How Do I Get into Business School?

Applicants to MBA programs can take several steps that can improve their chances of getting into an MBA program. The analysis and recommendations presented here on BSchools represent the collective wisdom of some of the most astute analysts and observers of graduate management education in the world.

Discover how to find MBA programs that better match your objectives and improve your chances for admission to better business schools, including information about exams, essays, and a guide to how application reviewers weigh various factors.

Also, explore how part-time and executive programs may be a better fit for some students’ backgrounds, as well as why hiring an admissions consultant may be a wise idea.

Figure Out Objectives and Values

Ideally, MBA candidates need a good sense of their specific objectives and values before they start the application process. The objectives are especially important. Admission committee members (“adcoms”) want applicants with clear goals that require MBA degrees from their schools to advance their careers. Recommenders must know a candidate’s goals before they write reference letters.

Furthermore, arguing a compelling and cohesive case for admission in both application essays and interviews will require that a candidate understands their goals and values, along with distinctive personal qualities that form their “unique selling proposition.”

Research MBA Programs Thoroughly

Displaying a thorough understanding of the reasons an applicant believes they will thrive at a specific school can impress admission committee members in essays and interviews. Considering the substantial investments in time and money required to obtain an MBA from a better school, candidates need to make sure that the programs they’re evaluating fit their career objectives, as well as campus culture and learning environment preferences.

Start Early on GMAT Prep & Essays

Insufficient lead time is probably the most frequently cited mistake in the application process. Applicants should note that every business school has different application deadlines and start dates, so timing can get tricky. Particularly when submitting scores from the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Some schools require the completion of these tests before candidates file their applications, although there’s evidence of test scores’ waning significance in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Students ideally need to begin preparing their applications several months before application deadlines. Poets & Quants suggests that one cannot complete this process in less than four months and that those admitted to schools like Harvard and Stanford may start two years prior!

While this may seem like an extraordinary lead time, prospective MBA students need first to consider how long it may take them to prepare for the GMAT. Preparing for the GMAT alone can take a year, especially for those who are fully employed. What’s more, essay writing for candidates applying to ten or more schools can also require several months.

Without careful planning, it is easy for applications to pile up and collide. The vast majority of students will apply to several programs. What this means is that under deadline pressure, a zero-sum game ensues, where time spent completing one application can take time away from another one, which, in the most desperate cases, can lead to errors or omissions that can quickly disqualify their candidacy at both schools. No graduate school applicant ever wants to subject themselves to such intense yet avoidable stress.

Overall, advance knowledge and preparation can prevent error-triggered disqualifications.

Understand How Admission Committees Weigh Application Components

How admission committees weigh application components often differs from the presuppositions of many candidates. More accurate estimates of these weights help candidates make better decisions about how to allocate their resources during the application process.

For example, many schools increasingly place tremendous weight on GMAT scores compared to other application components. A 2015 survey found admission consultants believe that GMAT scores now account for a fifth of the weight—about 22 percent—in MBA program admission decisions.

The article reports: “GMAT scores are thought to be more than twice as influential in MBA admission decisions as undergraduate grade point averages, nearly three times more critical than either recommendation letters [or] employer prestige, and almost four times more important than the undergraduate college an applicant attended.”

After a GMAT score, the consultants believe the following parts of an MBA application are most important: essays (14.5 percent), admission interviews (12.1 percent), undergraduate GPAs (10.3 percent), recommendation letters (7.6 percent), employer prestige (7.3 percent), college or university attended (5.9 percent), and extracurricular involvement (5.7 percent).

Far less significant, believe the consultants, are such factors as the number of years of work experience (4.7 percent), a candidate’s industry background (3.1 percent), international experience (3.0 percent), undergraduate major (2.4 percent), or fluency in other languages (1.4 percent).

But why have scores on a test eclipsed so many other factors? According to the survey, “exam scores are factored in annual rankings published by U.S. News & World Report and The Economist and the emerging view is that a school’s average GMAT score is an overall proxy for the quality of students it enrolls.”

The GMAT: Request a Waiver or Hire a Tutor

Only a small proportion of MBA program candidates do well on this difficult test. Furthermore, as we discuss below, knocking out the GMAT—either through a waiver or by applying to executive MBAs or other programs that do not require it—boosts the emphasis a school will devote to other application components over which the candidate has more control than test scores.

GMAT waivers are especially common in online MBA programs. Many applicants who apply to online programs don’t provide GMAT or GRE scores because they typically have enough work experience or a high enough undergraduate GPA to qualify for GMAT waivers.

Candidates applying to one of the 45 percent of MBA programs that still require the GMAT should understand another essential point: even at top schools, part-time programs generally have less competitive admissions with lower standards for GMAT scores.

By contrast, candidates applying to top full-time residential programs will need strong GMAT scores to win entry. They would be wise to hire tutors, if affordable, or at least register for top-quality GMAT prep courses. Scholarship offers because of high GMAT scores can sometimes offset the costs of tutors and prep courses. This article profiles some of the habits of GMAT test takers who scored above 700—in the top 10 percent worldwide.

For more about GMAT and GRE waivers, see our FAQs on What is a GMAT Waiver and When Might the GMAT Requirement be Waived? and GMAT Waiver vs. No GMAT Requirement.

Hire an Admission Consultant

Note that in the survey above, three of the four most important application components below the GMAT—essays, interviews, and recommendation letters—amount to almost 35 percent of the total weight. These are the components with which admission consultants can help the most, which is why working with a consultant can certainly improve one’s chances of admission at a highly-ranked school. One discussion forum comment from an MBA student at Northwestern University mused, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who didn’t use an admissions consultant.”

Most applicants who aspire to enroll at one of the world’s most popular business schools, such as the Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business (which only admits 5 percent of applicants) are likely going to need these consultants’ help to gain admission. Even if applicants have five years of experience with one of these schools’ prestigious “feeder” corporations like McKinsey, a 3.9 GPA, and a 750 score on the GMAT, competition for spots at these schools is still too intense to face without coaching by professionals.

Candidates should choose wisely after thoroughly researching consultants. For more about admission consultants, see our guides How to Write a Great MBA Personal Statement and What Are The Typical Requirements For Admission to MBA Programs?

Apply to Part-Time and Executive Programs

Experts generally agree that there’s less competition for admission at part-time MBA programs. Less competition means it’s easier to get in since an applicant stands a higher probability of acceptance. Additionally, one may be able to win entry to better schools offering more influential alumni networks and affiliation with more powerful university brands by applying to a school’s part-time rather than full-time division. And a typical school’s part-time division usually includes executive MBA programs as well.

According to admissions consultant Natalie Grinblatt Epstein, a former MBA admissions dean, and director at Cornell and the University of Michigan:

Aggregated, the part-time applicant pool is not as competitive or as diverse in terms of admissions as schools typically receive fewer applications, and they are limited to their immediate region and the industries that dominate that industry… As much as schools say the quality of the full-time students and the part-time students are the same, the quality is dependent on location and how that location generates applications. Bigger cities have an easier time of attracting great applicants to their part-time program and can maintain higher quality standards, but full-time programs generate applications from around the globe, and it’s much easier to pick and choose candidates for admission.

Dramatic differences in applicant competition exist between some schools’ full-time and part-time or executive divisions. For those interested in a part-time or executive program at a top-tier school, this excerpt from a 2019 analysis by Poets & Quants’ Jeff Schmitt deserves a close reading:

“What are your better odds: 20.7 percent or 51.1 percent?

The second one? That’s right. Who wouldn’t pick a 1-in-2 shot over 1-in-5? That’s the difference in acceptance rate between the Wharton School’s executive and full-time MBA programs. Think those odds are in your favor? Head to the University of Michigan, where the full-time and executive MBA program rates stand at 27.1 percent and 76.3 percent—or a near 50 percent difference.

Wondering if that dynamic only applies to executive programs? Think again! At NYU Stern, the full-time acceptance rate is a moderate 23.2 percent. Care to guess what the part-time rate is? Try 68.1 percent, with part-time averages ranging from 51.4 percent (Carnegie Mellon) to 90.0 percent (Ohio State). You’ll find a similar trend with online programs. The University of Florida is a case in point, where the difference between the full-time and online rates is 18.8 percent vs. 45.8 percent respectively.”

Nowhere do the competitive differences between full-time and part-time or executive programs display so prominently as in GMAT scores. Consider the top 50 MBA programs as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Schmitt points out that with a 706 average score, full-time MBAs scored 83 points higher than the 623 average scored by the part-time cohort. The margin was about the same between the full-time and executive programs, but at two universities (Emory and Vanderbilt), the difference was over 100 points.

However, keep in mind that many top executive MBA programs have either opted out of requiring the GMAT or, like with most online MBA programs, will waive the requirement in exchange for sufficient work experience.

For more about part-time and executive programs, see our guides MBA vs. Professional MBA vs. Executive MBA Programs, Is a Part-Time MBA Program Worth It? and What is an Executive MBA Program (EMBA)?

Be Authentic

Candidates need to present themselves as unique and genuine individuals and not present fake “false selves” they believe will better sell their candidacies to an admission committee. Applicants need to convey authenticity through their application essays as well as interviews.

Kathryn Balestreri, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, told Clear Admit:

Don’t spend so much time on thinking through how to fit a certain mold to get an acceptance. Be your authentic self; in your essays, speak about what’s truly most important to you. Spend the time soul-searching. If you take this approach, you will have a better sense of whether or not there’s a ‘fit’ between you and the school culture. When you get an acceptance, it’s going to feel so good to know that they want the real, raw ‘you.’

Visit the School

A campus visit is an invaluable way for a candidate to tell if an MBA program amounts to a good fit. When I visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business as a prospective applicant, I attended three classes and talked with a group of students over lunch. These students included my “ambassador” for the day, a Harvard grad whom Goldman Sachs had hired for a summer internship. Each of these students told me in detail what they believed were the deciding factors that won their admissions. I also spoke with the professors in each class I attended, as well as a couple of student club presidents.

Furthermore, inside knowledge about the school’s culture and strengths can be useful for candidates in deciding where they want to apply. And often the students one meets on these visits serve as valuable networking contacts who are willing to offer advice later. Candidates should schedule these visits at least nine to 18 months before application deadlines.

Talk With Students and Alumni

Even without a visit to the campus, it’s always a good idea to talk with students and alumni through the school’s ambassador program for potential applicants. Alumni are often just as willing as students to answer questions and to talk about the factors they believe made the difference in winning their admissions; they can often be more candid than students when talking about the school’s weaknesses as well as strengths. Like with campus visits, networking like this also helps to establish contacts to whom applicants can reach out in the future.

Attend an MBA Fair

MBA fairs are admissions and networking events held in dozens of cities across the United States and around the world where aspiring MBAs can meet representatives from many business schools in a single location.

MBA fairs are all about personal connections. School gatekeepers travel to these events to meet well-qualified applicants. Moreover, the savviest candidates understand that connecting in a personal way with a school’s admissions team can award those applicants with their most critical advantage in the entire admissions process: a great lasting impression.

In some cases, impressions gained through these personal connections can practically guarantee admission to a top school. Consider this anecdote from Emma Bond, a former senior admissions manager at the London Business School and currently a director with the admissions consulting firm Fortuna Admissions:

“I was at an MBA fair in Seoul. I met a Japanese-Brazilian working in South Korea with a background in automotive manufacturing. He was professional, engaging and friendly, and had an interesting international profile that was a good LBS fit, but he didn’t have great stats. So when he later applied I actually remembered him and the impression he’d made and was able to say, ‘Yes, this guy is great, he’d contribute,’ and he was eventually offered a place.”

Encounters like these embody the ultimate aspiration of any prospective MBA applicant. Leaving this kind of lasting, face-to-face impression with an admissions officer can prove invaluable.

“The dialogue that occurs is often much richer if you are present with somebody in person,” says Kelly Wilson, the executive admissions director at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “I can get a better sense for who a candidate is in person, I believe, than I can over the phone or via email.”

For more about MBA fairs, including an upcoming schedule, see our guide, List of MBA Conferences.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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