Once the MBA program deadlines are a few months away, you will need to be in execution mode – creating your resume, writing your essays, and corralling your recommenders. The best you can do at that point will be to explain away any weaknesses admissions committees may find in your MBA applications.
In other articles on our site, we share secrets that can help you get accepted by a top business school. This article will cover the reasons an admissions committee might reject your application.
We will teach you how to evaluate your MBA candidacy in five distinct areas:
In addition to helping you identify potential “dings” in your MBA application profile, we will recommend specific remedies so that you can proactively address each potential flaw and increase your chance of being accepted by a top business school.
To ensure that the trouble spots in your profile don’t result in a rejection letter, you must decide what needs to be done and design your action plan with whatever remaining time you have before submitting your applications.
Let’s begin the MBA candidacy assessment with your academic profile.
Academic Profile Ding
MBA admissions officers will evaluate your past academic performance and standardized test scores to judge whether you have the smarts, discipline, and drive to excel in their MBA program. As you’ll see, there are many things that you can and should do if you are concerned that your academic performance doesn’t meet the standards for the programs to which you are applying.
Please don’t count on your memory when it comes to your university grades. Order your transcripts well ahead of time while there is still time to take advantage of the steps we’ll share for countering poor grades if you have any.
When an admissions officer reviews your Academic Profile, there are a few things that might raise concerns:
- Low cumulative GPA or GPA in major
- No classes or average performance in quantitative, business-oriented, and/or communication and writing courses
- Test scores below the school’s median
- English language test scores below the median (e.g., TOEFL score)
- A Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree
- Degree from a school with a poor academic reputation
Let’s briefly examine each of these Academic Profile issues and what you can do to address them.
Low cumulative GPA or GPA in major
Your overall GPA and major GPA matter because they provide important signals about your academic aptitude, study habits, and attitude towards academic learning. A cumulative GPA below 3.25 puts your academic ability in question, at least for the most selective programs.
The most straightforward way to enhance your academic profile is to complete additional college-level or post-graduate coursework. Secondarily, while every MBA candidate benefits from a high GMAT score, standardized test scores will be even more critical if you need to combat a low GPA.
No classes or average performance in quantitative, business-oriented, and/or communication and writing courses
While your overall performance matters, a letter grade of a C or lower will also register on the “ding meter.” MBA admissions committees will pay particular attention to your performance in quantitative courses, such as Calculus and Statistics, core business courses, such as Finance and Accounting, and business-oriented courses, such as Economics. Communication courses, such as Writing and Public Speaking courses, will also be scrutinized because MBA programs demand that students possess excellent written and verbal communication abilities.
Take college-level courses in areas where your academic profile needs strengthening. We recommend that you take courses that award a letter grade because while a pass-fail class may prove you are motivated to prepare for an MBA, it won’t do as much to counteract weak undergraduate grades.
An “A” in a college-level business calculus course will partially mitigate concerns about your ability to handle the analytical rigor of an MBA degree. Taking part-time classes in statistics, finance, and accounting and scoring well will help your profile if your grades in business-oriented courses are shaky. If your written and verbal communication skills might be questioned, sharpening them in business communications or public speaking classes is recommended.
Bear in mind that college extension courses typically take 12 to 16 weeks to complete, so you need to register and complete courses well before the MBA application deadlines.
Another way to address concerns about your academic profile is through high achievement on assignments that demand the academic skill set in question. For example, you could demonstrate your analytical abilities by performing well on challenging quantitative projects at work. If your job doesn’t test your analytical skills, find a way to display those talents outside of work. For example, one MBA Prep School client created a complex financial model as a volunteer for a non-profit organization.
Test scores below the school’s median
A GMAT or GRE score below the median of the top programs may raise concerns, as will verbal or quantitative scores below the 80th percentile.
Take a GMAT or GRE prep course or hire a tutor, and retake the test. You should refer to your target schools’ policies about retaking the GMAT. Many MBA programs only consider your top score. Therefore, you have an incentive to continue taking the tests until you beat the medians or decide that you’ve maxed out with a given score.
English language test scores below the median
If English is not your first language and you didn’t study at an English-language university, most English-language business schools will require you to take the TOEFL Exam or an equivalent test. As with the GMAT, many schools report their median scores for the TOEFL, so you need to score above that median to be competitive.
Taking classes or working with a tutor to improve your English language skills and your TOEFL score may be necessary. Even if your TOEFL score isn’t a problem if you know that your language skills need work, invest the time toward sharpening them now. You’ll be glad you did when you’re invited for an admissions interview.
A Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree
Some international applicants – such as those from India – run into issues because they hold a three-year bachelor’s degree. Some U.S. MBA programs require applicants to have a four-year degree. Even programs that admit applicants with a three-year degree may view you as less competitive than candidates who graduated from a four-year program.
Suppose you only hold a three-year bachelor’s degree. In that case, you may need to complete a fourth year in a master’s program in your field of undergraduate study or a two-year degree in another discipline to be eligible for certain MBA programs. However, keep in mind that prior MBA-level coursework could make you ineligible to apply to some MBA programs.
Degree from a school with a poor academic reputation
Even if you have stellar grades, your Academic Profile might be hurt if your school doesn’t have a solid reputation in the academic community. If you attended what is affectionately known in the United States as a “party school” or if your degree is from a program admissions officers may not recognize, we encourage you to take some additional steps to fortify your academic profile.
Postgraduate study may also be a good idea if your undergraduate degree is from a school with a poor academic reputation. For the avoidance of doubt, we don’t recommend that you complete a Master in Business Administration with hopes that it will help you to be admitted to a better business school. Many MBA programs will not consider applicants who already hold an MBA.
Earning a professional designation, such as a CPA or CFA, might also strengthen the academic profile of MBA candidates whose degree is from an unknown or less-respected undergraduate program.
Career Progress Ding
Once the admissions committee is convinced that you possess the Academic Profile to succeed in their program, they will likely turn their attention to what you’ve accomplished since graduating from university.
The time to take a hard look at your career progress isn’t a couple of weeks before you sit down to finalize your resume and write your MBA application essays. Long before you apply, you’ll want to evaluate your career progress and predict how your career story might strike an MBA admissions committee. Even if you are applying just a few months from now, you should view every day as an opportunity to add another exciting chapter to your career story.
When an admissions officer reviews your Career Progress, there are a few things that might raise concerns:
- Lackluster resume: low-level role(s), unknown company, and/or limited achievements
- Limited evidence of career progress: promotions, increases in responsibility, new skills or relationships
- Weak references or limited evidence of recognition by superiors
- “Too technical” — limited evidence of managerial potential
Lackluster resume: low-level role(s), unknown company, or limited achievements
Returning to school for an MBA isn’t about jumpstarting a flailing career. Top business schools admit candidates who are on the way up in their careers.
Name brand firms on your resume – such as McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Google, or Apple – will help. If your resume isn’t brimming with blue-chip firms, you will have to work harder to convince the admissions committee that the quality of your experience is comparable to that of candidates from name-brand firms.
Everyone has to start somewhere, but if it appears you haven’t progressed beyond an entry-level job and made some significant achievements in your positions, then applying to business school might be premature.
Let’s start with the most radical prescription first and then provide more targeted steps for addressing “dings” in your career story.
If you are more than 18 months away from applying for an MBA, you should ask yourself whether changing jobs, companies, or even your career path as a whole is the best choice given your alternatives.
Suppose your learning curve has flat-lined, and opportunities to enhance your management and leadership skills simply aren’t available at work. In that case, you should seriously consider a job change. All in all, if a career change is the best next step in a well-designed career action plan, then it is probably also the best next step for strengthening your MBA candidacy.
On the other hand, if you are less than 18 months away from applying to business school, we advise you against changing jobs. You probably won’t have enough time to establish yourself in your new position, and it’s unlikely you’ll have time to make any noteworthy leadership contributions. Instead, you could consider postponing your MBA application to give you time to make a career change and accelerate your career progress.
Limited evidence of career progress: promotions, increases in responsibility, new skills or relationships
MBA admissions officers need to see evidence that you’ve made forward progress in your chosen career. There are a few different ways they will seek to measure your career progress: promotions ahead of schedule, increased responsibility on your team, the acquisition of new skills, and the formation of vital professional relationships.
Volunteer for stretch assignments and unique projects. Showing up for work and doing what you’re told is a good formula for staying employed, but it won’t get you promoted, and it won’t help get you into business school. If you want to earn a spot in a top business school, you have to show initiative and distinguish yourself from your peers.
If you’re working in an over-represented field for MBA applicants like investment banking or consulting, you need to pursue unique projects that will set you apart. That may mean volunteering for projects that others are unable or unwilling to tackle. For example, one successful applicant from a consulting firm volunteered for an international assignment in the Middle East in the middle of summer while his colleagues hid under their desks. His admit letter was a welcome reward for the months he spent outrunning sandstorms and baking in the desert heat.
Weak references or limited evidence of recognition by superiors
If you take the other prescriptions about enhancing your professional profile to heart, your superiors should have no problem writing you stellar MBA recommendation letters. They’ll have plenty of excellent examples to draw on to show how you’ve delivered for your team. If you don’t believe your superiors would be willing to write you sparkling reference letters, you need to address this shortcoming immediately.
We want you to cultivate mentor relationships. Mentors will help you navigate essential career decisions and will be able to identify ways that you can accelerate your career progress. More to the point, strong mentor relationships can prove essential to your success in the MBA application process. A reference letter from a mentor with a vested interest in your success will be many times more powerful than one from a boss who isn’t invested in seeing you succeed.
On a related note, you should remember that you’re going to need two to three recommendation letters. Building solid relationships with mentors in a community service setting who could write you a reference letter is a great way to provide admissions officers insight about the person you are outside of the office.
Our advice is to start forming these relationships now! There is a significant difference between cultivating a mentor relationship over time and manufacturing one a few months before applying to business school.
“Too technical” – limited evidence of managerial potential
There are some cases in which exceptional career progress doesn’t always correlate with MBA admissions success. Candidates who have made outstanding progress in a technical field may not be admitted into a top MBA program unless their technical achievements are matched by evidence of managerial potential.
If you’re a software engineer, a biochemist, or a derivatives trader, you might have a resume full of technical accomplishments. To get admitted to business school, you need to look for opportunities in your current job to develop and demonstrate the skills business schools are looking for: management skills, interpersonal abilities, and leadership capabilities. If such opportunities don’t present themselves in your current role, you need to be creative.
We’ve had a couple of MBA Prep School clients who started businesses on the side. Others volunteered to run a survey of existing customers, draft a business plan for a new division, or spend a few months working on the product marketing team.
The point is that if you’re serious about going to a top business school, then you will want to be scanning the horizon for every opportunity to show the MBA admissions committee that you are more than just a gearhead, quant jock, or rocket scientist. You must convince them that you are a future business leader as well.
Leadership Portfolio Ding
Accelerating your career progress includes finding ways to acquire leadership skills and reaching for opportunities to demonstrate your leadership potential at work. Whether you’re an investment banker, a management consultant, or a software engineer, the stories you have to tell about the times you have taken the lead are critical to earning an acceptance letter at a top business school.
If you want to be competitive for a top business school, you must be able to demonstrate a “habit of leadership” both inside and outside of work. Before applying for an MBA, take a hard look at the depth and breadth of your Leadership Portfolio – the collection of experiences you have leading others. An empty Leadership Portfolio might seriously undermine your candidacy for a top-tier business school. Admissions officers will be concerned by:
- Limited evidence of leadership at work
- Limited evidence of leadership outside of work
- Lack of insight about leadership capabilities and leadership development needs
- A leadership style that appears authoritarian or self-serving
Limited evidence of leadership at work
Some candidates are initially intimidated when they come across a leadership essay question in their application. They don’t think they have any leadership stories to tell. MBA admissions committees understand you are early in your career and don’t expect you to be running a division of your company or leading large teams of people. Nevertheless, they will expect you to have influenced others and positively impacted on a smaller scale.
Leading in “ordinary situations” but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees look for in your Leadership Portfolio at work.
Pulling a week of all-nighters alone in your cubicle building the ultimate financial model is an impressive individual accomplishment, but it is not an example of leadership. In the months and years leading up to your application submission, you need to take every opportunity to make a leadership impact at work.
This isn’t a matter of climbing over others in a mad scramble to the top of the corporate ladder. Instead, you should be looking for ways to serve your team and make your organization stronger.
Look for opportunities to:
- Coordinate efforts to solve a long-standing problem faced by your organization
- Persuade your colleagues to follow you in a new direction
- Help others work together more effectively
- Assemble and lead a lean, high-performing team that achieves something significant
- Mentor and teach others, thereby enabling them to succeed
The common denominator is that a leadership accomplishment has to do with achieving something that simply can’t be done independently. The achievement demands the cooperation, contribution, support, and energy of other people. Leaders form a vision of the way things could be, tap into other people’s passions, and devote energy to rallying others to work together to make a difference. It’s essential to keep this definition clearly in mind when evaluating ways to enhance your Leadership Portfolio at work.
Limited evidence of leadership outside of work
Most applicants have heard that community service is important to admissions committees. Armed with this knowledge, MBA candidates volunteer for a few community service activities and list these organizations on their MBA application forms, and think they are done.
Unfortunately, those candidates have missed the point. Although participation in a community service organization is laudable, your leadership within the organization actually matters to the admission board. If you haven’t taken the opportunity to lead during university or at work, community service leadership is practically mandatory for admission to the most selective business schools.
Applicants often ask us which community service they should join if they hope to be admitted to a top business school. From an admissions officer’s standpoint, no community service organization is better than another. Admissions officers just want to know that the volunteer work you have done is meaningful to you.
Furthermore, the quality of your leadership experience is always more important than quantity. One significant leadership achievement can outweigh a laundry list of more limited volunteer work.
If you are ready to get involved in your community, look for an organization with a mission that matters to you. Find an emotional connection and work on a problem that you have a passionate interest in solving. For example, if you are a first-generation American who benefited from free English language classes, you could volunteer to teach classes. Better yet, work at the organizational level to raise money and expand program offerings to reach more students.
If you can’t find an activity that turns you on and you see an unmet need in your community, then start an organization! If you’re successful, you’ll have a fantastic story to share from your leadership portfolio.
Suppose you’re already volunteering for a community service organization. In that case, you should look for the same kinds of opportunities to lead that we talked about in the prescription above about building your Leadership Portfolio at work. You need to harness the energy of other people, generate results, and make a real difference. Your leadership could take any number of forms: you could lead a fundraising drive, pull together a team that addresses a long-standing organizational problem or join board members in developing a five-year strategic plan.
Lack of insight about leadership capabilities and leadership development needs
Admissions officers are also interested in your insights about your leadership style and capabilities and what you’ve learned about leadership. You should address a lack of insights into your leadership development needs through self-reflection and leadership coaching.
The web is stacked with books about leadership; as an individual who intends to be a leader of consequence in the future, you should be reading about the art and science of leadership. In addition to reading what others have to say on the topic, you will want to develop your personal leadership philosophy.
Actual, hands-on leadership experience is ultimately the best way to learn about your leadership style and capabilities. Then again, it might take some effort to see your leadership strengths clearly. Our article on demonstrating leadership can help you learn how to analyze your leadership achievement stories to yield insights about your leadership capabilities and development needs.
A leadership style that appears to be authoritarian or self-serving
Not all leadership styles are valued equally by the top MBA programs. Admissions committees are likely to be turned off if the evidence suggests that you have an authoritarian or self-serving leadership style. Admissions committees want to see evidence that you can work collaboratively as part of a team and that you put the needs of others and your organization ahead of your personal ambitions. The top MBA programs welcome team-oriented leadership styles.
It’s not too late to adapt your leadership style in favor of a more collaborative and team-oriented approach to leading. Admissions committees seem to prize the “Servant Leadership” style. “Servant leadership” demands that you place the organization’s missions and values first, your team second, and your own needs a distant third. This style is the opposite of the leader who seeks to accumulate power and influence for their own sake or satisfy hunger for control.
It bears mentioning that community service leadership is, by definition, servant leadership. There are no promotions, raises, or bonuses for a job well done. Community service leadership will provide good evidence that you are a “giver,” not a “taker” as a leader.
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Career Goals Ding
MBA Programs were founded on the belief that business leaders can and do play a powerful role in contributing to the prosperity of society. Business schools are looking for future leaders who aren’t just in it for themselves. In truth, many admissions officers take great pride in the job of identifying the future business leaders in a sea of applicants– the ones who will graduate and go on to change lives and change the world.
When it comes to essay and interview questions about your career goals, the “I will figure my goals out once I’m in business school” answer isn’t sufficient. If you haven’t determined your career goals, how can an admissions officer be sure an MBA is your best next step? More importantly, how can you?
The bottom line is that an MBA application with ill-defined or uninteresting career goals will not compare favorably with other applicants who know where they want to go and clearly explain how an MBA will help get them there. Admissions officers know that you’ll have more work to do once you are in business school than there are hours in the day – there’s simply not much time for self-reflection and career planning. In fact, within weeks of arriving on campus for your first year, you’ll be polishing your resume up and submitting it to recruiters for summer internships. If you don’t have a vision for your career, you probably won’t benefit from the MBA experience in the same way as other candidates who have a defined career vision.
For all of the above reasons, admissions officers will be evaluating your career goals closely, and there are several shortcomings that they could ding you for:
- Undefined career vision
- Career goals lack a sense of purpose: passion, meaning, and significance
- Lack of evidence that candidate understands his or her future industry
- Dots don’t connect between prior skills/experiences and post-MBA career goals
- Unconvincing motivations for pursuing an MBA
- A weak case for pursuing an MBA from our school
A year or two before applying for an MBA is the best time to do some serious thinking about where you want to be ten years from now and how you plan to get there. Don’t wait until it’s time to write your career goals essays for your application to start your career planning work. When the application deadlines are in sight, it can be hard to find time to do any serious career planning.
Establishing and clarifying your career goals is a time-intensive process when done correctly. That means that the sooner you start this process, the stronger your candidacy will be when it comes time to apply. Invest time now to design an exciting career action plan. You’ll be ahead of the game when it comes time to answer the inevitable career goals questions you will confront in application essays and admissions interviews.
Lucky for you, MBA Prep School has a wealth of resources to guide you through the process of designing your career goals. Instead of discussing each prescription in this article, we want to refer you to those articles on our website so you can get to work crafting your career action plan: Dream Big – Your Career Goals.
School Research Ding
Deciding to go to business school is a major life decision – not to mention a major investment decision. You need to show the MBA admissions committee that you fully appreciate what their business school offers and the value of earning the degree.
School research begins with defining the reasons you want to go to business school. If the only answer you have to the question “why do you want an MBA?” is “I’m in a two-year analyst program, and everyone goes for an MBA,” then you are unlikely to be admitted. If you haven’t built a solid case for this considerable investment of time and money, admissions committees will wonder what kind of business leader you’re going to be in the future.
When it comes to articulating your motivations for pursuing an MBA, you’ll impress admissions officers if you can present a convincing case that an MBA is essential to your future career aspirations—not just adding those three letters to your resume but all the things that an MBA imparts: skills, knowledge, leadership experience, the network, and personal growth. To pull that off, you need to educate yourself on the value of an MBA degree and engage in extensive research on the various MBA programs available.
Similarly, admissions officers will want to know why you are applying to their school. If the only answer you have is “You guys were ranked #1 on the internet,” then we want to persuade you that it’s time to start building a stronger case for your choice of schools.
The good news is that the prescription for addressing this weakness is relatively straightforward – you need to invest time now building a convincing case for applying. The not-so-good news is that this will take some work!
Some more good news, MBA Prep School has outlined a step-by-step research program that will enable you to choose the business schools that are the best fit for your academic goals, career aspirations, and cultural expectations. You’ll need to look beyond the web rankings, the school’s marketing messages, and second-hand opinions to identify the schools that are the best ones for you.
When you are ready to start the process of choosing a program, here’s the place to start: Choosing an MBA Program
You should now have a much clearer understanding of what MBA admissions officers will be looking for, some insights into application profile weaknesses you might want to address, and the prescriptions for overcoming those weaknesses before assembling your applications.
We talked about potential weaknesses in five distinct areas of your candidacy, and we offered several prescriptions for strengthening your application in these areas before you apply.
- Improve your Academic Profile through additional courses and by demonstrating skills at work and in community service.
- Accelerate your Career Progress by changing jobs or making the most of your current position.
- Build your Leadership Profile by making an impact at work and a difference in your community.
- Define your Career Goals clearly and expand your knowledge and relationships in the field you want to work in.
- Engage in extensive research to find the MBA programs that offer everything you need in a business school.
We encourage you to use the precious time between now and your application deadlines to make your candidacy as strong as it can be. The proactive steps you take now will offer you a competitive advantage over the MBA candidates praying that their application flaws will go unnoticed. At best, they’ll be trying to explain away weaknesses, whereas you’ll be able to point to the substantive ways that you’ve addressed the dings that might keep you from being accepted by your dream 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.