lower. You can do the math.

2. I am thinking about an MBA. What do I need to do immediately?

It depends on what time of the year it is. If it is April then you have just started the cycle and you have close to nine months to get everything sorted out.  If it is September then there is still some time left and you need to get started in a hurry. If it is January and if you can afford it then you should wait till April. If you are a compulsive gambler and feel the odds are acceptable you may give it a shot.

In order to apply you need to do the following:

  • Think why do you want to do an MBA? What do you plan to get out of the experience? Is there a cheaper or easier way that would allow you to achieve the same objectives?
  • While you are thinking, get in touch with all of the schools that you may be interested in attending. Get your name on the mailing list of outgoing information and catalogs. If possible try to get a list of local alum in your region and get in touch with them. Alumni are generally very helpful and a valuable source of information about schools, programs and admission policies.
  • Start preparing for GMAT and TOEFL (if you are an international student).
  • Try to get hold of essay topics for last year, BSchool catalogs for last year or even BSchool applications from last year. A good source for these are admission forums, MBA admissions forums and well structured Google searches.
  • Learn to search the internet with the right key words, if you haven’t done it as yet. There is tremendous amount of information available on the net that you will prove to be a very valuable ally over the next 9-12 months.
  • Start visiting the Princeton Review, KAPLAN GMAT prep site or any other site that has a discussion forum for prospective MBA applicants.
  • Give the GMAT and TOEFL (only if you are an international student)
  • Short list the list of schools that may wish to attend
  • Apply.

It is as simple as that!

3.  What does an average candidate to a top ten MBA program looks like?

Different standards for different tiers! The profile of an average candidate to a top ten Business School is

Work Experience range: 2 – 6 years
GMAT score range:  620 – 790
GPA Range :  2.8 – 4.0
Age Range: 21 – 40

Upto 30% of potential applicants are women and another 30-35% are international students but the mix changes depending on the economic cycle, the location of the school and the regional employment prospects.

Lower tier schools have broader or shorter ranges.

4. What constitutes a strong application to a top ten business school?

No set formula as such. You should have very strong essays. A perfect rejection is a candidate who has good scores and academics but has no idea why he or she needs an MBA.  A good GMAT score or a great GPA by itself may or may not mean anything. Once you get the essays right, getting the right GMAT score is a question of practice. A lower GPA can be ignored if you have been out of school for quite some time and everything else in your application is a-okay.

A strong application varies from candidate to candidate. The admission process is very subjective so there are no guarantees. Schools also look for a fit with the program and with other candidates. Recently some of them have started taking active yield management measures. Although they won’t admit it in simple terms it means that if they think that you are too good for them, they won’t make you an offer. Unless and until they are very sure that you will enroll in their program.

The top ten are very selective. The most selective picks 7% of all applicants. The least selective allows 25% through the gate.

5. What are my chances of admissions to a top ten business school?

There is only one way to find out. Give it a shot. Believe in yourself and produce the best possible application that you can generate and then throw it at the school. You never know.

If anybody tells you that your GMAT score is too low or your GPA is too low or your experience is not relevant or you will never make it… Ignore them. There are a lot of exceptions to the rules each year, you will never find out till you actually try.

6. How can I improve them?

If you do have a good GMAT score, a good GPA, 4+ years of experience, a way with words and apply early your odds of making it are significantly higher. Remember it is an information economy now so get as much info as possible about the school, about the admission office, about the program, about the students and about yourself before you send in the application. It is the most informed candidate who makes it to the orientation day.

7. Any recommended reading that may give me an edge in my applications to a top ten MBA program?

Read ‘Year One’ to get an idea of what an MBA at HBS is like. It is a light read so you won’t have a problem.  If you are the Stanford type, read ‘Snapshots from Hell’. Read ‘Resume for Dummies’ to get a grip on what you have done so far at work.  Get the school catalog’s as early as possible so you can get an idea of the personality of the school. Visit the school magazine sites, student blogs and alumni blogs as frequently as possible (once every 15 days is good enough). Try to get in touch with some of the authors and editors at these blogs and get their feedback on their schools.

8. How many business schools should I apply to?

Your call completely. I applied to three schools and only made it to one. And let me tell you that it was very close. A bit here and a bit there and this post would have been about ‘How to handle your application’s rejections’ or ‘Alternatives Graduate Programs if you didn’t make it to a top five MBA’. But I also know candidates who only applied to two schools and got into both as well as candidates who applied to nine schools and were rejected by all of them.

You need to maintain a balance between the quality of the application you send out and maximizing your chances of getting into one program of your choice. This means different things to different people so there are no set-in-stone rules here. A single application is risking it a bit and more than six or seven may result in your spreading yourself too thin.

9. Does it make a difference if you are an international student?

Oh yes, it does. First of all despite of what the schools say you can forget about financial aid. As an international student it is next to impossible to get financial aid for an MBA program, specially a top ten MBA program. Exceptions however have been made for 15 year old, extra terrestrial alien prodigies. Everybody told me this and I didn’t believe it till I found out the hard way. That is the bad news. The good news is that you would be looking at a slightly better selection rate. Depending on which country you are coming from, you may be competing against 5-40 candidates. If you are not coming from French New Guinea, you may probably be looking at a 15-20% selection rate for your country. Which improves the odds somewhat in your favor (remember that a good school has an overall selection rate of between 11-14%, and when yours is one of the 7000 applications every single percentage point counts).

But the other things that you have to worry about are financing your education and getting your F-1 Visa stamped and processed in time. While conditions have improved dramatically on the visa front, they have deteriorated by just as much on the funding and financing side. In the absence of a job market, the opportunity cost of your MBA has certainly gone done but then the same could be said for the post MBA world.

10. Which business schools are currently ranked in the top ten business school list?

There is no such thing as order within the top ten business school. But there are three tiers. Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are considered the top tier. Stanford has a selection rate of 7% and a reputation to match.  Wharton and Harvard each receive around 7,000 applications for their 1000 seats.  All three schools have a very strong brand and an MBA from any three of these is good enough (understatement of the year).

There are around nine to ten second tier schools. These would be MIT Sloan, Columbia, Tuck, Kellog, Chicago, Cornell, Yale, Michigan, Darden, Haas, Andersen, INSEAD and LBS.  Not necessarily in that order.  They are just as different from each other as H/S/W are similar. An MBA from any of these is also very respectable. But remember each school has its own personality, strengths and weaknesses. Based on your personal goals and objectives, a second tier school with a specific profile and location may be much more suitable to your needs than a first tier program. Getting dinged by MIT and Wharton and getting wait listed at Columbia Business School is certainly on the top three on the list of best things that ever happened to me.

That brings us to the third tier, which generally speaking includes all remaining MBA programs. There are top 30 and top 50 lists available on the internet if you look hard enough. However, if you are planning to fork twenty to forty thousand dollars a year in tuition, I wouldn’t go beyond the first two tiers.

11. So which business schools do I choose?

The schools you choose are a function of the following:

Which geographic region do you want to live in for the next five years?

Which industry you want to work in?

Which concentration do you want to graduate with?

The following Folk wisdom is generally well respected.

An east coast school is great for an east coast placement and a west coast school is ……. But there are always exceptions and this is not as applicable as it used to be.

The top ten are great for placements within Investment Banking, Management Consulting and some other key industries. Anything beyond these may require an individual effort on your part.

All schools have one or two specializations in which they really stand out. The most quoted subjects are:

  • General Management.
  • Finance
  • Marketing
  • Enterprenuership
  • Financial Reporting
  • Technology

12. Should I apply to Harvard Business School? What are my chances?

All good Business Schools look for leaders or leadership potential. Their angle is very simple. They try to select candidate who already have a very high probability of succeeding in life. An MBA may further polish such candidates but they would leave their mark on the world even if they skipped their MBA plans. So after spending two years of your life if you make a success of yourself over the next five years what does the school get out of it? For one it says very proudly:

‘Do you remember Warren Buffet. He is a Columbia Graduate.’
‘Do you know Nike’s founder. He wrote his business plan at Stanford’
‘The king of Junk Bonds. Wharton polished his killer instincts’

If you succeed or if you turn out to be one of those strong ICONS of the corporate world you reinforce the myth that attending Business School is a must for success.

If you think that you are a strong leader and that you have proved that leadership potential over the past few years of your experience, you should definitely give it a shot. Business School may not be all that it’s made out to be, but it is great fun and given your perspective on life you can actually come out with a great education.

13. What attributes does the MBA admission committee looks for in candidates?

Tough question! They look for diversity above all, strong academic history, indicators that you will be able to take the workload, adjust to the life style and would add value (somehow) to the educational experience of the rest of your classmates. They look for signs that you would come to their school if it comes to a choice, that you are serious about your MBA and you have thought about it, that you understand the commitment involved in terms of time and finances. Above all they expect you to somehow express all of the above concisely in a handful of words and not bore them to death.

14. How do I finance my MBA?

If you have money no problem! If you are not an international student no problem. If you are international student then we need to sit down and talk.  Most schools offer financial aid in one form or the other. The most common are Federal subsidized loans and work study programs. The least common are grants. You need to check with the school if International Students can apply for these or not. Even if they say yes, try to dig a little deeper and get the actual figures for the amounts involved and the number of students who receive aid. However given the financial crisis in the last two years the ability of financial institutions to tap funding and financing sources for student loans has dramatically decreased, restricting the number of options available for funding and financing for international business school students.

That is the basic ground work. After the first year all MBA program have a summer break and 90% of students use the break for a summer internship in the industry area of their choice. For the 10-12 weeks that you spend with your summer employer you can earn anything ranging from 6,000 US$ to 20,000 US$. There are students who get away with even higher amounts. This will obviously go a long way towards improving your life style over the next six months. If you have been a dedicated summer intern, some industries make you a firm offer for next year. This may make things a little easier for you when the recruitment crunch starts in November – February cycle of the last year at school.

Some industries (again not all) offer a substantial signing bonus and a guaranteed end of first year bonus to fresh MBA’s. For instance investment banking offers for Class of 2011 summer interns included a base pay of US$ 100,000, a sign on bonus of US$ 40,000, an added sign on bonus of a few thousand if you signed before early October, and a relocation allowance of US$ 10,000. This is in addition to the summer internship compensation of US$10,000 a month for two and a half months. Alternatively other industries may not offer a sign on bonus but may offer to reimburse the second year of tuition expenses as an interest free loan that can be adjusted against your future earnings.

So the three possible sources of financing your MBA are:

  • Your savings (if any) from your summer internship earnings
  • Your signing on bonus and your guaranteed end of first year bonus or the tuition reimbursement (available one year after graduation, not available for all industries)
  • Your personal savings

And what are your expenses. You are looking at the following over the next two years:

$50,000 – 100,000 in tuition and other related school charges

$12,000 – 24,000 in rent

$12,000 – 24,000 in living expenses

The net result! You are still short of a significant amount.  The key shortage is your first year tuition and living expenses.  This is the money that you need to take care of before you start school.  If you are an international student this is the amount that you need to show before the school will issue you your I-20 and before the US embassy will issue an F-1 visa.

15. Is it really worth spending all that money on a 4 semester program?

It depends on what your objectives are and what you plan to do afterwards with your MBA.  There are studies available on the return on total investment for all top programs. If the MBA fits in with your plan and will help you getting into the industry that you want to or achieve your career objectives then it is a good deal. If you just wish to take two year off from your life and go back to school, it is a great educational experience and is unlike any other comparable graduate degree. If you just wish to reinforce your concepts or get on the same level as some of your peers, friends or seniors, it still makes sense. Even if you just want access to the Alumni network, it’s a good bet. As long as your objective is to upgrade your business skill set, go ahead.

But remember. An MBA is not a technology degree. An MS would be a better choice. Although schools offer courses on MIS within an MBA program, you would be better off taking the more technical route.  An MBA would not launch your new entrepreneurial setup. You have to do that yourself. An MBA is also no guarantee that you will have a great job with a terrific salary within the US when you graduate. The placement rates of the Great Schools are not 100%. They used to hover around 97% but have been sliding downwards consistently since the recession that started in 2001. And in the current economic environment with 9.6% unemployment, they are not likely to improve any time soon. That means for every 900 fresh graduates with a job there are going to be a few without one. You just need to make sure you are not on that list. Keep that in mind before you take the leap.

The Bottom Line. An MBA is what you make it.


16. How are the MBA programs in Europe different from the programs in US?

Three key differences:

  • With the possible exception of London Business School most European programs are one year long. US programs as a rule are two years long.
  • With the possible exception of INSEAD, the name recognition and Alumni networks of US schools is generally stronger than European school.
  • Although European schools have a relatively higher international student ratio a large percentage of these students are from Europe, so the diversification kick you are looking for is generally missing.
  • Top US schools have a larger applicant pool and maybe three times more selective than some of the top European schools.

The MBA is a US concept. It gets its real value from interactive students, the case method, great professors, the MBA brand and the reach of Alumni networks. It will take some time before European school will be able to effectively compete on all of the above factors. If you think I am asking you to go to a US school you can definitely read between the lines.


17. What do I need to know about the GMAT?

You really need to score and the score does matter. That is the bad news. The good news is that it is just a practice test. If you only have twenty days, get hold of 20 real ETS tests and take one test under exam conditions every day. That is the easiest way to break seven hundred. The one complication is the CAT. However, by giving the paper and pencil (P&P) and doing well on the old P&P you can predict your CAT score reasonably well (plus minus 10-50 points).

18. What do I need to know about TOEFL?

If your native language is not English, if your schooling has been in a non-english environment, then you need to take TOEFL. Preparing for the GMAT is normally adequate preparation in the written preparation of TOEFL. The listening portion is not a problem normally except for certain test centers where echo makes it really difficult to make out what the tape is about. If you have a problem with Echo when they are testing the equipment be sure to point it out very aggressively since nobody is going to listen to your complaints during or after the test. And they are definitely not going to refund your money.


19. Should I apply early or late to a top ten MBA program?

Early if possible. But don’t send in a lousy application because you ran out of time. Send in a really polished one and send it in time. Which means that you need to start as early as April and no later than August. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.


20. I have sent in my business school application, what do I do now?

Relax. I know it is hard but relax. Read up more about the schools. If you haven’t been interviewed, prepare for a phone interview by getting comfortable with your application.  If you haven’t given your tests (GMAT & TOEFL) get a grip on them. Start thinking about financing your education. Get in touch with potential sources of student loans. If you haven’t made contacts with students at your favorite schools, start now. Go see the Alum in your region if you haven’t done so.  Use the insights about yourself that you have gleaned through the admissions process to think about what you really want out of life.


21. I have been waitlisted by the admissions committee

Only a few possibilities here. The school is thinking, in order of importance.

  • You are good but you may be too good for us. We are not sure if we make you an offer you will come to us.
  • Everything else is okay but we are not sure about a few things. We need more information from you.
  • We are not sure that you will be able to pay for your education or that you have thought this out completely.
  • We are not sure if you really need an MBA or what are you going to do with it.

The first thing you now need to do is get more proactive. There is some confusion about what proactive means. There is only one definition: being visible in a nice sort of a way. You want them to know that you are around but in you are not exactly in their way. First of all ask the reason why you have been wait listed and what you can do to change your status. In order to change your status you need to be sincere about going to this specific school.  Admissions officers can smell a fake from a distance.  So if you are really serious about this school make sure you tell them. Not just that the school is important but the things that you have done so far that indicate that this specific school is on the top of your list.

Once you have done this stay in touch. Use every additional stay-in-touch mail/email/phone call to further strengthen your case. Writing or mailing is preferable over phone calls because these are high visibility/long life/low disturbance mediums. Getting an admission’s officer on phone in March/April may be a bit difficult.

If you ask what are your chances you may get a vague answer in the beginning. You need to work on this. If you ask how many people are there on the wait list, you won’t get an answer. If you ask where exactly you are on the wait list, very few schools will tell you. This is going to be a very frustrating period but you need to keep at it and you need to maintain an extremely positive outlook.


22. I have been rejected by the admissions committee?

Rejection is normally very difficult to handle. It is tougher if you miss out on all the schools that you applied to. It also depends on how desperate you were to go to school in the first place. Under any circumstances, after putting a good part of the last four months on the admission cycle its really very tough to get the ‘We won’t be able to offer you a place in next year’s class’.

You now need to look forward. Did you get into any school at all? Is that school worth going to? Was that one of your key choices? How will going to this school change your long term plans?

But what if you didn’t make it. Four months and a few hundred dollars down (a few thousand if you paid for GMAT prep) you have been left standing by the side of the road while everybody else has simply packed up and left. It’s not over as yet. Did you really need that MBA to make it big in life? I mean, it is a terrific opportunity and your family would have been floored by your acceptance at HBS but is it really the end of the world?

No, it is not. You can still start your own show, you can still change the world, you can still live in Boston, you can still make your first million. You have just saved yourself quarter of a million dollars in educational expenses and lost opportunity costs.  If this is not enough consolation you still have next year. As a re-applicant your chances would probably be higher. Get in touch with the school and get their feedback on the reasons for your rejection. Then do something about them.

4 thoughts on “Business School Admissions: Answers for the road to your top ten MBA application”

  1. Enjoyed reading it…It made so much sense…Unlike corporate speak, this was concise ,relevant and funny! 🙂 many thanks…

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