Anyone considering an MBA knows just how much work goes into it. That’s just as true for applications as for the post-MBA career search.
Despite the effort required, there’s a very clear and orderly process to your MBA application. Once you know what’s expected, you’ll be able to submit the best possible application to each of your top choice schools.
From essays and interviews to the first days on campus, you’ll be asked why MBA, so it’s critical that you know the answer to this question long before you begin the application process. It’ll also help you choose the right schools and write meaningful essays.
So why do you want an MBA?
MBA applicants all have their own reasons for pursuing this degree, but there are a few obvious motivators.
1. Financial motivations
According to research reported by Forbes, most full-time MBA graduates from the Top 50 business schools can expect an average salary increase of 50% post-MBA. On top of this, many of these graduates have their salary doubled in the next 5 years.
These high expectations are most likely fueled by the mystique that surrounds an MBA, and the idea is reinforced by the generally positive changes that occur when a person receives the degree.
Salaries do increase because of receiving an MBA, but not at large multiples of pre-MBA wages as so many expect. Counselors at MBA schools work to impress on students that more than just an MBA is needed to get above average salary increases. That aside, for many, a salary increase is not the main purpose of doing the degree.
2. Career change
The MBA is a recognised degree anywhere in the world. Having those letters behind your name can open plenty of doors. If you’re hoping to switch careers, the MBA makes it less likely that you’ll need to claw your way up from the bottom again.
Stats from a Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) survey of prospective MBA students demonstrate that 72% of full-time MBA respondents are looking for a change in job function after graduation and 61% want to change industries.
Of course, not all MBAs are after corporate jobs. If you’re hoping to launch your own startup, you’ll have a better chance of success after business school.
The business fail rate for MBA-founded enterprises is significantly lower than those without the fancy degree. There are several reasons behind the success rate, beginning with practical skills and certainly continuing through the contacts you can call on after graduation.
3. Intangible MBA ROI and benefits
According to a previous GMAC survey, the top motivation was the ability to put MBA 'on your resume' (56%). MBA skills are recognised just about everywhere in the world. In addition to management skills, you’ll develop practical leadership and all the soft skills needed to succeed.
Indeed, it’s much faster to gain these skills in a one or two-year intensive setting than the years you’d need on the job.
And then there’s the network. Whatever business school you attend, you can count on alumni past and future. The network of contacts and the internships experienced generate far greater value than an immediate salary increase upon graduation - and last a lifetime.
Alumni networks are where you turn when you need a job, a mentor or a connection across the globe. They’re the people that will meet you personally at the airport when it’s time to do business in Shanghai, Dubai or Des Moines. Alumni make recommendations and serve as references when you need them.
Still, if it all boils down to the financials, it’s important to keep the Cost of Attendance (CoA) in mind while calculating the expected ROI for your top schools.
How to choose an MBA programme
Applying to a number of schools randomly will not only waste your financial resources but also will weaken your confidence. You’ll need to create a shortlist of schools that match your priorities and expectations.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing it’s a top-tier MBA programme or nothing at all. Elite programmes report amazing salaries and their networks open doors all over the world. But, it’s not a realistic goal for every applicant.
The good news is that return on investment tends to be higher in second-tier schools. If you’re looking for value for money, a shot at an amazing job, a solid network, and all sorts of new skills, you’ll find the best value for money in schools ranked between 21 and 45 on top programme lists.
But, school selection requires a deeper dive. Among internship opportunities and club activities, you’ll need to consider these aspects when researching schools:
- What does your post-MBA career look like? If your post-MBA career is in the industry where your preferred school has strong influence, it makes more sense to choose that school. This will give you an advantage if your work experience is relevant to your future career.
- Where do you want to work? London businesses tend to look at schools in London before looking abroad. So if you want to work in London, then you want to accept a school in London. It’s that simple. (Don’t worry; there are plenty of 1-year MBA programmes in the US, so if you want to work in the US, but don’t have 2 years to study, you’ve still got options.)
- Does the school have a specialisation? Some schools run specialised modules and offer electives that can make all the difference to your future career. For example, Cornell has a dedicated stock trading terminal to give a real feeling and atmosphere of a stock market environment.
- Does it have an active alumni network? Think of your MBA programme as a wedding, and everything after it as a marriage. An alumni network will provide you with a lifetime of connections and rewards – regardless of the field you pursue.
- What is the expected ROI? What can you afford to pay now and how much can you expect to earn? Not sure about the numbers? Check out this handy calculator and make the best decision for you.
MBA application guide
Some programmes accept less than 10% of applicants in a given year. And, many of the best business schools aren’t far behind that. There are just a lot of qualified people that want seats and a lot of myths surrounding MBA admissions.
There may be no right way to complete you business school applications, but there are definitely wrong ways. The biggest mistake is leaving it to the last minute; the process is simply too big for a fast deadline. And, MBA admissions committees are looking for a level of clarity that you can’t get in a rush.
When to apply for MBA programmes
If you’re serious about applying to business school, you already know that you should apply as early as possible. But, can you apply to top business schools during the 4th round and still be accepted?
Truthfully, it all boils down to the school’s policies and your application.
A few business schools don’t have application rounds at all. That’s not to say these schools don’t have deadlines, only that there is one final date you can’t afford to miss.
Vlerick is the most stringent of the rolling admission group; the school provides concrete dates for EU and non-EU citizens.
Cass adds a note to their website when closure is imminent. They may provide some warning, but if you’re battling to get your application organised, it may not be enough.
ESMT takes applications until the class is filled – and you never know when that is.
Then there are the schools with set application rounds. Many European schools operate with 4 rounds; the 3rd round operates similarly to the 2nd round in the United States.
The London Business School admissions portion of their website doesn’t give a whole lot of advice, except for deadline dates.
Cranfield also offers 4 rounds, but they also provide advice: if you need to live on campus, then apply early.
It suggests that the only difference between round 1 and round 4 MBA applications is the amount of housing available not your chance of acceptance.
Oxford offers the same advice, but they have a whopping 6 rounds of MBA applications.
However, if you want to choose your college, then you’ll need to be accepted in the first three rounds.
You may be hitting your top choice schools in round 1 (with high hopes, of course) while you have shortlisted additional schools in the US for round 3 applications. Remember, your chances of securing a visa in time is slim if you wait until round 3 to apply.
Some schools, such as Harvard Business School specifically state that you should apply before the round 2 deadline as an international student requiring a visa to study in the US.
Always apply to your top schools as soon as you possibly can. This tells a school that you want to be admitted, and that:
- You’re a motivated candidate (you’ve been thinking about it for a long time).
- That school is one of your top choices (don’t worry about appearing overeager).
- You want to be prepared and involved in campus life.
Applying during round 1 means you’ll need to have all the aspects of your submission in order roughly a year before you hope to be on campus. You’ll need to get started on your application a year before that.
Alternative MBA admissions
If standard study or the traditional academic calendar doesn’t fit your life, you may want to check out alternative MBA admissions.
Part-time MBA study If your top choice business school is around the corner from your home (or your employer is willing to relocate you for a few years), part-time MBA study is a strong option. It will allow you to engage in campus activities while maintaining an income even if it’s reduced. Many businesses are willing to reimburse their employees for study as long as they remain in the company.
However, international students will find it very difficult to pursue part-time education. In the United States, for example, part-time study is not enough to secure a visa on educational grounds.
Not every university offers the option of enrolling mid-year. But, for those that do, this is often the best option for international students. While it may put you out of step with your fellow MBA candidates, it will put you on campus. You can take advantage of all the benefits of MBA campus study while arguably facing reduced competition for your seat.
If you’ve been waitlisted for the main incoming term at your top choice university, you could consider investigating whether you could defer your admission. A waitlist option means the university feels very strongly about you, not the reverse.
What GMAT score do you need for top business schools?
The answer is simple: the best score you can achieve.
There are a few schools that provide minimum GMAT scores, but most don’t; schools don’t want to turn away top talent based on one aspect of an MBA application, be it your GMAT or your GPA.
That said, most business schools clearly state the average GMAT score for the latest MBA class - and they’re hoping that most applicants will fall within a range close to this number, if not higher.
If you’re looking at top international business schools, you should work towards a 700+ GMAT score, but you shouldn’t hold back if you don’t reach it.
Even when you don’t see minimum GMAT scores or a school’s application page downplays the need for a 700+ score, you shouldn’t discount the importance of this test.
And, remember, business schools offering Master’s in Management or Master’s in Finance degrees often have different expectations for these programmes than they do for their MBA offerings.
You may also need to submit proof of English proficiency in the form of TOEFL or IELTS scores. While you’re more likely to find minimum TOEFL test scores than you are GMAT minimums, there are also a number of exceptions and schools that doesn’t require any proof of English proficiency… until you get to the interview round.
How to write your MBA essay
After the GMAT, MBA admissions essays are likely to be the biggest hurdle for most MBA applicants.
Over the years, the number of required essays has risen and fallen; you’ll find some schools still require five or more essays while others only ask for two. While word counts are usually quite low (around 500 words), it’s still critical to spend plenty of time crafting each one individually for each school.
In addition to very specific prompts, which vary from year to year and school to school, you’ll also be asked for a personal statement. This is very different from a Statement of Purpose essay - and it’s important not to confuse the two.
You’ll spend plenty of time crafting essays that tell your story and speak to the school you wish to attend. And, you may want to keep these tips in mind as you work:
- Avoid over-emphasis on any one aspect. You may have an incredible GMAT score or loads of leadership experiences, but you don’t want to draw attention to these aspects in an attempt to cover up less than stellar areas of your application. Instead focus on areas that demonstrate who you really are.
- Never submit the same essay to another school. Every school wants something different. While you can use the same basic framework for different schools, you don’t want the exact same essay. Make sure each one represents the qualities each school wants.
- Always follow instructions. You are not exempt from the rules. Not following them is likely to put you on the rejection pile immediately. If the essay is supposed to be 500 words, then it shouldn’t be 513 words.
Creating the perfect CV for your MBA
There’s a strong chance that you’ve got a CV or resume that’s fairly up to date and ready to go.
But, the CV you would submit to a potential employer is not the same one that will get you accepted into a top MBA programme.
MBA admissions committees want to see a CV that focuses on leadership rather than technical specs.
MBA CV hacks
- Keep it concise. Unless you’ve had over 40 years of experience, your b-school CV should fit on a single page. Cut unnecessary words and events and remember that nothing before your undergrad matters. If you really need to include something, consider that optional essay rather than a longer CV.
- Mind the gap. If you’ve taken any breaks in your career or your undergrad schooling, you’ll want to make sure you account for this in your CV. Unexplained gaps will give admissions officers reasons to question your commitment levels. Addressing them allows you to put a positive spin on an unfortunate time.
- White space is king. Not only do you want to keep your CV to one page, you still need to have plenty of white space on that page. More than just borders, you need to have gaps between lines. You should also be using a sans-serif font, such as Arial that makes your words feel less cluttered.
- Leave off your hobbies. The CV that accompanies your b-school application shouldn’t waffle on about what you like to do, your marital status or include irrelevant information, such as your blood type. Stick to your accomplishments and leave the personal information for your essays and interviews. Above all, focus on leadership opportunities you’ve seized or created for yourself and avoid making crucial mistakes that even ad comms warn against.
MBA Reference letters and format
You may think referrals are the one area of your application where you can take a breather, but it’s simply not true.
Not only do you need to spend time finding the right references for your MBA application, but you’ll need to actively guide them through the process.
No, you can’t write your own reference letters and there’s a chance you won’t see what’s been written about you. But, it’s still your responsibility to inform your references on:
- Why you want an MBA.
- Why you think you’re a good fit with a school.
- Which aspects of your work you hope they’ll focus on.
- What aspects of your personality can’t be explained in other areas of the application.
You’ll also need to make the deadlines clear and check in with them if they’re taking too long. And, at the end of it - whether you’re admitted or not - don’t forget to thank them for their time and effort.
Admissions consultants and MBA essay editing services
Some MBA applicants choose to work with admissions consultants because they want their best shot at acceptance to their top choices.
Consultants are professionals – they don’t imagine facts, stretch the truth, or craft your essays for you. They work with you to ensure that your grad school application is packaged in the best possible way. They will guide you - and possibly push you in a new direction - but they work with the material they are given.
Services (and pricing) varies between MBA admissions consultants, but most typically offer:
- School fit evaluation: They know which schools excel at different styles of learning, their outcomes, what they’re looking for in applicants, and best-practice for admissions.
- Resume review: In addition to help with resume clean up, consultants often review your CV for potential essay topics.
- Essay guidance and editing: This is arguably the single biggest reason MBA hopefuls turn to admissions consultants. And, from ideas to editing, MBA consultants offer a lot of assistance here.
- Interview preparation: Admissions consultants are experts at helping you decide what to say (or not say) and how to deliver those messages for your best shot at acceptance.
Remember, most reputable admissions consultants only take on a limited number of applicants; arrive too late, and you may be turned away. And, take the time to understand the costs beforehand; pricing structures vary widely between consultants.
After you submit your MBA applications
Unbelievably, the work you do now could be the most important in the application process. Here are just a few crucial points you shouldn’t miss.
- Visit campus (if you can): If the campuses of your top choice schools are close enough, your presence on their grounds (especially if it’s organised through the admissions office) could demonstrate your commitment to the school. It may also help you formulate questions for the interview stage.
- Retake the GMAT: This is the last thing you want to hear, but if your score isn’t what you wanted, you might want to try again now that the deadline has passed. It could move you from the waitlist to your placement in a class.
- Reach out to alumni: You’ll be an alumnus of your school a lot longer than you will be on campus. Reaching out to an MBA alumni now will tell you a lot more about your expectations as a student, and more importantly, the sort of network and activities you will have access to after graduation.
- Prepare for interviews: As much as you would like to think you’ll get plenty of time to reflect on the interviews when the request comes in, the truth is that you won’t have much time at all. Thinking through your answers – and your questions – may be the best use of your time at this moment.
MBA admissions interviews
Rather than rehashing the information submitted in essays and application forms, MBA admissions interviews provide candidates with an opportunity to truly demonstrate their skills.
Sometimes, interviews are conducted by alumni in a city near you, while other schools offer Skype or telephone interviews. But, if at all possible, it’s a good idea to travel to campus for your interview. If shows them that you’re serious - and gives you an opportunity to look closer at the school community beforehand.
You might also face a group interview with several candidates vying for the same seat as you. Working with other potential students reveals to admissions officers whether an applicant can “play well with others” – and more importantly, that they can do it when their own personal success is on the line.
Either way, the interview is a two-way street; you should be reassessing your fit with the school as much as your interviewers are looking at how you’ll add to their classrooms and campus. One way to achieve both is through the questions you ask at an MBA interview.
While, it’s unlikely that your interview will be exactly like another’s experience, the more tips you get from people that went through it at your preferred school, the better. These are the killer tips you need once you get that critical interview request.
Tips for group MBA interviews:
Be prepared to make tough decisions. A compromise that everyone can live with isn’t always good for business. Demonstrate your decisiveness, rather than watering down a solution.
Recognise the bright idea that wasn’t yours. Business is about promoting the winning concepts. If you can spot an idea that’s better, your ability to forecast, learn and adapt will surely be noticed.
Play a leader. In the group MBA interview, everyone is trying to be the leader. Try to be a leader instead. Imagine that everyone is the head of their own business and you’re all on par with each other.
Admits and waitlists
No matter where in the world you’re sitting at the moment, if you got into (at least) one of your top-choice business schools, you’ve really achieved something.
If you were accepted to two or more schools, you’ll need to make a decision. Choosing between MBA offers is tricky. While you won’t have much time, it’s a big decision and you’ll want to consider your options seriously.
Make the most of admits weekends
Admits Weekend isn’t just for those wavering between schools. If you’ve only been admitted to one school, or the financial aid package at one is enough to convince you to decline other offers, Admits Weekend is the first time you’ll be part of the campus experience.
It’s a chance to:
- Figure out where things are and how to take advantage of resources.
- Introduce yourself to the financial aid office (which is a terrific idea for most students).
- Chat with current students and alumni about classes, or even the best local restaurants.
- Determine your housing and transport situation.
- Visit the city where you’ll live and allow your spouse (or anyone coming with you) to become accustomed to the surrounds.
- Meet future classmates and professors.
True, not everyone can make it to Admits Weekends. But, if you can, you should; it’s your last chance to make the right decision about your educational future.
Everything you need to know about the world's best business schools
- Alliance Manchester Business School
- Cass Business School
- Chicago Booth School of Business
- Cranfield School of Management
- ESMT Berlin
- HEC Paris Business School
- INSEAD Business School
- London Business School
- Michigan Ross Business School
- Oxford Saïd Business School
- Rotterdam School of Management
- Stanford Graduate School of Business
- Wharton School of Business
What happens when you’re waitlisted?
A spot on the waitlist means that a school likes what they see, and they need a bit more time to consider your application.
If you’ve been waitlisted at one school but accepted at another and you plan to take the firm offer, notify your waitlisted school immediately.
If you’re planning to stay on that waitlist until you’ve been accepted or not, you can only do what your waitlist letter says to do. If you’ve been told not to submit anything additional, then don’t. If you can update your application through improved GMAT results, a promotion at work or additional references, remember not to bombard the team.
Want to know how to fund your masters abroad?
Prodigy Finance provides loans to international students pursuing their masters at top schools across the globe.