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What Do Business Schools Want in an MBA Application?

What Do Business Schools Want in an MBA Application? main image

On September 15 2008, during the first month of my MBA, Lehman Brothers went bust, and all (economic) hell broke loose. Much like now, the labor market for MBA graduates and internship seekers tightened, while application volumes at the top schools shot up.

My class was particularly hard-hit by the recession but I was lucky enough to secure a role with Citi in London, where I was actively involved in MBA recruiting. In 2013, IESE Business School hired me back to Barcelona to become an MBA career counsellor, promoting me to Head of MBA Admissions in 2017.

Over the span of 13 years I have been MBA applicant, student, recruiter, career coach, interviewer, and admissions and scholarship committee chair. Short of giving classes, there is little I have not dealt with in the full-time MBA space.

In early 2020 I joined Menlo Coaching, the premier MBA Admissions Consulting firm. Menlo’s approach to MBA Admissions Consulting is rooted in one-on-one coaching, focusing on helping clients craft personal and professional narratives that are both meaningful to them and compelling to the schools. Our clients come from all sectors, functions, and geographies and apply to top programs across the globe.

The world of full-time MBA programs can be hard to navigate as a candidate. Ironically, the need to stand out and be different drives schools to produce marketing material that is almost perfectly interchangeable, so how are you meant to identify the right program for you? At Menlo we have compiled an overview for some of the world’s best programs that might be of use.

In this column, I will draw both on my experience in the field and the accumulated knowledge of Menlo Coaching as a firm to make your MBA journey more straight-forward.

As much as the world has changed in recent months, the formula for success in MBA applications has remained constant over the years. Despite the differences between schools, they will all look for candidates who display the following three qualities:

Academic potential

This is the easiest of the three. Measured in terms of GPA, GMAT/GRE or both, it is the candidate’s ability to handle the academic workload.

The last thing business schools want is MBA candidates who might not have what it takes to graduate, so they want students with either an excellent academic record or a high score on standardised tests to mitigate that risk.

A side-note on the GMAT is warranted, however: given the GMAT’s importance in rankings and the overall perception of a program’s quality, it is used for more than just assessing a candidate’s ability. If you’re unlikely to score above your target school’s GMAT class average, you may want to consider applying with the GRE instead, as this attracts less scrutiny.

Professional promise

Business schools are looking for applicants who display a mix of realistic short-term goals and bold long-term ambition. Regarding short-term goals, the schools are looking to mitigate the risk of MBA candidates graduating without a job while ensuring that long-standing corporate recruiting relationships are adequately fed with high-quality applicants.

The challenge for candidates is to articulate career goals that are realistic and in line with what support the school can offer. Long-term goals should be ambitious – after all, you will carry the school’s name into the world and they want you to do justice to it.

A school that fits

Perhaps the most elusive of all three criteria, demonstrating fit requires you to show you understand the school’s mission and values, and that you display both the humility to learn from others in the classroom and the generosity to share your knowledge and experience with your peers.

Despite clichés about this industry, business schools are very protective of their culture and will not take any chances with candidates perceived as not friendly enough, or outright toxic. Make that impression on the ADCOM and no test score or employer name will save your application.

These three factors are a good starting point for any MBA applicant to consider. Obviously, there are many more factors to consider. Over the coming weeks and months, I will go into more detail regarding the finer points of an application. Until next time!

Written by Pascal M.

Pascal is a Senior MBA Admissions Coach with Menlo Coaching. Prior to that he was the Director of MBA Admissions at IESE Business School, and Career Coach for Financial Services. His previous career included roles with Citi in London, where he was actively involved in MBA recruiting, working as an EU civil servant in Brussels, and an early career in financial auditing in Paris. Pascal is passionate about helping people reach their full potential and is currently becoming certified as an Executive Coach by Columbia University.

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