How to Get Into Business School: 3 Forgotten Elements to "Unforget"
February 9, 2018
How to Get Into Business School: 3 Forgotten Elements to "Unforget"
What are the important considerations when thinking about how to get into business school? We all know you should have a strong GPA, significant work experience for a few years after college, and a good GMAT or GRE score. These factors are obvious and they don’t tell the whole story.
Business schools, especially top business schools, have more than enough qualified candidates by these metrics. Heck, Harvard Business School or Stanford Graduate School of Business could probably fill an entire class with former employees of 3-4 companies each year and still maintain their admissions standards. Yet, they don’t do so. They dedicate a substantial amount of resources to vetting candidates, interviewing them, and hiring dozens of admissions professionals to ensure they craft the best possible classes.
Let’s Start with a Case Study
Take two applicants that both applied to HBS, Stanford, Columbia, Wharton, and Stern in 2016:
- Candidate A: Summa cum laude Ivy League graduate (3.97 GPA) with two years of work experience at a Top 5 Consulting firm, and five years doing social entrepreneurship through a branch of an investment bank; 780 GMAT; HBS legacy.
- Candidate B: Graduate of a Top 5 ranked liberal arts college (3.2 GPA) with four years of work experience at a boutique wealth management firm; 690 GMAT; would be a first-generation graduate school student.
Candidate A seems nearly perfect on paper from the credentials that I’ve given you (the three we’re all familiar with) and seems like a shoe-in at the schools to which she applied. Candidate B is also bright and seems promising. But looking at only the above, I think anyone would pick Candidate A in a heartbeat.
Nevertheless, Candidate A was rejected by all of those schools other than Wharton while Candidate B was admitted to all of those schools except Stanford. Did the admissions offices make a mistake? Or, is there something we are missing by focusing on exclusively on GPA, work experience, and standardized test scores? What else are these admissions officers looking at? What’s the answer to how to get into business school? In this blog, I’ve condensed forgotten elements of a successful business school application that aspiring MBAs need to “unforget.” Here are three elements to keep in mind when you’re wondering how to get into business school:
1. Emphasis on Personal Qualities & Development
Many business school applicants, especially the Round 1 usual suspects (consultants and finance folks, I’m looking at you) tend to approach their applications instrumentally. They’ve been trained to think efficiently and narrow things down to what they think matter. For them, numbers and credentials tell the story. For most admissions officers, they don’t tell enough of the story. This isn’t to say that these folks are bad applicants, but they often submit poorly conceived applications.
Why do business schools want you to write so many unique essays? Why do they want to interview candidates in-depth? The answer is clear: they want to get a strong sense of your personality; they want to learn not only how you view yourself, but also how others view you. This is why your letters of recommendation are crucial and should reflect intimate knowledge of your actual work. Your letters should be rife with anecdotes that are compelling and show admissions officers what you would otherwise have to try to tell them.
In Candidate A’s personal statement for business school, there was an overwhelming focus on the impressive and varied projects she had worked on. Yet, as a reader, I was left with no better understanding of her goals, her personality, or how she had impacted those around her in tangible ways. For someone who had done “social entrepreneurship” work for multiple years, you would not have expected this to be the case at all. Based on reading her application, I would guess that she understood that “leadership” was an important concept, but focused far too much on her promotions as evidence of leadership rather than her interactions with those around her.
Candidate B’s application, on the other hand, was full of vivid anecdotes that touched on not only his motivation to attend business school, but also how various trials and errors in his career helped him arrive at those conclusions. His recommendations were not about his accolades, but about him. They spoke to his presence and how that affected the people he worked with, his attitude, and contextualized those things with actual examples from their work together. Step one for how to get into business school: think about how to show your personal qualities.
2. It’s Not Where You’ve Been, But Where You’re Going
Business schools are only interested in how your academic and work experience has helped you determine a path for yourself during and after business school. Applicants who rest on the laurels of their past accomplishments rather than using those as a springboard to chart out a path of future growth may find themselves with the surprising results that Candidate A did.
This does not mean you need to have a clear and immutable plan for your career before business school, but it does mean you need to show that you’ve thought carefully and come up with a plan better than “I’m just not sure yet.” You can acknowledge uncertainty, but there is no reason to not put one foot forward in your application to show you have put thought into your future and are ready to take a leap. Remember, business schools are aware that many people apply to MBA programs as a change of pace and to take it easy before getting another notch on their belts. You should actively take steps to dispel this thought from an admissions officer’s mind when thinking about how to get into business school.
3. Tangible Achievements > Promotions Without the Former
I talk to many business school applicants who are waiting on that next promotion before applying. Sometimes, this means waiting two or more years than the candidate otherwise would simply to have a shiny new title on your business school resumé. While I can certainly see the appeal, most of our former MBA admissions officers simply do not. That extra time spent waiting for the second promotion is only as valuable as the tangible achievements for which you’re responsible. An admissions officer cares far less that your title goes from “Junior Associate” to “Associate” than they would if you were recognized for successfully spearheading an initiative to ensure that there was no gendered pay gap in your company. The third step for how to get into business school: work to have an impact in your organization. Show that you haven’t just been going through the motions – do something to show that you have concretely made a difference.
These elements for how to get into business school may seem obvious after reading them, but I cannot tell you how many business school applications lack requisite attention to them. Your scores and grades are what they are, so the aforementioned three factors should be the true focus of your application. Without them, you’re rolling the dice with poor odds. Take action on your business school application today – don’t let these forgotten elements be your downfall!