When it comes to b-school, should women approach the MBA application process any differently?

July 17, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

If asked how they evaluate applications from female applicants relative to their male counterparts, many admissions officers would likely avoid suggesting that women applicants are handled differently. However, with years of MBA admissions experience reviewing thousands of files, we have identified a few common characteristics that are worth exploring. We won’t suggest how we think things should be, but we will share the reality of how things are based on our insider knowledge.

A myth that we’ve seen discussed online on MBA websites like Poets and Quants is that women have a better chance getting into b-schools than men because they apply in smaller numbers and are under represented in the top MBA programs. This belief assumes that women applicants are compared to the several thousand others who are also applying to the same school.

This myth is not the reality. Similar to an American consultant who is not competing directly with an international applicant working for a non-profit, so a smart professional female applicant will not be evaluated as a minority in a majority male pool. Instead, she will be assessed within a pool of candidates with similar backgrounds and profiles.

There’s no doubt that U.S. and international b-schools are investing more time and resources in recruiting female applicants for their MBA programs. Approximately 15 years ago, Chicago Booth’s full-time MBA program had just 26% women, and MIT Sloan had around 27% women. Although women are still a minority in the boardrooms and in b-school, it still appears that more women today are opting to enroll in business school as a necessary step for their post MBA careers. Wharton’s 2016 graduating class is comprised of 40% women while Harvard’s latest class has 41% female admits, the third consecutive year that HBS has had 40% or more women.

So what does this discussion and research mean for applications to b-school? Ten years ago, women made up 38% of GMAT test takers. In 2014 that number rose to 43%. In countries like China and Russia women taking the GMAT outnumber men (64% and 54% respectively), while in the U.S. the percentage is 38%. In India, the figure is only 27%. Some of these global test-takers will be targeting Master’s in Management and specialized Master’s programs, but GMAC’s 2013 Application Trends Survey shows that 37% of applications to full-time two-year MBA programs were from women, numbers that are broadly in line with the percentages at the top schools.

Of the GRE test takers who indicated the MBA as their degree objective, ETS reported a breakdown of 52% men and 45% women (and a further 3% who did not respond). It is no coincidence that up to 10% of any entering business school class has taken the GRE as opposed to the GMAT, and that in making the switch to accept the GRE as a viable testing source, business school programs are hoping to attract candidates who may have previously thought the GMAT and the prospect of business school was disconnected from what they ultimately hoped to achieve. The GRE, typically used for all graduate entrance exams in the humanities, helps business schools to capture a greater share of that (often more diverse) market.

Given all of these statistics, we’d like to share what we saw when we were overseeing admissions processes at schools like Wharton and INSEAD, and also offer up some advice for female applicants who plan to apply to MBA programs in the near future.

Tips for women applicants

Several different factors are evaluated during the MBA application process. In our role as Admissions Directors, we had to make sure that all incoming new students, regardless of demographics, had the analytical skills to handle rigorous courses in statistics, finance, and accounting. We also looked for desirable characteristics such as leadership, resourcefulness collaborative teamwork, motivation, and engagement. We sought to understand applicants’ post-MBA career goals and reasons for wanting to get an MBA.

Although we don’t want to stereotype, we sometimes noticed differences in the ways that men and women communicated information about themselves.

In a Forbes article, our colleague at Fortuna, Matt Symonds, described how some candidates have gone overboard in a bid to secure their place at business school, by replacing authenticity and self-confidence with bragging and swagger.

According to Dee Leopold, managing director of admissions at Harvard Business School, “Humility is the magic word, and it is a quality that is not diametrically opposed to confidence. The challenge that applicants face in the written applications is to be honest and to be clear. That should be the guiding principle.”

On the flip side, many young women downplayed their accomplishments or did not adequately communicate them. As admissions officers reviewing one application after another for weeks at a time, it’s easy to miss certain points and achievements that are not front and center or hidden between the lines.

So our advice for women, as well as men, is to demonstrate confidence, but without attitude.

When counseling female MBA candidates at Fortuna, we encourage them to not express self-doubt and we help them identify which personal qualities and achievements will add the most value in an MBA program. By having confidence in themselves they will do a much better job of convincing an admissions committee to admit them to a top MBA program.

Sometimes it’s hard to summon up a healthy dose of self-confidence by yourself so find a colleague, a friend, or a coach who understands you and believes in you. Often they will see things in yourself that you might not notice, or from a different perspective, that could be worth highlighting. Having open conversations with trusted sources can be a huge benefit, and speak with them about your professional aspirations and explain why you’re planning to attend business school.

We believe that female applicants should be less reserved around communicating their strengths. Dean of Admissions at Stanford GSB, Derrick Bolton, suggests, “Show us the great reasons to admit you. We are on your side.” Admissions officers are optimists and are looking for strong candidates who they can recommend for admission, so the better job you do at making a great case for yourself, the more likely you are to impress the admissions directors.

Don’t be shy about communicating things you might otherwise overlook.

Admissions directors want to know about your background, especially if there were circumstances that made things more challenging for you. Many men applicants were eager to let us know if they were the first member in their family to attend college, or that they held a job to fund their own education, or that they were the “only” one to receive a particular summer internship. We found that women applicants in the same boat often didn’t call out these achievements in the same way. Use your judgment and if you’ve conquered something that seems noteworthy, find a way to let the school know.

Academics

In the MBA admissions process we have observed that women candidates, more so than men, face the challenge of demonstrating their quantitative ability. For reasons that go beyond this particular article, we see more female applicants with liberal arts educations, and often many hold professional positions in which they may not have developed strong analytical skills on the job. These types of candidates should focus on getting a strong quant score on the GMAT, but if this is an issue, they can also convince an admissions committee of their preparedness for b-school by enrolling in analytical courses at a local college or online. Although business schools are hesitant to say this, some will allow for more flexibility with GMAT scores for women with otherwise exceptional profiles. However, schools still want some assurance from the applicant’s history of quant classes and analytical-focused work that she has the ability to do well in a challenging quantitative program.

Spend time on self-reflection

Successful MBA applicants show a high level of self-awareness by sharing their personal values, what matters to them, and explaining their professional and personal plans. Even before launching into the essays and bio-data forms for your MBA applications, spend time thinking about appropriate recommenders, as well as reflect on what is most important to you in a business school education and think about how different programs align with your objectives. The business school application process is about the individual, so no matter your gender, make sure that you reflect on what brings you meaning.

Recognize your accomplishments and brief your recommenders

Based on research, all too often many women wait for recognition rather than assert themselves in receiving credit for their accomplishments. So when it’s time to ask your manager for a recommendation, don’t hold back and make sure to communicate your accomplishments and provides specific examples and details that showcase your efforts.

Start building a network to research your schools

Many women are great relationship-builders and they can use these skills to be great networkers, too. If you don’t know any current students or alumni of your target schools, be proactive and find ways to reach out to individuals associate with these. Current students and alumni are more than happy to share their experiences. Most schools can help put you in touch with other women students at their programs and it’s helpful to speak to others who were once facing the same decisions that you’re facing. By building these contacts and relationships you can get really get to know the different institutions, understand some of the nuances between different programs, and determine their ‘fit’ with your own personality and personal goals.

In the end, there will be plenty of bright young women professionals with strong undergraduate backgrounds, impressive career accomplishments, and notable extracurricular activities. To address and do something about the gender imbalance within MBA programs, b-schools should continue their efforts to motivate more women to apply. Women also need to express more confidence around the value that they bring to the MBA program and communicate more assertively in their applications when it comes time to apply.

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