Now, in spite of being invited to interview at a certain business school in Boston, and being admitted with a fairly substantial fellowship at another business school in New York, I am definitely no expert on successfully navigating the business school application process. The only people who really know why an applicant is successful are the admissions officers who make the decisions.
Yet, the success that I have had in applying to business schools does suggest that I manage to do something right during the application process. Multiple admits—and an invitation to interview at an extremely selective program—are not accidents. One can cautiously infer some guiding principles that increase the likelihood of admission to a top business school, all other things being equal.
I will not write prolifically on this topic; there are numerous online resources that do a better job of explaining the MBA admissions process, such as Poets and Quants, Clear Admit, Stacy Blackman Consulting, and Admissionado.
I will set out some thoughts on the application process for full-time MBA programs which I believe were good practices to adopt.
Start your business school applications early. The business school application process is time consuming. If possible, you should start preparing for it one year before you plan to apply, i.e. start preparing in mid-2014 if you intend to apply to business schools in 2015. This will give you time to assess your profile, study for the GMAT, take the GMAT (and retake it if necessary), research your target schools, visit your target schools while classes are in session, prepare a copy of your resume tailored for business school applications, develop your post-MBA career goals, select and—if necessary—coach your recommenders, and write and revise your answers for application forms and essays.
Take the GMAT early. The essay prompts and application forms for most business schools will be released by late May or early June. At this point, you should be focusing all of your efforts on these two parts of your applications rather than dividing it among studying for the GMAT, writing essays, filling out application forms, and managing your recommenders. The earlier you can get your GMAT done, the earlier you can start focusing on other parts of your application. Also, if you take the GMAT early and don’t get the score you want, you have time to re-take it.
Assess your strengths and weaknesses as a business school applicant honestly and realistically. The Ancient Greeks had a famous maxim inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: gnõthi seauton (know thyself). My ancient ancestors in China, circa 500 BCE, spoke of knowing yourself and your enemy as the key to victory in battle. Before you can decide which business schools to target, you need to know how your profile compares against the average business school candidate. This assessment should encompass the following dimensions: academic performance in college, professional and leadership experience after graduating from college, community involvement, standardized test scores such as the GMAT or GRE, and any applicable “diversity” factors that might distinguish you from other business school applicants with similar professional and academic backgrounds. You will refine this assessment once you have narrowed down your list of target schools, but as a starting point you need to know where you stand in the overall applicant pool so that you know roughly which business schools should be on your long list. For example, if you have a 2.8 GPA from an academically poor undergraduate institution, a 490 GMAT score, mediocre performance in your career to date, no community involvement to speak of, and no compelling story of overcoming adversity, it is unlikely that you’ll be a competitive candidate at any of the top tier business schools, and you should be realistic about your chances.
Thoroughly research your target schools. I will not spend too much time discussing how to narrow down your list of business schools; that is a very personal process. Once you have finalized your list of target schools, do your due diligence. Research these schools thoroughly. Do not rely on just glossy brochure published by the school and the rankings published by the Financial Times, US News, and The Economist. Speak to current students and alumni in industries that you might want to join, post-MBA. Learn about the faculty and their strengths and areas of interest. Visit the campus and get a feel for the environment and the student body. You will need this knowledge when completing application forms and writing essays. If you are invited to interview, you will also need this in-depth knowledge of your target schools.
Project manage your recommenders. If your recommenders are seasoned veterans of the business school application process, you may be able to relax and trust them to know what to do. If, however, your recommenders are unfamiliar with the process, be prepared to be very involved in managing the recommendations process. Notably, at minimum you should provide your recommenders with a copy of your résumé, your reasons for applying to business school now, your career goals, a brief statement of why you are applying to each of your target schools, and a list highlighting your work with that recommender.
Be sensitive to cultural differences. For international candidates, you may need to explain some of the cultural differences between the United States and your home country to your recommenders. For example, people from some cultures are extremely reserved and reluctant to offer effusive praise, even for candidates deserving of it. You may need to explain that this practice may put you at a disadvantage when applying to American business schools.
Where you have to select multiple recommenders, consider how much overlap there will be in their perspectives. There isn’t a lot of room in your average business school application to convey all the different aspects of your candidacy. Don’t waste a recommendation by having two recommenders talking about the same aspects of your candidacy.