In this class, we’ll be sharing 25 tips for building an outstanding application. We are going to cover all seven elements of a complete MBA application and offer suggestions on how to optimize each one in order to create an application that will really impress admissions officers.
Seven Elements of an MBA Application
Generally speaking, there are seven components in an MBA application:
- Academic Transcripts
- Test Scores
- Application Forms
- Essay Questions
- Recommendation Letters
- Admissions Interview
In this free sample video from our complete How to Apply for an MBA online course, we share 25 tips for increasing the quality of every element of your MBA application: your academic profile, application forms, test scores, essays, resume, reference letters, and interviews.
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This lecture is entitled: 25 Tips for Building an Outstanding Application.
In both MBA Prep School’s eBook, “Prepare to be Accepted!” and our comprehensive MBA Prep Steps™ online course and app, we provide our students with hundreds of tips, techniques, and exercises for building an outstanding MBA application. In this video course, we have selected 25 of our favorite tips to share with our Freshman students, covering all seven elements of a complete MBA application:
- Academic transcripts
- Test scores
- MBA application resume
- Application forms
- Essay questions
- Recommendation letters
- Admissions interview
If you follow the best practices we recommend, you will be on your way to creating an application that really impress admissions officers!
For a complete step-by-step program for building a winning application, please take advantage of our Prepare to be Accepted eBook! or enroll in our complete Prepare to be Accepted! video course and app.
Your instructor for this lecture is Tyler Cormney.
Tyler started his admissions consulting career in 2006 with one of the leading firms in the field and has worked with over 100 clients. He authored a “how-to” guide on admissions consulting used extensively by top admissions coaches and has authored five guides on MBA essays.
Tyler holds a Harvard MBA with Distinction, a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, and is a graduate of the Honor’s Business Program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Thanks, Chris. In this class, we’ll be sharing 25 tips for building an outstanding application. We are going to cover all seven elements of a complete MBA application and offer suggestions on how to optimize each one in order to create an application that will really impress admissions officers.
Let’s begin with an overview of the seven elements of an MBA application.
Generally speaking, there are seven components in an MBA application: academic transcripts, test scores, a resume, the application form, essay questions, recommendation letters, and an admissions interview.
Let’s start off with a few tips related to your academic transcripts.
Regarding your university transcripts, my first piece of advice is that you should obtain a copy of your grade reports and review them carefully long before the admissions officers do. Don’t rely on your memory because you might discover too late that the 3.1 GPA you remember earning was actually a 2.9 – or that you repressed the memory of that D in freshman psychology.
But looking for skeletons in your academic closet isn’t the only advantage of reviewing your transcripts. You want to review your academic history to identify ways to differentiate yourself from other candidates. For example, if you excelled in a foreign language or studied abroad in college this might be something to emphasize in your application.
If there are red flags in your academic history, the sooner you know about them the better. Once you’ve identified them, you can take steps to counterbalance poor performance with additional coursework or by tackling professional or personal projects that require the skills in question. There are a number of ways to mitigate weaknesses in your academic transcripts. For example, you could take a college level calculus or business statistics class to convince admissions officers that you have the quantitative skills needed to excel in an MBA program.
Finally, you may choose to address academic shortcomings in one of the optional essays. If you do, then be sure to accept responsibility and avoid making excuses. You’ll want to provide convincing reasons that you now have the maturity, discipline, and aptitude to excel in an MBA program.
One sure way to offset poor academic performance is to earn a high score on the GMAT, which is the application element we’ll talk about next.
Traditionally, the Graduate Management Admission Test or “GMAT” was the only standardized test business schools would consider. More recently, some schools have also started accepting the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). One thing I’ll mention is that some applicants are finding that they score better on the GRE than the GMAT. If you fall into this camp and the schools you are applying to accept the GRE you can consider sending GRE scores instead of GMAT scores.
In addition to those standardized tests, if English is not your native language, and you didn’t go to an English-only university, you may be required to take the TOEFL short for Test of English as a Foreign Language. Even if you are completely fluent, be sure to find out the school’s TOEFL policies to determine if you’ll need to take the test.
I recommend you have the GMAT completed at least six month before it’s time to assemble your applications. If you still have these tests looming over you by that you won’t be a happy camper. It will hard to relax and do your best on the test when you know there won’t be any time to retake it and your score might make you or break you.
I’m often asked what score is necessary to be competitive for a top tier school. The easiest way to remember the answer is our “Three 80’s” Rule. First, you want your score to be well above the low-end of the range of scores made by the middle 80% of the school’s accepted applicants. Next, you want to have percentile scores on the quant and verbal sections above 80%. Third, ideally, you want a cumulative score above 680. In fact, the median scores for top 10 schools has recently climbed above the 700 mark, so the bar is even higher than 680 for a top 10 program.
The 3rd element we’ll talk about is your MBA application resume.
MBA Application Resume
Most programs will require you to submit a 1-2 page resume as part of your application package.
My first tip is that there are important differences between an MBA application resume and an employment resume. Your objective and your audience is different. For example, an employer might be interested in your technical skills whereas an MBA admissions officer will be more interested in significant achievements and the moments in your career that distinguish you from your peers.
Your objective with your application resume is to showcase the qualities that a business school will be most interested in such as leadership, teamwork, initiative, creativity, and management potential. Keep in mind that it is quite common that your resume will be the only background an admissions interviewer has about you; so you should ensure that it features the qualities that the school values most.
Resume bullet points need to be “action-oriented” and just about every rough-draft resume I receive from my clients needs improvement in this area. Effective action verbs make a big difference. Verbs like “responsible for” and “participated in” are flat and passive where as verbs like “designed, initiated, and spearheaded” achieve the desired effect.
Another common weakness I see in application resumes is that they are missing results or the results aren’t quantified. I’ll read you an example to illustrate what I mean – Listen to the difference between a bullet point like “Responsible for search engine optimization” and the bullet point “Led a search engine optimization campaign that led to 50% revenue growth.” The second bullet point with a quantified result is much more powerful and memorable.
Next, let’s talk about one of the most neglected elements in an MBA application – the application form.
Many candidates don’t devote enough time and attention to the Application Forms and Data Sheets, but these elements are an important piece of your overall application story.
My first tip here is to take a look at the application forms from prior years for the schools on your short list. Some programs ask for a summary of international experiences, honors and awards, volunteer activities, and hobbies. If you plan ahead, you can take proactive steps to ensure that when the time comes you won’t have blanks spots in an important section of the application form.
You want to start working on your application form weeks before the deadlines. Candidates who wait until the night before the deadline may be in for a rude awakening. Some programs require short-answer questions in their application form such as “What was your most significant challenge in each job?” or “Describe your role in each extracurricular organization.”
As a practical matter, you also want to have time to carefully proof your application data sheets. Typos in the forms are easy to miss, especially because there is no spell check for online applications.
Cutting and pasting between application forms and from other sources such as your resume can save you time but do so thoughtfully because sometimes an application form asks for information that’s not on your resume such as a company description and a summary of roles and responsibilities.
Let’s move on to the aspect of the application that most candidates are worried about – the essays.
MBA Application Essays
The application essays are an opportunity to communicate your strengths, tell your story, and differentiate yourself you from other candidates.
A distinction we make at MBA Prep School is between proving you qualify and proving you fit. The elements of the application we’ve talked about thus far such as your transcripts and test scores will help the admission committee determine if you’re qualified for their school. But how do you prove you fit? The general qualities that top-tier MBA programs value are fairly well-understood and intuitive: leadership, team work, a global outlook, etc…But in addition to these general qualities, schools tend to have certain qualities that they value more than others. We call these “fit qualities” — you might consider these the “highest common denominators” among students who are accepted. It’s your job to identify what these fit qualities might be because a school isn’t going to send you a definitive list. Listen carefully whenever admissions officers, professors, alumni, and current students say things like “intellectual vitality is really important at our school” or “we are looking for students who possess drive and the ability to defend their beliefs.” Signals like these are very important because they will help you to customize your resume, essays, and interview answers to feature qualities that the a school values most.
The approach that I recommend you take with your essays is to strategize first, outline second, and write third. When it comes to story selection, good execution on the right story is always better than perfect execution on the wrong one. Formulating your essay strategy is about defining the central themes and messages and then letting your strategic goals direct your choices of essay topics and stories. Steps two is to outline the essay ideas and stories on your short list and choose the best of the best. If you follow those steps, you’ll proceed to the writing stage with a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish with each of the stories you tell.
The application essay questions will typically be published online three to four months before the first round deadline. Questions don’t tend to change significantly from year-to-year. The most commonly asked essay question is some variation of “What are your career goals and how will our program help you to achieve them?” Other typical essay questions include accomplishments essays, failure and mistake essays, and questions about how you can add to or enrich next year’s class. I recommend that you get a head start by drafting responses to those common essay questions long before the essays are published. Even if you aren’t asked one of those question directly in the application you’ll be very glad you have a response ready to deliver when you interview.
The essays you write will be viewed in light of the things other people write about you – schools typically ask for two or three reference letters from your managers and supervisors.
Reference Letters a.k.a Recommendation Letters
I tell my clients that when it comes to their recommendation letters a great process leads to a great outcome. Keep in mind, that most schools ask specific questions on the recommendation forms and expect those questions to be answered; so when it comes to choosing your recommenders look at those questions and ask which of your potential references will be able to supply the most powerful answers.
Your choice of recommenders is critically important. Applicants sometimes make the mistake of thinking they should choose the person with the loftiest title to write their reference letters. A reference letter from an individual with a fancy title who doesn’t know you well can seriously undermine your MBA application.
Our next tip is an important one to share with your references: Admissions committees want specific examples of your performance in the reference letters, not a list of adjectives and empty platitudes. Even if your reference claims you’re in the top ten percent of young professionals he or she has ever worked with, an admission committee isn’t going to buy it unless the reference letter contains evidence and examples to back up that high opinion he or she has of you.
Choosing the right references is immensely important but that’s just the beginning. Some candidates don’t realize they need to take a proactive approach to managing the reference letter process. A couple of weeks before the deadlines they give their recommenders a link to the recommendation forms and hope for the best.
You can improve the quality of your recommendations by supporting your recommenders every step of the way. If they are open to it, give your references a sense about what kinds of things you’re hoping they will write about in their letters. One way to do so is to summarize the important themes you plan to feature in your application and suggest a few examples they might feature in their letters from the work you’ve done together.
Talk to your recommenders well in advance of the due dates and ensure they are in full support of your MBA candidacy. What do I mean by full support? Well, if you’re applying to a school that accepts the top 10% of candidates that apply then your reference needs to rate you in the top 10% of candidates they’ve ever managed. Make sense?
I want to caution you against writing your own recommendation letters, even if you references ask you to. The admissions officers will have a sense of how you write from your essays, and they are pretty good at detecting when you’ve written the letter yourself. Writing style and idiomatic expression are like finger prints and an adept reader will be able to see your finger prints all over the reference letter.
One thing is certain; you want to do everything you can to ensure that all the hard work you are doing on the rest of the application is supported by a “rock star” recommendation letters.
The six elements that we’ve covered so far provide admissions officers a view of how you look on paper. Based on this picture, they will decide whether or not to invite you for an admissions interview — the seventh and final element we will talk about in this class.
You can think of the admissions interview as the final exam in the application process. When you’re just getting started with your application prep, it might seem like admissions interviews are a long way off.
You should be aware, however, that some schools like Kellogg and Tuck interview all candidates – and they conduct interview in advance of or within a few weeks of the application deadline. If you’re applying to a program that interviews all applicants, your interview preparation needs to start early.
Some schools offer on-campus interviews as an option. My clients often ask me if they should take advantage of this option if it’s available. Other things being equal, traveling to campus to interview does demonstrate enthusiasm and commitment. Interviewing at the school can also be a chance to visit campus if you haven’t already — so choose to interview on-campus if at all possible.
One last thing to remember about the admissions interview is that like the essays, admissions committees use the interview is to determine if you’re a good fit for their school. Your goal is to provide stories that feature the qualities that the interviewers are looking for. This isn’t about misrepresenting yourself – it’s just common sense – you want to select stories from your life that prove you fit.
That brings us to the end of the seven application elements and the last of our tips.
If you’ve been paying close attention you’ll see that I actually gave you 27 tips for building an outstanding application instead of 25. At MBA Prep School will always try to give a little bit extra to our students!
I won’t review all 27 tips now, but the good news is that you can use your video controller at the bottom of the video to navigate the lecture and review the slides and audio as often as you like.
At MBA Prep School our goal is to help you to optimize every element of your application and to earn an acceptance letter to your dream school.
We hope you’ve found today’s lecture helpful. Our complete MBA Prep Steps program will provide you with a step-by-step approach to building every element of an outstanding application. Best of luck with your applications and PREPARE TO BE ACCEPTED!
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