Fortuna Admissions has been asked by The Economist to write a four-part series explaining how to improve your chance of getting into a top business school. Our experts from Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, IE Business School, Kellogg and UC Berkeley Haas are answering readers’ questions over the course of the coming weeks.
Part one: First steps
Nobody has to go to business school, of course. But in our former roles as gatekeepers to the world’s top MBA programmes, the first questions we asked the thousands of applicants who were chasing just a few hundred places was: “Why do you want to go to business school? And why our school in particular?”
GMAT scores and undergraduate transcripts help us assess your academic credentials. The essays, curriculum vitae and letters of recommendation can highlight your professional achievements and leadership potential. But demonstrating your motivation for, and awareness of, the MBA programme to which you are applying is fundamental. So that is where we would like to start with this four-part series on applying to business school.
Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan are unusual because they do not ask these questions in the written application, though the subject may come up in a subsequent interview. Maybe they just assume that everybody wants to study by the Charles River. But elsewhere you will find that admissions offices want to know why you are applying to their school, and what you intend to do with your MBA. The Stanford Graduate School of Business for example asks “What do you want to do – REALLY – and why Stanford?” INSEAD, meanwhile, gives you 550 words to “discuss your short and long term career goals; how will studying at INSEAD help you achieve your vision?”
Do your homework
The business school application is your chance to demonstrate not just a level of familiarity with the MBA qualification, but also a real understanding of the personality, strengths and resources of the school you are applying to. Both in the essays and in an interview, you need to make a clear case about how the MBA can help you to build on existing skills and experience, and convince the school of the coherence and feasibility of your post-MBA career. The decision to pursue the MBA is not taken lightly, and all aspects of the application need to reflect this understanding.
And for that, research is essential. What sets Chicago apart from Wharton? How does Darden differ from Tuck? How can each school help me achieve my career goals? Schools might look similar on paper, but they each have their own identity and approach to management development. There is no substitute for doing your homework on the school you are applying to. Ideally you should visit it, as this will give you a much stronger feel for what makes it distinctive. But if that is not possible, then attend local information sessions or online webinars, contact students and alumni, visit an MBA fair, and read brochures, student blogs and media that focus on business education. Remember it is not just a question of whether you fit with a school’s character, but also whether a school fits with yours. Take time and effort to reflect on this.
Do not rely on the MBA rankings published in newspapers such as The Economist. The personality of the institution, the alumni network, the career opportunities, the curriculum and faculty, and other school strengths are more important. And don’t forget the importance of course length, location and cost. When you do look at rankings, remember that each has its own methodology. Find out what is being measured–whether post-MBA salary, return-on-investment, the quality of the students or career opportunities–and decide whether they apply to you.
While there is only one MBA degree, no two MBA programmes are the same, and admissions officers have the experience to identify the motivated application from the speculative. The more familiar you are with the programmes of your choice, the better your chance of getting in.
There is much discussion in the online MBA-forums about the best time to apply to business school. With the exception of Columbia Business School, which has rolling admissions and reviews applications as they are received, the leading business schools organise three or four rounds of admissions in the 12 months before matriculation. Common sense suggests you should apply only when you are ready, but let us explain how things work behind the scenes and the reality of how places are allocated from one round to the next.
Most schools publish application details for the coming year in early summer, including any changes they may have made to the essay questions. Beyond a handful of deferrals form the previous year, all the places for the following year are available in round one. From experience, we see many of the best applications in the first two rounds and make offers accordingly. This means that 40-50% of places may be awarded in round one, and a further 40-50% in round two. There have been times when we have headed into the final round knowing that there were only a few places remaining, and would still receive hundreds of applications. We would read them all carefully, looking for the hidden gems, but usually the quality of applicants in the final two rounds was lower. Included among them would be what we described as “Hail Mary” applicants–a reference to a desperate long pass in American football that has little chance of success.
That is why you should be thoughtful about planning for your deadlines. Decide the schools to which you want to apply and in what order. The application process is a long one; it requires you to prepare thoroughly for the GMAT admissions test, write essays, work with referees and create an overall presentation that reflects who you are.
Our advice therefore is to maximise your chance by applying for one of the first two rounds. The early bird may indeed catch the worm. Also, remember that you cannot control the quantity, quality or profiles of other applicants. Second guessing whether there will be more IT specialists, investment bankers or particular nationalities competing for places is pointless. Focus on your application, which is in your control.
The other thing to remember is that many applicants will use round one to submit applications to the most competitive business schools. Last year, Harvard Business School received over 9,500 applications for its 900 places. Stanford, meanwhile, had 16 applications for each place. Applicants reckon they can use round two as a fall back, should they need to apply elsewhere. As a consequence, a number of excellent schools below the top tier see a spike in applications for the second round.
Some find it impossible to submit thorough applications to multiple schools in round one. We generally suggest that students break up their list so that they have time and energy to give their full attention to each school. Wait until round two if the extra time will allow you deliver a more thoughtful application. Admissions directors are not easily fooled. They can tell the difference between an application that was thrown together to make the deadline and one that was given plenty of thought.
Finally, you would not believe how many times we have seen files that have the candidate’s date of birth as the date of application. Or ones in which they have copied text from one application to another and forgotten to change “IMD” to “HEC”. Devise a schedule, stay organised and submit your application a couple days in advance of the deadline, having proof read even the smallest details several times. That way you can avoid torpedoing your application by a silly mistake made in the last stressful hours.
The remaining three parts of the series will look at :
- Self reflection and how to position your candidacy; GPA and GMAT; résumés
- Application essays
- Letters of recommendation; the interview; waiting lists; next steps