[ 7 Admissions Criteria of Top MBA Schools ]
Keep in mind as you read through the seven items that their ranking applies
only to top MBA programs. Less competitive programs have entirely different
motivations behind their admissions decisions.
v Number 1 - YOUR GMAT SCORE:
It's sad, but it's true: your GMAT score is probably the most important factor in determining
whether you will be admitted to a top business school.
I want to clarify that statement, though, so you won't misunderstand me.
Most applicants believe there is a significant difference between a 680 and a 720
on the GMAT. There isn't.
The extra 40 points won't help your chances of being admitted.
That's why I'm frustrated when I hear from people who score 680
and insist on retaking the exam.
They would be better served by burning their GMAT-prep books
and turning their attention to the application essays (the next step in the process).
If you hope to have a reasonable chance of being admitted to a top program, though,
your GMAT score will need to be "in the ballpark."
If it isn't you'll have a hard time winning a spot at A-list schools no matter how good
your work experience and undergraduate GPA might be.
That's why I believe GMAT score is the most important factor
in being admitted to a top program.
If your score isn't in the ballpark, you won't be in the game.
v Number 2 - YOUR APPLICATION ESSAYS:
Once you've gotten your GMAT score into the proper range,
the most important thing you can do is write good essays,
not try to push your score up a few more points by retaking the exam.
An extra 30 points will not be worth nearly as much as a well thought out set of essays
that convince an admissions officer that you have something valuable
to contribute to his school.
Your work background will determine who you compete against for admission spots.
But what you say about your background and how well you say it will determine
whether you beat those competitors. That's why the essays are so important.
v Number 3 - TIMING YOUR APPLICATION :
If you don't apply early, you probably won't be going to a top school.
Although there are opinions to the contrary, I still believe it's best to apply in the first round,
especially if you feel you're a strong candidate.
Most schools have three application periods, but some have as many as five.
(And some schools work on a pure "rolling" basis.)
The problem with the first round is the quality of its applicants.
There are a lot of "sharks" in that round.
They aced the GMAT, got good grades in college and have great work experience.
To top it all off, they managed to get their acts together and finish their applications
in time for the first-round deadlines.
You don't necessarily want to be compared with those freaks,
so it's tempting to skip the first round in hopes of finding more slobs like you (and me)
in round two. It sounds good, but there's a problem with that strategy.
There will be more than twice as many applicants in round two
as there were in round one; and they will be competing for fewer open spots.
v Number 4 - YOUR GPA :
Surprising, isn't it?
You would think that your undergraduate GPA would be weighted more heavily,
but at most schools it isn't (and for good reasons).
First, most B-school applicants were not planning to apply to graduate programs,
so they might not have focused on playing the grade game the way most premed
or pre-law students did.
Why hold mediocre grades against an applicant who had no intention
of applying to grad school five years down the line?
Second, that was then and this is now.
I've heard from a number of admissions people that they discount undergraduate
GPAs because they are old measures of performance.
Admissions people are more interested in how you perform now
(thus the emphasis on GMAT scores).
I remember one director, however, pointing out how the emphasis on GPA
can vary from candidate to candidate.
He said that he has to rely more heavily on GPA when evaluating the candidacy
of a relatively young applicant who has been in the workforce only a short time.
For another applicant with five years of work experience,
however, he puts more emphasis on that experience
and on the applicant's GMAT score and less emphasis on his (more distant)
While I list GPA as number 4 in order of importance,
you shouldn't think that its value is set in stone.
The evaluation process is fairly holistic, so if you performed well in college, emphasize
that performance and the admissions staff may buy into it.
If you didn't perform well, talk about your terrific GMAT score
and ignore your undergrad years.
Whatever you do, don't whine about your mediocre grades;
take responsibility for them. There is one excuse, however, that you can get away with.
If you worked and paid your own way through undergrad, be sure to mention
that in your essays. Working is the one universal justification for bad grades.
(A comment I've heard from many admissions officers.)
I've already talked about the type of experience applicants have
(see application element number 2 -- the Application Essays).
Here I want to talk about the amount of work experience you bring to the table.
Most of you know that the average number of years of full-time work experience
has risen dramatically at the top B-schools.
Schools that only recently averaged two or three years now average five.
And that number keeps rising.
I have many ambitious students in my GMAT classes who insist on taking their shot
at the brass ring with only two years of full-time work experience.
(And that's by the time they would enter school, not when they plan to apply.)
Although some of them are exceptionally bright and do well on the GMAT,
very few of them make it into top-tier programs.
Most end up "trading down" to a backup school or getting rejected altogether.
I have to admit that I agree with admissions officers who reject inexperienced applicants.
The whole objective in assembling a business school class is to put together people
who can share unique experiences from their industries.
If you have two years in your industry and another applicant has five years
in the same business, I'm going to take the more experienced candidate over you,
even if his GMAT score is a little lower than yours.
I'll let you in on a little secret that even most admissions officers don't know
(or won't admit to knowing): A significant percentage of applicants to top B-schools
write their own letters of recommendation.
I know this because I'm on the "sell side" of the admissions transaction.
(I sound like an investment banker, don't I?)
My students regularly ask me what they should write in their recommendations.
It isn't that applicants are trying to cheat the game;
the problem is that most recommenders don't want to take the time to write a long letter
or fill in the "grid boxes" found in some recommendation forms.
So they ask the applicant to do the dirty work and agree to sign the finished product.
v Number 7 - MBA INTERVIEWS:
Before you get all bent out of shape, let me explain.
I agree that the interview can be a critical part of the admissions decision
and should not always rank dead last in order of importance.
But its importance varies dramatically from school to school.
At some schools, your interview can make the difference between being accepted
and spending another year riding your desk 60 hours a week.
At others, though, it's meaningless and deserves to be listed last.
You may know that some schools are very aggressive about interviewing candidates.
Kellogg, for instance, is terrific about it.
The school has long set the standard for interviewing.
And not only does UNC - Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) require an interview of U.S. applicants,
but it requires that the interview be conducted on campus. (Crazy, huh?)
So the interview can be important at some schools and, at those schools,
I certainly would not list it last.
Stanford, on the other hand, would just as soon give you the finger as interview you.
(Okay, I know that Stanford started interviewing some applicants this year,
but it was a funny line and I had to use it.)
So interviewing can be meaningless at some school or it can be significant.
It all depends on the school and your personal situation.