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The 7 Essentials of a Successful MBA Application Strategy

The 7 Essentials of a Successful MBA Application Strategy

The article The 7 Essentials of a Successful MBA Application Strategy was originally posted on My MBA Path.


You work long enough in MBA admissions and you see it again and again. The MBA candidate who is scrappy in the most compelling way. The one who punches way above their weight. The one that you find yourself rooting for as you read their essays and advocating for to the adcom. The one that gets admitted. 

In my work as an MBA admissions consultant not a day goes by without an MBA candidate asking me how to create a successful MBA application strategy. Given my background – a former Dean of MBA Admissions and a former Managing Director of The MBA Tour, a rare combination that makes me intimately familiar with how MBA adcoms work and how the top schools select MBA candidates – they expect some magic ingredient.

My experience has indeed helped me meet thousands of MBA candidates and learn how a compelling MBA candidacy is built.

If there is a magic ingredient, it lies in a candidate’s ability to balance the essential components of an MBA application and weave them into an overarching story, infused with passion and purpose. 

Let’s look into what this means in practice. What are the MBA application components and how should you think of them strategically?

1. Nail the GMAT or GRE

Yes, this past year many schools opened the doors for test waivers. Many of them will continue this policy in the new 2021-2022 MBA application cycle. But the truth is, there are relatively few candidates who can go the route of a test waiver without the risk of becoming less competitive than they should be to gain admission. You can read my suggestions about how to think of the test and if you should consider a waiver. 

The test is often one of the most time-consuming parts of the MBA application process. It will also play a role in your school selection simply because it will be a major factor in determining how competitive your profile is. Therefore, I suggest you focus on the test very early in the process. 

2. Self-reflection

Self-reflection can be the messiest part of the MBA application process. To keep it reasonably manageable, think about it as having two parts. One of them is finding your why. The other one is outlining the examples that will feed into your four essential MBA stories. These two parts will be interconnected and multidimensional. Aspects of them will inform every part of your application. 

3.  Systematize your business school research 

Comparing schools is one of the hardest parts of the MBA application process. Schools can seem deceptively similar in their MBA admissions materials. They all look for strong leaders. They all expect MBA candidates to demonstrate impact that goes beyond their personal lives and careers. They all boast great career stories. However, the differences in culture and outcomes between programs can be substantial. A simple framework for comparing programs is “The three Rs”. It compares schools along Reputation, Reach, and Relevance

Part of your school research will involve interacting with the admissions teams, current students, faculty, and alumni. Don’t misunderstand the purpose of school engagement. Too often, candidates approach it as a box to be checked during the admissions process. That is simply wrong. While well executed school engagement can boost your competitive advantage, its main purpose is for you to better understand and assess the fit of each MBA program you are considering.  

4. Round 1 vs Round 2

Most MBA candidates apply to multiple schools. The average number is five to seven. Deciding on your strategy for how to split your applications across the application rounds is important in order to maximize not only your admissions odds but your potential scholarships too. You can read my insights and suggestions for making this decision wisely

5. Connect with your recommenders 

Candidates make two common mistakes when it comes to recommenders. They ask the person they are most at ease approaching for a recommendation or they go for a big name, thinking the adcom will be impressed. 

The most important part about a letter of recommendation is that it comes from someone who really knows your work well, someone who believes in your potential, and who is willing to spend the time to write comprehensive answers to the LOR questions. 

Be very choosy about who your recommenders are. Create a list of current and former supervisors, professional peers, potentially even clients, then have a conversation with each of them. Start by sharing why you are pursuing an MBA, tell them about your goals, recap your major accomplishments that they have witnessed. All of this will help secure their “buy in” and make it easier for them to cite examples and be specific when they write your recs. As a bonus, these conversations will uncover some important insights about your leadership and career, viewed from the eyes of others.

6. Prioritize the resume

MBA candidates are often much more concerned about the application essays than the resume. Shortchanging the resume and not dedicating enough time and effort to developing a strong one can easily backfire.

When MBA applications are reviewed, the resume is very frequently the first thing an MBA application reader will look at. It’s the snapshot of who you are. A really strong MBA application resume provides a succinct and compelling picture of who you are and serves as the opening chapter for the story that will flow through your entire application. Starting with it before you write your essays will help define what the major “attributes” of your candidacy are, then decide how to show each of them through the application components. 

7. Plan your essays 

Before you begin writing the actual essay answers, you should first focus on developing your MBA story. Simply put, your MBA story is how you paint a picture of where you have been, what you have done, and where you want to go. Within this picture, the MBA program you are applying to serves as a bridge between “before” and “after”.

Where you’ve been and what you have done weaves parts of your personal and professional background. Where you are going is your vision for the future and more specifically your post-MBA goals. As you think about the facets you choose to reveal to the admissions committee, here is an MBA story development framework you can utilize. 

And now finally we come to the special ingredient. The miracle dust that helps make your MBA application become bigger than the sum of its parts. 

That secret component is your spark – the purpose and passion that light you up and make you memorable. Because remember, your biggest challenge as an MBA candidate is not to impress but to excite. You don’t want the admissions committee to simply be impressed by your candidacy, you want them to invite you to be part of the class. That’s the ultimate goal.

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