Business School Admissions Guide: What Are Typical MBA Application Requirements?
What can aspiring MBA candidates expect during the application process?
Much of the information and analysis presented below will seem more relevant to those who have familiarized themselves with how business schools decide to admit candidates. For example, this Fortune magazine article reveals the inner workings of an actual admissions committee at the Boston University Questrom School of Business. Anyone considering applying to business schools will find this article worthwhile. The school, like all business schools, are looking for a healthy mix of the typical admission metrics: a strong undergraduate GPA, work experience showcasing achievements and leadership ability, GMAT or GRE scores, recommendations, essay answers, and in-person interviews.
“There is no formula,” Meredith Siegel, the assistant dean of graduate admissions, told Fortune. “The more factors a candidate brings that are above average, the more successful the candidate will be.”
The dean of student experience, J.P. Maychak further detailed: “We are looking for non-arrogant, genuine, gritty people, ready and willing to take on the world […] Our candidates […] are more than a piece of paper.” As the two explain, soft-skills and qualities are just as crucial to the application process because business schools emphasize community and collaboration.
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Full-Time, Part-Time, Executive, or Online MBA Programs?
Long before filing their first application, candidates need to consider which of the wide variety of MBA programs available today might best meet their needs. That’s because there’s a compelling reason for doing so.
The reason MBA aspirants need to consider this question first is that there are major differences in the admissions standards according to full-time from non-full-time programs. Many students who lack the qualifications for acceptance by a top MBA program’s on-campus, full-time division can win acceptance to the same business school’s part-time, executive, or online programs. These non-full-time programs offer the same faculties and alumni networks and confer the same MBA degrees as the full-time programs.
For example, the acceptance rate at the University of Michigan varies according to part- or full-time study. The part-time MBA program towers nearly 50 points above the rate of their full-time counterpart: 74.4 percent versus 26.3 percent. All things equal, those statistics imply that merely by applying to Michigan’s part-time division, an applicant’s chances of admission to that highly-ranked business school increase by 182 percent! Of course, these figures may reflect a larger applicant pool applying to the full-time program (which would drive down acceptance rates), but the striking differences exist all the same.
For those intrigued by the possibility of winning admission to a part-time, executive, or online program, the BSchools guide “Is a Part-Time MBA Program Worth It?” explores this topic in greater detail. Students may also further explore the differences between MBA programs in the “MBA vs. Professional MBA vs. Executive MBA Programs” BSchools guide.
What is an Application Package?
MBA applicants usually need to complete and file an online application document package. As discussed in more detail below, typical packages include application forms, resumes, undergraduate transcripts, reference letters, essays and in some cases, GMAT or GRE admissions test score reports.
Scheduling and Timing
Applicants first need to consider scheduling. 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 and timing can get tricky when submitting GMAT or GRE test scores. Some schools required that tests be completed before candidates file their applications.
Students ideally need to begin preparing their applications several months before application deadlines. A blog post at 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 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.
Additionally, without careful planning, it is easy for these applications to pile up and collide. The vast majority of students will apply to several programs and the deadlines for the various admission rounds at different schools can sometimes occur within only a few days of each other, or in some cases, on the same day.
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.
Advance knowledge and preparation can prevent error-triggered disqualifications. MBA aspirants would be wise to review a calendar that presents upcoming application deadlines for some highly selective business schools.
MBA Admissions Tests and Waivers
Most business schools continue to require admissions tests, like the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). However, many applicants are surprised to learn how many business schools now offer test waivers, especially for online programs.
Many talented candidates delay or even opt out of business school entirely because they assume that all universities require GMAT or GRE scores, and they dread the ordeal of taking one of these long and challenging entrance exams. It is unfortunate because many schools now waive the GMAT requirement to make it easier for applicants with several years of work experience to apply.
In fact, BSchools research discloses that in reality, few recent entrants to online MBA programs provided GMAT or GRE scores, even at highly ranked programs. At some schools, qualified candidates receive these waivers automatically. The research, summarized below, appears in the BSchools guide “What is a GMAT Waiver and When Might the GMAT Requirement be Waived?”
On average, online program applicants with five years of work experience can expect to receive waivers upon filing requests, and at some schools, those with seven or more years receive the waivers automatically. However, some schools grant waivers for significantly less than this five-year average, and each school defines work experience in different ways. Undergraduate academic performance (including GPAs) and quantitative abilities typically play significant roles in these decisions as well.
BSchools recommends that applicants who are unsure of whether to take the GMAT or GRE pay close attention to the research presented in the guide. It is essential to address this issue before any other steps in the application process, and here’s why.
If a prudent candidate with a demanding full-time job needs to sit for the GMAT, this aspect will likely consume the most time of the entire application process. They will probably need to dedicate at least four months for test preparation, double what a full-time university student typically needs for graduate admission exams.
Some recommend a year for GMAT preparation, which would allow sufficient time to retake the test at least once in the event of a suboptimal score on the first try. An enlightening quote from the Fortune article relates to such GMAT retakes:
Surprisingly, there is little discussion of GMAT scores, though a few of the applicants have taken the test as many as six times. One candidate started with a 430 GMAT, gained a 490 on the second try, and finally ended up with a 620 (she was waitlisted). Yet another also started with a 430, went to 550, then 600, and finally 610 (he was deferred for a consult with the career center).
MBA applicants are encouraged to review the BSchools guide “Online MBA Admissions Requirements by Program” for a complete list of online programs offering GMAT waivers. They can also consult the Graduate Management Admission Council website for upcoming test dates and locations.
MBA Application Essays
The second-most time-consuming aspect of MBA program applications is the application essay-writing. For many candidates, writing essays can feel intimidating because of the slim margin for error. Admissions officers at highly selective business schools look for any justification to reject candidates. When they cannot find those justifications in work experience, undergraduate grades or admissions test scores, they tend to search for them in application essays. “An essay that reveals any weakness in your candidacy could quickly put you in the reject pile,” says Poets & Quants editor John A. Byrne.
Best practices in application essay writing indeed exist, although some of these practices are not obvious, and a few may seem counterintuitive. An analysis of specific characteristics of essays that helped candidates gain admission at highly selective institutions like HBS requires a technical discussion beyond the scope of this article. Fortunately, BSchools examined a number of these best practices in “How to Write a Great MBA Personal Statement.”
That said, one relevant essay writing topic involves the role of admissions consultants in the application process. While researching the essay guide, BSchools editors were surprised to learn the extent of the involvement of admissions consultants in candidates’ essay-writing.
Most applicants who aspire to enroll at one of the world’s most popular business schools, such as Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, and Stanford Graduate School of Business (which only admits 5 percent of applicants) are likely going to need these consultants’ help to gain admission. The fact remains that 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 just too intense to face without coaching by professionals.
But for those applying to top 50 business schools—and especially those applying to those schools’ professional, executive and online MBA program divisions—the choice of whether to hire an admissions consultant becomes less defined.
One group of applicants for whom essay-writing help may make sense are with STEM (science, technical, engineering or mathematics) professionals. Although they tend to score higher on the GMAT, which primarily tests quantitative reasoning, these candidates frequently face challenges writing solid essays and resumes for business school. Admissions coaching can help this group of candidates avoid embarrassing defects in their essays that may disqualify them.
Most admissions coaches offer free initial consultations that can prove useful to candidates. They usually have more time available for these free sales meetings during their off-peak season, which is roughly from March through June.
Application forms request basic information about candidates, such as name and address information, along with more detailed information about work experience and education. Applications will usually include a list of additional documents required for completion, such as transcripts.
There is no hard-and-fast rule about how much work experience candidates should have before applying. However, the consensus among experts is an average of four to five years. According to admissions consultant Jon Fuller, from the coaching firm Clear Admit:
Your competitiveness is going to be significantly influenced by the quality of your experience rather than just whether you’ve worked for two, four, or six years. That said, the sweet spot for many candidates is 4 to 6 years of full-time work experience as that’s often how long it takes for candidates to be able to demonstrate a robust impact on their firm/clients, develop some leadership/managerial skills, etc.
In many respects, the Harvard Business School sets the standard for most business schools. The institution’s criteria for work experience seem to be no exception. Byrne points out that a window of opportunity exists at HBS concerning the amount of a candidate’s work experience that will optimize their chances of admission:
As for experience, too much work is a bad thing. Too little work also isn’t very good, either. The average age of an entering student in Harvard’s Class of 2014 was 27. The sweet spot for work experience among successful Harvard applicants is three to five years. When you have more than five, the odds start falling. When you have less than three years, they also decline.
However, this four- to five-year experience window does not apply to some programs—part-time and online programs tend to be more flexible in their admissions standards—nor does it apply to almost all executive MBA programs.
Executive MBA (EMBA) programs amount to a particular case because schools design them for seasoned business leaders and executives with top-management aspirations. According to the Executive MBA Council, most executive MBA programs require at least four years of experience. However, most entrants average seven years, and many have ten or more.
Does Everyone Need Work Experience Before Applying?
Some may wonder about their chances of winning admission to business schools without any work experience. That may be possible at some schools, but certainly not at the highly selective ones. Jon Fuller is explicit on this point:
Most top programs state that they’re willing to consider applicants directly out of college who have no work experience, but that doesn’t mean that they frequently accept those candidates. For instance, Columbia states that 99 percent of its most recent class has at least one year of work experience, and my educated guess is that the 1 percent predominantly comprises dual degree students in law or medicine.
Applying to start right after college is a very, very competitive path to take in an already very competitive application process. All top programs really put a premium on robust, impactful work experience.
More analysis about the quality and kinds of work experience various MBA programs ideally prefer in the applicants they select appears in these BSchools.org guides:
- “MBA vs. Professional MBA vs. Executive MBA Programs”
- “Is a Part-Time MBA Program Worth It?”
- “What is a GMAT Waiver and When Might the GMAT Requirement be Waived?”
For a list of minimum work experience thresholds specified by online programs, see our guide Online MBA Admissions Requirements by Program.
Except for in infrequent circumstances, MBA program applicants must hold four-year undergraduate degrees from accredited institutions. Many programs note a “four-year degree or equivalent,” which typically relates to three-year degrees that are more common internationally.
A candidate’s undergraduate grade-point average is vitally important, especially at the best schools and for students who are petitioning GMAT waivers. A high GPA will bolster any application. For example, the average undergraduate GPA among students at the top 20 MBA programs by the U.S. News and World Report Best Business SchoolsM rankings was a 3.53. The average GPA at lower-ranked programs was 3.37.
Admissions consultant Deena Maerowitz, a former associate director of admissions at the Columbia Business School explained to U.S. News & World Report that ”Unlike law school and med school admissions, which are really, really based very much on numbers—your scores, your grades—the business school admissions process is really much more comprehensive.”
She further explains that admissions committee members want proof that their program’s applicants possess the level of quantitative skills that graduate management coursework requires, so grades in undergraduate courses like calculus, economic statistics, and computer science are particularly important.
Strategies to Offset a Low GPA
So how can candidates compensate for low GPAs at or below a 3.2? Here are a few ways.
Build An Alternative Transcript
One strategy would be to create an “alternative transcript.” This strategy requires earning “A” grades in MBA prerequisite courses offered by some business schools, or through additional quantitative university-level courses similar to those that business schools require. Our guide “What is a Typical MBA Program Curriculum?” covers these kinds of classes.
Showcase Leadership Skills
A second strategy involves demonstrating leadership skills. Maerowitz says admissions committee members are looking for those skills because they are valuable in business, and students with work experience and extracurricular activities that include leadership roles identify students likely to participate in student clubs.
A third strategy comprises demonstrating networking skills. Though rarely discussed, business schools seek well-connected, accomplished applicants who know how to use their networks to their benefit and the benefit of their classmates. Maerowitz claims that “networking is very important. Even though it’s sort of a taboo thing to discuss in the application process, it’s something that’s considered nonetheless.”
For a list of minimum GPA thresholds for online programs, see our guide “Online MBA Admissions Requirements by Program.”
Although prerequisites are not usually required for admission, some universities require students without undergraduate business degrees or adequate work experience to complete specified coursework before they can enroll in the MBA program’s core courses.
These prerequisites, often quantitative, can include a series of foundational courses, such as economics, calculus, financial accounting, economic statistics, financial management, or operations research. Some business schools provide their own abridged overview course sequence that teaches topics selected from these kinds of courses.
Many schools will not permit students to enroll in classes before they complete the prerequisites. Other schools will allow students to start, but only let them progress up until a certain point in the curriculum before requiring that they satisfy these requirements. Also, some schools impose minimum grade thresholds. Even if they previously passed these courses during previous undergraduate work, they may have to retake them and earn a higher grade.
Examples of MBA Programs Requiring Prerequisites
Accelerated MBA programs, like the one-year program at the University of Notre Dame, often impose prerequisites. According to Poets & Quants, the Notre Dame MBA requires that students have completed an undergraduate business degree from an accredited university where English is the native language, six credits of accounting, economics, and mathematics, and three credits of finance and marketing.
Some other examples of universities that require MBA program prerequisites include Rutgers University, Fort Hays State University, Marylhurst University, and Southern New Hampshire University. SNHU is a particular case. The school may require students with non-business academic backgrounds to take a series of foundation courses at SNHU before they can enroll in the MBA core courses.
How Prerequisites Can Drive Up Costs
Another example of a program that requires prerequisites is the University of Mary. UM applicants must take the GMAT, and the school imposes a minimum score cutoff requirement of 550 before students can take MBA-specific courses. The school will drop the GMAT requirement for students who take three additional foundation courses in finance, accounting, and economics, but those courses will add at least $5,400 in extra tuition, which amounts to almost 25 percent of the cost of that degree.
Poets & Quants also notes how foundation prerequisites can drive up tuition. For example, at the State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY-Oswego), the 36-credit MBA program can quickly reach 57 credits because of foundational courses, which can result in a big tuition jump. The article continues:
While some schools allow you to take the classes at any institution, it’s still an out-of-pocket expense that applicants should be aware of. Andrew Ward, associate dean of graduate programs at Lehigh’s College of Business & Economics, says, “Our whole program is charged on a per-credit basis, so if they did the prerequisites at Lehigh they would pay as they would any other class. But they’re not required to get them here.”
International MBA Students
Like Notre Dame’s accelerated MBA program mentioned above, some business schools refuse to offer particular programs to applicants whose native language is not English. However, some schools do provide these programs to international students and withhold certain application options from them, such as GMAT waivers.
Typically, international students—and students whose native language is not English—who wish to enroll in a U.S.-based MBA program need to complete specific examinations to showcase their English language proficiency. These include the following tests:
- Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
- International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
- Pearson Test of English (PTE)
Surprisingly, however, this is not always the case. The policy at Stanford exempts students who obtained undergraduate degrees from universities that provided instruction entirely in English. MBA consulting firm, Aringo, put together a list of business schools that do not require the TOEFL, and schools that have low or no minimum TOEFL scores for admission.
State Authorization of Distance Education
As a final note, state authorization of distance education refers to the laws and interstate reciprocity agreements governing online education among U.S. states. Some states do not allow out-of-state residents to enroll in certain online academic programs. For this reason, applicants to online MBA programs always need to verify their legal enrollment eligibility before they apply to any program based in a different state.
Fortunately, this information usually appears on school websites. Applicants who cannot find this information online can generally obtain it from online program coordinators.