The 12 Steps on How to Apply to Business School Series – Step 1: Do Your Research

April 20, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

Fortuna Admissions was asked by The Economist to write a multi-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 have contributed to this series of articles. Below is an adapted version.

Nobody HAS to go to business school. But the first questions admissions directors ask to the thousands of applicants who are chasing just a few hundred places at the world’s top MBA programs is: “Why do you want an MBA? And why our school in particular?”

GMAT scores and undergraduate transcripts help admissions committees assess your academic credentials. The essays, resumes, and letters of recommendation can highlight your professional achievements and leadership potential. But demonstrating your passion, drive, and awareness of the MBA program to which you’re applying is vital.

Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan are atypical because they don’t ask these questions in the written application, though the topic may come up in a subsequent interview. But elsewhere you’ll find that admissions offices want to know why you’re applying to their school, and what you intend to do with your degree. Stanford’s GSB asks “What do you want to do – REALLY –and why Stanford?” Meanwhile Duke Fuqua gives you the option to answer one of two questions: 1- When asked by your family, friends, and colleagues why you want to go to Duke, what do you tell them? or 2- At the end of your 2 years at Fuqua, if you were to receive an award for exemplifying one of the 6 Principles listed below (with a list of Team Fuqua principles), which one would it be and why? Share the reasons that are most meaningful to you.

Each school is unique in what they’ll ask but overall, they’re searching for what makes you tick, what motivates and inspires you, who you are as a person professionally and personally, if you have the academic capacity to succeed, what your ambitions are, what your future holds, and if they think you’ll make a good fit for their program.

Out of the 1000+ business schools out there, you may well wonder “How do I choose which MBA to apply to?” Let’s start with the basics and focus on research, research, and research.

Do your homework. The business school application is your opportunity to exhibit not just a level of familiarity with MBA qualifications, but also a real understanding of the personality, strengths, and resources of the schools you wish to apply to. Both in the essays and in an interview, you need to make a distinct and persuasive 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 an MBA is not taken lightly, and all aspects of your application need to reflect this understanding.

And for that, research is essential. Can you establish what sets Chicago apart from Wharton? How does Darden differ from Tuck? How can each school help you achieve your career goals? Schools might look similar on paper, but they each have their own identity and approach to management development. There’s no substitute for doing your homework on the school you’re applying to. Ideally you should visit campus, as this will give you a much stronger feel for what makes it unique. But if that’s 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’s 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.

Don’t rely on rankings. Each year MBA rankings are published in newspapers such as The Economist or The Financial Times. The characteristics of the institution, the curriculum and faculty, the alumni network, the career opportunities, 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’s 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’s only one MBA degree, no two MBA programs are identical, and admissions officers have the experience to identify the motivated application from the speculative. The more familiar you are with the programs of your choice, the better your chance of choosing the right school that’s best for you and actually getting in.

As the next step of this series, we’ll discuss timing of an MBA and the significance of different application rounds.

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