Navigating the MBA Application Process

So you’ve decided you will apply for an MBA, but when and where do you start the MBA application process?

A successful application to a highly competitive business school doesn’t start a few weeks before the MBA application deadline; it starts a few years before those deadlines.

By the time an application deadline is in sight, a candidate’s academic record, GMAT score, resume, and essay building blocks are all known quantities (or should be). There’s no time left to pivot or make your MBA candidacy stronger; it’s time to apply!

This article will walk you through the five steps in preparing for and completing the MBA application process. By planning your time efficiently and following MBA Prep School’s recommended steps, you’ll be well on your way to creating winning MBA applications.

The five steps in the MBA admissions process are:

  1. Foundation Building: 12+ months before applying
  2. Capabilities Building: 6-12 months before applying
  3. MBA Application Strategy Formulation: 3-6 months before applying
  4. Execution: 1-3 months before applying
  5. The Last Mile: Final Month before applying

You can (and should!) start building the foundation for your MBA applications long before it’s time to sit down, put your fingers to the keyboard filling in application forms, and write your MBA essays. That’s why the first step in MBA Prep School’s MBA application process is called Foundation Building.

Step #1: Foundation Building

When you’re twelve months or more from applying, you can begin building the foundation for your future MBA applications. By understanding the MBA admission process early on, you’ll set yourself up for success when it comes time to submit those applications.


Foundation building begins with self-assessment. What does self-awareness have to do with getting into business school? A whole lot, as it turns out. Business school admissions officers believe that self-aware MBA students will grow into self-aware business leaders. If someone asked you right now what motivates you, what your three greatest strengths are, and what values are most important to you – would you have an answer ready for them?

If you haven’t invested time in self-assessment, then you probably don’t have impressive answers to questions like those — and you’re going to need them. Luckily, tons of great books and resources exist to guide you through the self-discovery process, so choose your favorite books, watch videos, and spend time on the MBA Prep School website to begin the journey of self-discovery today — long before it is time to tell the story of who you are in your MBA applications.

Relationship Building

Relationship building is another vital step in the MBA application process that you can not rush. Can you name three people right now who would happily write you a glowing recommendation letter to a business school professing that you’re in the top 10% of professionals they’ve managed throughout their career?

If you want to go to a top-tier school, you’re going to need these kinds of raving fans in your contact list. There’s nothing disingenuous about cultivating relationships with people who will join them in their fight to help you be admitted to a top business school. The point is that developing these relationships takes time. Take the opportunity to be of service to potential references long before you sit down to ask them to help you succeed in the MBA admissions process.

Career Planning and Research

Just about every school you apply to will ask you about your career goals, so you’ll want to start your career planning work long before it’s time to sit down to write your first career goals essay for an MBA application. If you already have your short-term and long-term career goals figured out, great! If not, we encourage you to start your career research well in advance of applying to business school.

You want to develop a statement of career purpose and start talking to as many people as possible so that you’ll be ready to tell admissions officers what your dream job is in your essays and interviews. Defining a career goal is an aspect of the application that many candidates struggle with, so we built a step-by-step career goal-setting process, which is a beneficial resource if you want MBA Prep School’s guidance in this vital career planning endeavor.

Strengthen Your MBA Candidacy

In the months and years before you apply, you need to start thinking like an MBA admissions officer to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your MBA candidacy and take proactive steps to reinforce your strengths and counteract your weaknesses.

Don’t write yourself off for a spot in a top-tier MBA program because of a low GPA or a less than stellar resume. Given enough lead time, there are several things you can do to address potential weaknesses in your academic profile, resume, and leadership portfolio. For example, to bolster your academic profile, scoring well on the GMAT or earning A’s in college classes in business subjects can help offset mediocre transcripts.

Building the foundation for a winning MBA application also requires taking on stretch assignments at work and racking up achievements you can feature in your resume. If you don’t have the opportunity to be a leader at work, join a community service organization and build your leadership portfolio by taking on leadership challenges outside of work.

Research Schools

In addition to self-awareness, foundation building is also about building your “school awareness.” Too many MBA applicants over-rely on the rankings and what other people tell them about where they should apply. MBA Prep School recommends that you invest plenty of time and effort in school due diligence to determine which schools best match your career goals, academic goals, and cultural expectations. Time invested in school awareness early in the process means that you’ll be making the best-informed choice of schools when the time comes time to apply. You’ll also have tons of great reasons to share when a school asks you to write an essay explaining why you’re applying to its program.

Complete Standardized Tests

Finally, we think it’s best to get the GMAT, GRE, and other standardized tests completed in the Foundation Building phase of the MBA admissions process. In the final weeks and months before the application deadlines, you don’t want to have to be worrying about studying for and taking a standardized test while you’re holding down a full-time job and doing the heavy lifting required to assemble a great MBA application.

Step #2: Capabilities Building

In the second phase of the MBA application process, you will decide which business schools you want to apply to and progress from Foundation Building to Capabilities Building. You will complete these activities 6-12 months before the MBA application deadlines in a perfect world.

Choose Your Schools

One of your primary objectives at this stage of your preparation is to intensify your school research and select the schools to which you will apply. We can’t stress enough how important it is to go beyond rankings and stereotypes to identify the business schools that are the best match for you. The case you build about why you’re applying to a particular business school will be central to your essays and interviews. Admissions committees expect personal and specific answers about why you want to be part of their MBA program. “You were ranked #1 on a bunch of websites” isn’t going to satisfy the admissions committee.

Visit Business Schools

To formulate your final list of business schools, you should attend information sessions and, if possible, visit the MBA programs on your shortlist. School visits are critical because things like culture and campus dynamics are hard to ascertain from afar. A quick tip: if you plan to apply for an MBA in Round 1, then conducting your school visit in the academic year before submitting your application is necessary so that you can visit campus while classes are in session. Be sure to keep a journal of all your school research and take careful notes about whom you meet, what you learn, and what impresses you. Firsthand observations are many times more potent than quoting the school’s website or other people’s opinions.

Identify Each School’s Fit Qualities

The general qualities that top-tier MBA programs value are relatively well understood and intuitive: leadership, teamwork, a global outlook, etc. But in addition to these general qualities, MBA programs tend to have specific attributes and abilities that they value more than others. We call these a school’s “Fit Qualities” — you might consider these the “highest common denominators” among students who are accepted. It’s your job to identify these fit qualities because business schools rarely publish definitive lists of what they are looking for in applicants.

To identify each school’s fit qualities, listen carefully whenever admissions officers, professors, alumni, or current students say things like “intellectual vitality is really important at our school” or “we are looking for students who possess the drive and the ability to defend their beliefs.” Signals like these are critical because they will help you customize your resume, essays, and interview answers to feature qualities each business school values most of all.

Improve Your Writing Skills

We often compare the MBA application process to a marathon. At the Capabilities Building stage, you want to progress from general conditioning to building specific muscle groups that will get you to the finish line. If you haven’t written an essay since college, then it’s time for you to start hitting the “writing gym” and strengthening your storytelling muscles.

At MBA Prep School, we offer a comprehensive course on MBA essay writing to improve your writing skills and prepare you to tackle the MBA application essay questions.

Free MBA Essay Writing Course

Please enter your email below to gain 30 days of free access to our MBA Essay Writing course. Learn about the five most frequently asked MBA application essay questions and access our brainstorming tools and sample essays.

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Study Typical MBA Essay Questions

MBA application essay questions for the next application season are typically published on each program’s admissions website in June or early July. However, the prompts don’t change much from year to year. For that reason, you can get a head start in the Capabilities Building stage by familiarizing yourself with past years’ essay prompts and sketching out answers to commonly asked application essay questions like “What are your short-term and long-term career goals?”.

Create Online Accounts and Sign Up for News Feeds

The marathon’s starting gun sounds when you create your MBA application accounts with each of your target business schools. MBA Prep School suggests you set up your online account as early as possible so that you’ll receive notifications about school events and information sessions in your area. Another good step is to sign up for news feeds and follow admissions officers’ blogs. These channels will keep you informed and provide answers to many of your general MBA application questions.

The Ultimate MBA Application Handbook

You only need one guide to getting into the world’s top business schools, and this is it!

Grab your copy of the ultimate MBA Application Handbook and receive 30 days of free access to our premium digital content for MBA applicants.

Step #3: MBA Application Strategy Formulation

Three to six months ahead of the deadline, you will take the first definitive steps toward applying to your dream MBA programs: formulating your MBA application strategy. An effective MBA application strategy can make the difference between a collection of acceptance letters and an inbox full of disappointment.

Formulate Your Application Strategy

Your application strategy is, in essence, your communication plan – you might think of it as the executive summary of your answers to the fundamental questions that almost all business school admissions committees ask. Those questions are:

These aren’t the only questions that business school admissions officers will expect you to answer, but they are, in many ways, the essential ones.

The interesting thing about these questions is that they seem deceptively simple. As you’ll learn, effectively answering them is a lot trickier than you might think. The goal of your MBA application strategy work is to have a clear, concise, compelling answer to each of these questions. In MBA Prep School’s series on MBA Admissions Strategies, we show MBA applicants what admissions committees are looking for when asking these five questions.

For companies, designing a winning strategy can mean the difference between astounding success and heartbreaking failure. The same is true for MBA applicants. Formulating your application strategy is a make-or-break step in your application process. MBA Prep School’s website offers extensive resources to guide you through this process. This is also the right time to think about hiring an admissions consulting expert. MBA Prep School has an incredible team of MBA admissions experts who can work with you to design and execute a winning MBA application strategy.

Choose Your References

By this point in your MBA application process, we hope you have taken MBA Prep School’s advice and forged excellent relationships with your superiors and mentors. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to these carefully selected supporters that you’ll be applying to business school in a few months.

The top-ranked business schools only accept the top 10% of applicants, so your reference letters must help build your case that this is where you stand relative to your peer group.

About three months before the application deadlines, you should meet with the people on your MBA recommendation letter shortlist to gauge whether they would be willing to write what we will refer to as a “top 10%” recommendation letter.

Create Your MBA Application Resume

The first step in executing your MBA application strategy is creating your MBA application resume. Resume experts will advise you to tailor your resume for each job you’re applying to – similarly – you want to tailor your resume for the MBA admissions process. Resume real estate is precious, so you want to make sure you allocate that space in a way that will showcase the strengths and qualities that you pinpointed when developing your MBA application strategy.

Draft Your MBA Career Goals Essay

At least one of the business schools you’re applying to will want you to connect the dots between your career progress, career aspirations, and motivations for pursuing an MBA. In the months before the application essays are announced, you can get a head start on this kind of essay – commonly referred to as the MBA Career Goals essay.

Study MBA Application Policies and Procedures

Three to four months before the first round deadline, the moment everyone’s been waiting for arrives, and the business school applications are published on the MBA admissions websites. Pay careful attention to the fine print on the school’s application policies – read them as carefully as a tax lawyer looking for a million-dollar loophole. It would be tragic to have all your preparation work and brilliant application strategy go to waste because you didn’t correctly follow directions.

Step #4: Execution

The final three months leading up to the MBA application deadlines is the period when all of your diligent preparation and strategic planning come together in the form of your essays, recommendation letters, and interview preparation.

Assemble/Submit MBA Application Paperwork

One housekeeping detail that trips some MBA applicants up is submitting all the required application paperwork to the business schools on time. At the beginning of the execution phase, you should have your transcripts in hand, your test scores submitted, and any other administrative tasks checked off your list.

Write Your MBA Essays

You’ll use your application strategy to pick the essay topics and stories for your MBA essay questions. Your goal is to identify the personal and professional stories that feature the qualities and abilities you know admissions officers at each MBA program value most, thereby showing them through your essays that you are a great fit for their program. MBA Prep School’s admissions consultants are experts in helping business school applicants craft compelling topics and stories for their applications.

Collaborate With Your MBA References

When it comes to MBA recommendation letters, great process management leads to great outcomes. Admissions officers fully understand that the MBA recommendation letter process is a collaborative one. We don’t mean to imply that you will write your recommendation letters – that’s something you want to avoid. Nevertheless, you can give your references plenty of guidance and support and increase the odds that they will write you a spectacular recommendation letter. For example, you will want to inform your recommenders about the Fit Qualities you hope to emphasize in each application and suggest ways to tailor their letters in the same way that you’ll be tailoring your application essays for each program.

Prepare for MBA Admissions Interviews

Although most business schools don’t send interview invitations until after the MBA application deadlines, some programs such as Kellogg and Tuck interview candidates before or directly following the business school application deadlines. If you’re applying to one of these programs, you need to start prepping for your admissions interview in parallel with your other application-building tasks.

Step #5: The Last Mile

The final four weeks before the MBA deadlines will be intense. Even if you’ve built a strong foundation, followed every step MBA Prep School has prescribed in this article, and executed your application strategy flawlessly, pressing the submit button can be the most challenging step of all. Here’s what you can do to reduce your anxiety and arrive at the finish line of the MBA admissions process in style.

Triple-Proof Your MBA Applications

Please have every component of your MBA application proofed at least three times by three different people. A typo or two will not sink your chances at a top business school, but a sloppy application can seriously harm your odds of admission. Your MBA application package is a representation of you, so you want it to sparkle. You may even decide to enlist the help of professional editors and proofreaders. MBA Prep School offers affordable MBA essay editing services if you would like expert help.

Submit Your MBA Application Early

Another step you can take to ensure that your masterpiece isn’t stuck on the virtual loading dock is to submit everything to the business schools a couple of weeks before the deadline. Not only will you avoid the possibility that an overloaded admissions website prevents you from uploading your essays, but you might also get an early read, particularly if the admissions office practices a rolling application review process.

Ensure MBA Recommendation Letters Are In

Once you’ve submitted your MBA applications, circle back with your references to ensure they’ve uploaded their recommendation letters. Set early deadlines for your MBA references. If you started working with them months in advance as we recommended, they won’t feel rushed at all. Additionally, remember these folks have worked very hard for you. At a minimum, send them a thank you note – but a thank you gift is probably in order.

Prepare for MBA Admissions Interviews

Okay, so you’ve submitted your application — now you’re done. Right? Not exactly – you still have the final exams to take. After you submit your MBA application, you can usually enjoy a couple of weeks off to relax and reconnect with family and friends. Then, get ready for the final test – your MBA admissions interviews. Once the interview invitations go out, you’ll only have a few weeks of lead time; therefore, MBA Prep School recommends that you start preparing for interviews a couple of weeks after sending in your written applications. That timing will ensure that you’re fully prepared by interview day.

Welcome to the Finish Line!

When you look at the long climb to the top of the MBA application process, you might feel a little overwhelmed. The good news is that if you follow all five steps we have outlined, you will know that you’ve done everything in your power to position yourself for success. When you cross the finish line, you’ll know that you did everything possible to achieve your goal of getting into your dream business school!

The Ultimate MBA Application Handbook

You only need one guide to getting into the world’s top business schools, and this is it!

Grab your copy of the ultimate MBA Application Handbook and receive 30 days of free access to our premium digital content for MBA applicants.