The goal of this article is to help you better understand how admissions committee officers evaluate an MBA application so that you can put your best foot forward in submitting you own. I’ll cover some background information on who the various stakeholders are in the selection process and then discuss how schools focus on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of an MBA applicant’s story. If you’re interested in getting more personalized feedback on where you stand as an MBA applicant, reach out for a Free Consultation with me.
I Who are the stakeholders in the MBA admissions process?
Understanding who the stakeholders are in the MBA admissions process will give you a better sense of how to craft your application to meet their expectations.
Stakeholders | Admissions Officers Who are admissions officers? Often times they are graduates of the MBA program they work for a competing MBA program. A school’s reputation is as good as the track record of the alumni it produces. Admissions officers are passionate about their school and responsible for ensuring its continued good reputation. They carry out their mission by selecting a qualified and diverse entering class of MBAs each year. They look for candidates from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds while trying to create balance in terms of the post-MBA goals of their incoming class.
Oftentimes MBA admissions officers have spent their careers in education rather than the corporate world. They are experts in their field but not necessarily in yours. That’s something to keep in mind because you don’t want to assume that the admissions committee member has a deep knowledge of your industry and role. Make sure that your short answers, essays, resume and recommendations convey information in easily understandable terms.
[table id=17 /]
For example, if you’re an Analyst in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, being in one product group over another might be more prestigious – but it would be unwise to assume the admissions committee is familiar with all the intricacies of the hierarchy at your bank. If the role you landed was harder than another you should make mention of how selective entry into your practice group is.
A fundamental issue that admissions officers face is the sheer volume of applications vis a vis the number of places available in their programs. The fact is that only a minority of applicants are under-qualified in terms of the quantifiable application metrics (such as GMAT, GPA, years of work experience). Imagine you’re in the place of an admissions officer. How are you going to differentiate between candidates who, at first glance, seem equally qualified?
Stakeholders | Professors & Students For the most part professors are interested in research, PhD students who help them with research and Masters students on track to become PhD students (who will eventually help them with research). Tenured professors teach most MBA courses and want to work with students who are able to follow along with the academic material presented. Likewise fellow classmates don’t want to be held up in class by a minority of students that are struggling academically. That’s why the admissions committee adheres to certain standards to ensure that students are at or above baseline.
Stakeholders | Alumni Alumni are concerned with professional potential and leadership potential. They’d like future alumni of their alma matter to reflect favorably on the school (and by extension on them). If you’re investing time and money in attending a well-regarded program, you would hope that the reputation and brand value of your degree endures thanks to the continued quality of the MBA classes that follow yours.
Stakeholders | Recruiters Recruiters invest time and money in recruiting at top MBA programs. They host lunchtime presentations and evening mixers in order to identify the best and the brightest candidates. They also spend money directly with the school by purchasing resume books each year and sponsoring scholarships and internships and sometimes making donations to the schools they frequent. The admissions committee must take the desires and needs of the companies that hire MBAs into consideration when selecting an incoming class. In large part, the trend to admit younger candidates in the last five years has been recruiter-driven.
II Quantitative variables in your MBA application
When the MBA admissions committee receives your application, the first data points they’ll look at are the quantitative ones. Your application must meet the school’s minimum criteria (in terms of GPA and GMAT) in order to progress to a more thorough reading. That fact seems clear when you take a close look at the average and range of GMAT and GPA scores of admitted students. In this section we’ll look at how the admissions committee will be evaluating and interpreting your applications data points.
GPA provides admissions committee insight into your academic track record and potential. A lot of times during Free Consultations candidates will ask me, ‘What’s a competitive GPA for School X?’
Looking at the list most people would assume that since a 3.5 GPA is average, that’s what it ‘takes’ to get into one of these schools. In reality there are a number of factors that are taken into consideration when evaluating a candidate’s GPA. Because schools must read through thousands of applications, it’s in your best interest to point out any circumstantial information or upward GPA trends in the additional information section of the MBA applications. Remember, if GPA is below the school’s average, you shouldn’t automatically assume that you’re not competitive at that program!
GPA | University Rigor Not all GPAs are created equal. Generally, if a candidate attended a top ranked university, their GPA will be viewed more favorably than a candidate who attended a much lower ranked university. Grading scale and grading inflation are also taken into account. Admissions committees are fully aware that MIT has a 5 point GPA scale and that Harvard is notorious for grade inflation (the average GPA is a 3.5). If you attended university outside the US, rest assured that the admissions committee is familiar with how difficult it is to enter your university as well as its grading scale. Admissions Committees will look at class rank as a guideline when applicants are able to provide it.
GPA | Major Rigor How challenging was your major at university? Perhaps 50% of students received a 3.3 GPA or better in the Communications department while only 10% of students received a 3.3 GPA or better in the Physics department. Admissions committees might consider this fact but that’s not to say that being a physics major always trumps being a communications major – the admissions committee wants to admit students from STEM, the social sciences and the humanities.
GPA | Coursework Rigor If you took courses at university that were particularly challenging you may want to point that out to the admissions committee in the additional information section. This can be particularly useful if you didn’t do as well in the quantitative section of the GMAT as you expected to.
GPA | Circumstances Admissions committees will temper their evaluation of your GPA with circumstantial information. Examples include working to support yourself financially throughout college, beginning a family at a young age, suffering from a major health issue etc. To a lesser extent, a great deal of community involvement or participation in an extracurricular activity at an exceptional level (such as qualifying for the Olympics) could work to temper a lower than average GPA.
GPA | Trend Many times candidates regret not performing as well as they could have during their first year at university. A cumulative GPA can be damaged because of one or two bad semesters. The admissions committee is forgiving and will look at your transcripts to see if there is an upward trend in your GPA from your first semester of university to the last.
Looking at the table you might assume that you need a minimum of a 700-730 to be competitive at these schools. The reality is that schools accept a range of scores. If you’re a strong candidate with a good written application, the admissions committee will be more inclined to consider interviewing you even if your GMAT is below their average.
A lot of times candidates think that every 10 point increase in a GMAT score translates into a significantly better probability that they’ll be interviewed at a particular program. That’s not true. If your GMAT score equals the school’s average GMAT score, sitting the exam again and again to get a few extra points won’t impact your candidacy in any significant way.
To better understand how schools view the GMAT, imagine that you’re going to run a marathon. To do that reasonably well you need to be dressed appropriately. You might show up wearing running shorts and a t-shirt…I might wear leggings and a tank top. We’re both correctly dressed for the activity at hand, but our choice of clothing doesn’t correlate with our individual outcomes. In other words, in order for the admissions committee to consider my application I need to meet the minimum GMAT score requirement (let’s say the school’s average is 720 and I have a 710). You’ve also met that minimum requirement with your score of 780 but that doesn’t mean you’ll be interviewed and I won’t. We’re on an equal playing field. Once the minimum criteria are met the admissions committee begins taking a qualitative look at our applications.
Quant and Verbal GMAT Scores: Beyond your overall score, the admissions committee will look at how a candidate did on the quantitative and verbal sections of the GMAT and consider how those scores relate to your GPA. If you were a math major in college and got a 99% on the quant section and a 40% on the verbal section, the admissions committee might wonder how strong your qualitative reasoning or written communication skills are and vice versa if you were a literature major at university. Most schools want to see people at the 68th percentile level in quant which is a 47 or 48 raw score.
99% of MBA programs accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT . The GRE can be a good alternative to the GMAT when you’re scoring below a school’s posted average. That’s because the average GRE score doesn’t affect a school’s rankings and by extension, in admitting you, its average GMAT remains unaffected.
That said, if you can submit the GMAT then I’d suggest you do so. It’s like going to a pot-luck dinner. Everyone is expected to show up with a dish to share. When you don’t submit the GMAT you’re not doing ‘your part’ to contribute to the school’s statistics. So do your part if you can but submit the GRE if you really need to.
One advantage of the GMAT is more widely recognized by employers. During your first year of business school you’ll be recruiting for internship opportunities at employers who are familiar with the GMAT. In particular consulting and IB applications will ask for your GMAT. Being able to say (and write on your resume) that you have a 730 GMAT rather than an equivalent GRE can be an advantage in terms of increasing your desirability in the eyes of employers.
CFA, CAIA, CPA, PMP, Six Sigma – these qualifications are nice to have (if you already have them) but it isn’t worth pursuing a professional qualification solely for the purpose of applying to business school. The CFA alone takes three years (or more) to complete! Your time may be better spent on other activities at work or outside of work.
Strengthening the quantitative aspects of your application
If you feel that your GMAT, GPA and transcripts don’t speak to your quantitative skills then you should take steps to build an ‘alternative transcript’ to show that you’re serious about improving your skills and demonstrate the school that you have the ability to succeed academically. The best way to do that is by taking a graded course online. I suggest taking a descriptive AND inferential statistics course (if you haven’t already done so in undergrad). Check out UC Berkeley’s Online Introduction to Statistics
There’s also the MBA Math course available online. It was written by Dartmouth Tuck professors, that walks you through the quantitative skills you’ll need to succeed in the MBA classroom. Note that a graded, graduate-level course is more favorably viewed than the MBAMath course.
Harvard HBX Courses: HBX will not help your application. While it might be a neat learning experience on a personal level, if you’re only taking HBX to bolster your MBA application you should save your money.
II Qualitative variables in your MBA application
Once the admissions officer determines that you meet the school’s quantitative expectations their focus turns to the qualitative aspects or ‘storyline’ in your application. While a lot of candidates spend time fretting over GPA and sitting the GMAT, the qualitative portion of the application is what will make or break your chances of receiving an interview and an admit.
Career | Promotions and Increases in Compensation Promotions and increases in compensation are the easiest ways for the admissions committee to ascertain how rapidly you’ve progressed professionally. Progressing at an above average pace early on in your career is a sign that you are an ambitious, high achiever who will continue to excel as an alumnus/a of their MBA program. Admissions committees will look at promotions and compensation together and independently. If you’re title hasn’t changed but your salary has gone up, the admissions committee would view that just as favorably as the inverse situation. If a candidate works for a family business the admissions committee will apply a ‘discount rate’ to their career trajectory based on how strongly they believe that nepotism played a role in the roles and responsibilities a candidate has had access to.
Career | Increases in Responsibility Some people think that career trajectory is reducible to the most recent functional role you’ve held or the amount of money you earn. Depending on your industry/company, with only three years of work experience, you might not be in a position to be promoted because of cultural or corporate norms. If you don’t have any promotions on your resume, it’s important to show progression in other ways. You’ll want to focus in on demonstrating responsibility through projects you’ve worked on or had oversight for. Better yet, you should try to build up a story of increasing responsibility through the bullet points you choose to include in your resume as well as the stories you highlight in your essays. A candidate can show responsibility through project-based leadership and mentorship even if he/she doesn’t have direct oversight for the wider project or any direct reports.
Overall you want to paint a story of making an impact (professionally and through extracurricular activities) rather than just ‘serving time’ as an analyst (or otherwise) for two years. They’re also looking for candidates who demonstrate the ability to critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and take action by looking for opportunities to improve themselves.
Short & Long-term Goals
As discussed earlier, recruiters are one of the many stakeholders in the work the admissions committee does in selecting candidates to admit. Admissions committees look for the majority of their students to align with the types of job offers available during on campus recruiting. While business schools are open to some of their students pursuing entrepreneurship or finding permanent offers off-campus, the schools also want to meet the needs of on-campus recruiters. Admissions officers want to see ambitious but attainable goals from candidates because it signals that the candidate has a good handle on how they might market themselves either vertically (within their current role/industry) or horizontally.
Be aware that MBA program rankings are affected the percentage of students employed immediately and then three months post-MBA. Another reason schools steer clear of candidates with less than realistic short-term goals because those students could endanger the schools statistics, and, by extension, it’s rankings.
Goals | Credibility Attainable is the operative word when it comes to crafting short-term goals.
I’m currently a marketing professional at Proctor and Gamble. Post-MBA I’d like to transition to an Associate position at a hedge fund.
The problem with this goal is that at first glance there’s not an obvious relationship between working in the CPG industry and working in a hedge fund. Therefore it seems unattainable to the admissions officer (not just from a logical point of view but probably also based on past cases he’s dealt with). Now this candidate may have a very good reason for why working in a hedge fund is in fact an attainable goal – but he’ll need to give a more in-depth explanation of that in his goals essay and short answers.
Lots of MBAs are career switchers but it’s important to show how your short-term goal, builds, in one way or another, on the skills and successes you’ve accumulated to date.
Goals | Why an MBA? & Why School X? Aside from what your short term goals are, schools want to know why an MBA is critical to obtaining those goals and how their school can help you in that endeavor. Essentially you need to convince the school that you’ll benefit from the MBA program more than the next candidate. When you’re offered a place in an MBA program it means that 5-9 other people were turned down! Essentially the school is betting on the fact that you’ll get more value out of the MBA than another candidate and that ultimately will you add more value to the school as an alumni then the person who wasn’t offered a place.
Visit the school’s career services website and look at the employment report. It can be extremely useful to have a look at the types of industries MBA students at a particular school come from and also in which industries and at which employers they end up post MBA. That information can help you target the right schools as you develop your application strategy. You may also consider citing the school’s strong track record in placing students in X industry or Y company in your essays or short answers.
Your fit statement with the school shouldn’t be generic. It’s not enough to drop a few catch phrases or reference a few resources you saw on the school’s website. A good litmus test is that if you can replace the name of the school in the passage you’ve written then your school fit statement probably isn’t specific enough to the school or relevant enough to your particular situation and goals.
Visiting the school or reaching out to current students and alumni provides you with anecdotes which will help you craft a believable storyline as to why a particular school is a great fit for you. You’ll draw on specific interactions and conversations you’ve had. Most schools keep class visits open through April. If you’re planning on applying in round 1 (September/October), you’ll want to plan your class visits during the beginning of the year (February – April). Class visits usually open again in early October.
Volunteer & Extracurricular Activities
MBA admissions officers are aware that certain work schedules (70+ hours/week, extensive travel) make doing community service very difficult. They also know that community service isn’t as customary in certain countries. They still value community involvement and leadership outside of work. But leadership or extracurricular activities can take many forms! Ideally you should be able to demonstrate long-term involvement in an activity you’re passionate about. That could mean volunteering with an NGO or professional organization or involvement in a particular sport, hobby or activity. It’s less about what you did and more about the impact you made or the level of passion that you brought to the activity. Activities that you’ve engaged in over a longer period of time are preferable because they show vision and commitment on your part. Travel and commitments to family and friends can also be good fodder for discussing your life outside the office.
Much like a judge sentences a petty criminal to community service, many MBA aspirants feel that the MBA Admissions Committees have essentially sentenced them to community service as well. Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
If you are slogging through your time as a volunteer, you are certainly not helping yourself. Time is not the most important factor in the ‘quality’ of your community work in the eyes of the MBA Admissions Committees—the impact you have on others is what is crucial and revealing. Indeed, the spirit with which you have executed your time serving your community is what will impress the committees.