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Is an MBA in Your Future? Focus on These Five Areas for Admissions Success

By Stacy Blackman, President of Stacy Blackman Consulting

We’re at the dawn of a new decade, and many of you have decided to make this the year you finally get serious about applying to business school. Congratulations! Be aware, however, that the MBA admissions process is rigorous and time consuming. Therefore, having a strategy in place to guide you will go a long way toward helping you manage this experience.

Admissions committee members evaluate MBA applicants across a host of components, so your goal is to maximize the impact of each one. Focus on these five specific areas in the coming months to ensure you can submit the most robust application possible in the fall.

1. GPA

Your GPA is a significant element of your MBA application. In addition to your admissions test scores, it is a clear signal to the committee of your ability to handle the academic rigor of business school. Unfortunately, it is also one of the only components already set in stone. Keep in mind that a 3.5 or better undergraduate GPA is acceptable for most MBA applications. Look at the mean standard for admitted students at your target programs to see whether you have a problem to overcome in this space.

If you do have a below-average GPA or low grades in quantitative/business classes, consider taking an online or in-person course this spring. Earning all A grades in college-level quant courses will help convince the admissions committee that you can succeed in a challenging, fast-paced MBA program. Also, taking steps to shore up those weaknesses shows maturity and your ability to balance academics with work.

2. Career Progression

When applying to a top-tier business school, you will need to trace a clear path of professional growth in your application. The admissions team likes to meet potential students who have the drive to advance their skills and leadership abilities continually.

If this is a trouble spot for you, get creative and think of ways to add value and continue to develop your career. Can you secure a promotion in the coming months? If an official title change is not in the cards, find other ways to take on more senior responsibilities at work. Ask to join a high-level project. Take on a leadership role. If you have a new member on the team, volunteer to mentor that person.

Many applicants contemplate taking a new job before applying in hopes that it will round out their experience and show progression. However, if the new position does not make sense in the context of your overall career goals, such a move could backfire. You want to convey that you have remained focused on progressing toward your stated goals — not solely on landing a great job.

Even within a flat organization with no title change, you can still show career progression on your resume. Review your accomplishments and see how you can portray them in a way that reveals your professional growth. Each time your responsibilities grew, you can describe it in a bullet point with the date. For example:

  • Directed a staff of three in servicing 45 client relationships of global corporations with a total of more than $25B in assets. (2019)
  • Contributed to growth of $34B business through a mix of market research, marketing and client servicing. (2017–2018)

The essays also provide ample opportunities to summarize career progress as well as to explain the structure of your organization.

3. Admissions Test

Unlike your GPA, business school aspirants have a great deal of control over this aspect of the application. Spring is the ideal time to get the test out of the way so that you can focus your energy on the essays and recommendation letters during the summer months. Explore your options and take a practice test. Then sign up for a test date a few months out and put together a study plan. Consider taking a free or paid prep course, studying with a friend, or hiring a tutor if possible. These strategies can help you maintain discipline while studying. If English is not your first language, factor this into your plan as well. After all, preparation is essential for most candidates to excel on the test.

If you are not satisfied with your scores the first time, plan to retake the exam. In my experience, admissions committees often look favorably upon applicants who try to improve their scores. Reflect on whether you genuinely gave it 100% the first time around. Did anxiety or illness affect your performance? Or, was insufficient preparation to blame? You can use the free GRE Diagnostic Service to see how you did on the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections of the test, and look for areas to improve. Keep in mind, you can take the GRE General Test up to five times in a 12-month period.

The GRE General Test is the only admissions test with the ScoreSelect® option, which lets you decide which scores to send to graduate schools, including business and law. That way, you send only the scores you want schools to see. You may also consider the option of sending all your scores, as a score boost can help clear the path to your dream business school.

4. Recommendation Letters

The admissions committee pays close attention to the content of recommendation letters in support of your MBA candidacy. Therefore, you should only choose recommenders who will champion your business school aspirations. A lukewarm letter of recommendation could do more damage to your chances of admission than a lower GPA or test score.

Few applicants realize how much they can influence their recommenders to help them draft powerful, persuasive letters of support. While you should never write the letter yourself, you can guide your recommender to focus on key traits — leadership, communication skills, integrity, innovation mindset — that you wish to highlight.

Remind them of at least three compelling, work-related anecdotes that show how you contributed to a project, led a team, inspired others, communicated effectively, etc. Your recommenders can help you stand out from thousands of other highly qualified applicants by painting a clear picture of both the personal and professional you.

Recommenders need to do a lot of work on your behalf. Start identifying who you want to approach now and have a preliminary chat with them about your MBA plans. Once they are on board, begin assembling materials so you can guide them to write the most effective letter on your behalf.

5. Essays

Although some schools regularly update their essay questions from one season to the next, you will get a good idea of the types of stories you will need by reading the prior year’s application. Knowing that you will have to describe a leadership experience may motivate you to take on a new leadership role — in or outside of work. Realizing that you will see questions about your level of community involvement may push you to step up your volunteering efforts.

It is also a good idea to begin reflecting on your answers to two questions that will crop up in either essay questions or the MBA interview. First, what are your career goals? And second, why do you need an MBA now? Reflect on your background and what stories you could share. Start taking notes and brainstorming in the coming months. As you identify gaps, create a plan to fill them.

At Stacy Blackman Consulting, we recommend that candidates allocate 2 to 3 hours each time they sit down to work on their essays, especially for the first few drafts. That said, applicants should also avoid the “marathon session.” Few people remain sharp or creative during 8 hours of writing and editing. Nonnative English speakers may find they need to allow even more time for their applications, particularly on writing, revising, editing, proofing, formatting and inputting essays.

While you cannot dive in and begin writing essays or scheduling interviews for several months, you still have ample opportunity to plan ahead and positively impact your MBA application if you start now. Make this the year you take those vital first steps toward transforming your career.