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#30 How to Improve Your Chances of Getting In

10 Tips from Gatekeepers of the World’s Top Business Schools

Over the past 6 months, I’ve had over 20 MBA Admissions Directors on the Touch MBA Podcast.

I’ve asked all of them, “What would you advise candidates to improve their chances of admissions?”

This is what they told me.

Here are 10 actionable tips you can use right away to boost your admissions and scholarship chances at your target business schools.

Avoid them at your own peril!

1. “You can’t say if a school is right for you unless you know who you are” – Megan Overbay, Duke University Fuqua School of Business 

Megan Overbay

Applying to get an MBA is a process of self reflection.

What is really important is to do before you get started is to step back and think about who you are, and why you want to do this, and why this investment of your time, money and energy is going to be of value to you personally, and how you want it to grow and change you, and really understand the environments in which you flourish: what helps you grow and pushes you out of your comfort zone and learn? What types of people and environments you really enjoy being in and make you happy?

One of the things I see all the time is people apply to school based on an area of interest or a ranking and then try really hard to prove to the school that they’re a good fit for them, rather than saying is this school right for me?

And you can’t say if a school is right for you unless you actually know who you are.”

Megan Overbay

ApplicationHave a clear idea of what you want before researching and applying to business school. This will simplify and aid your school selection process and improve your match (and chances!) with schools. Here are some questions to start with:

  • Where have you been? Where do you want to go?
  • What has your career & life taught you so far?
  • How can you move forward? Is an MBA the best option to do this?
  • What are your MBA “must haves?”

Sometimes self-reflection is easier when speaking to someone. If you are serious about getting an MBA and need help talking through your career goals and MBA “must haves,” you can sign up for free school selection and counseling help.

I would also recommend the Career Leader Test (used by many top MBA programs) and What Color is My Parachute to help you think through your strengths and possible careers.

2. “Speak to students” – Nadia Ahrazem, London Business School


“The most important piece of advice I’d give you is go out there and speak to students, alumni, and student ambassadors and the staff. Visit the school if you can… Try to network regionally. Try to really find out about their experiences. They are the experts, they have gone through the process themselves. One of the things that really stands out to us is whether people have gone above and beyond to research the school”

Nadia Ahrazem

ApplicationFind students and alumni of your target business schools through your network (LinkedIn is great for this), student ambassadors and clubs, and the admissions office. Concisely explain your background and what you’re looking to do post-MBA, and look to connect with students and alumni with similar aspirations. Which schools will give you the best opportunity to achieve your post-MBA career goals?

3. ”We like to see examples that are current – so the past 3 years”  – Jeff Carbone, MIT Sloan

Jeffrey Carbone

“We focus on an applicant’s past, not their future. We believe the best predictor of your future success are your past experiences. We like to see examples that are current – so the past 3 years. Examples in your essays and from your recommenders – stick to the past 3 years, and let us know about you.

We divide the process into 2 pieces: your demonstrated success and personal attributes. And the personal attributes are what we’re looking for in your essays and recommendations. Innovation, creativity, teamwork, leadership, ability to work independently – those are things we’re trying to find within essays. We pull those out to help us score your application.”

If they don’t have anything in their past 3 years that’s impactful, that would be a concern for us”

Jeff Carbone

ApplicationRecent examples of success and personal attributes are often the most powerful and predictive. Highlight recent successes and stories if possible. Your application must show movement. Also, target recommenders who are familiar with your most recent work if possible.

4. “Go underneath the achievement” – A M Kannan, Indian School of Business

Am Kannan

“Look at all your achievements where you have displayed different kinds of skills. List them down on a sheet of paper. How satisfying was each of those achievements? And how did you actually translate that idea into action? And then look at the ones that are likely to have made the most impact – chances are you really worked hard and displayed over and beyond skills when you made that achievement. Talk about that in the essay; chances are the essay will really come out well.

Anytime you go out of the way to do something unique, there will be naysayers. There will be some people who say, “no this will not work.” Those are challenges. How did you overcome them? How did you convince the naysayers to your side?  What we are really looking for is to go underneath the achievement. Don’t just list out your achievements. I did this, this, this, this – it doesn’t tell us the skills you have displayed. How did you overcome the challenges – that entire story gives a good impression of a candidate as a whole.”

A M Kannan

ApplicationShow your skills and personality by telling the story underneath the achievement in your essays and interviews. The greater the obstacles, the better the story.

5. “Show that you’re a high achiever” – Caroline Diarte Edwards, Fortuna Admissions and former Admissions Director for INSEAD

Caroline Diarte Edwards

“The school is looking at the quality of your work experience and looking to understand if you’re someone who is a high performer. The best predictor of future performance is past performance.

They are not just looking at have you managed teams or have you had some fantastic leadership achievement. They are looking at have you delivered really good results? Have you delivered something that was beyond what was expected? Have you taken initiative? How well are you regarded by your colleagues? That will come through in the recommendations.

I would advise candidates to not get too fixated on leadership point but to think about communicating the quality of the work experience and what they’ve achieved so far in their career. It can be very difficult to demonstrate leadership experience especially if you are only 2-3 year into your career, but what you need to demonstrate is that you’re a high achiever.”

Caroline Diarte Edwards

ApplicationEmphasize the outstanding results you have achieved in your resume, essays and recommendations.

6. “Show a realistic plan for your career path” – Lawrence Chan, Chinese University of Hong Kong 

Mr. Lawrence Chan CUHK MBA

“Be thoughtful about your career plans. For example, let’s say you are an IT engineer and have average performance in terms of your career achievements so far. There are a lot of people working as IT engineers in Asia. Be realistic. Don’t explain to the admissions officer, ‘The only company I’m going to work for after MBA is McKinsey.’

It does not sound that impressive. It does not sound that reasonable. So set up a reasonable path for your career progression. If the plans are reasonable and more possible, then you have a better chance of being admitted.

Many students do not do enough homework in terms of setting up their career plans. Sometimes I ask them, ‘Do you really know how many people McKinsey employs each year in Asia?’

A realistic plan will demonstrate you are mature enough and you have a good knowledge of what’s going on in the market. This is a great tip to improve your chances.”

Lawrence Chan

ApplicationResearch potential job opportunities in your target geography, industry and role before applying to business school. Demonstrating an achievable and well-researched career plan will increase your chances of admission (even if you don’t stick to that plan in bschool!).

7. “You really do want to try to fall within the school’s 80% [GMAT] range” – Shari Hubert, Georgetown McDonough School of Business

Shari Hubert

“What I would encourage inviduals to do is to look at every school, and look at where their 80% [GMAT] range is. And you really do want to try to fall within that 80% range. If you are looking just to get in, but you don’t necessarily want to be competitive for scholarships you want to make sure you are squarely within that 80% range or maybe on the lower end. If you really want to be competitive for scholarships you need to be on the higher end of that 80% range. But being within the range itself will give you a good litmus test of how competitive you are compared to other applicants.”

Shari Hubert

ApplicationTarget the average GMAT score for your target schools. Obviously, the higher your score relative to the school’s 80% GMAT range, the more competitive you’ll be seen academically and for scholarships. If you can’t improve a weak GMAT score, you’ll have a better chance at programs with lower average GMAT scores.

8. “Really work on your English language skills” – Katherine Alford, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

Katherine Alford

“For students who are applying from outside the US, I think one of the most important things to do is to really work on your English language skills. Because we are a case-based school and we depend on students speaking up in the classroom, it’s very important that you speak up and others can understand what you are saying. Your classmates want to hear from you and hear your perspective. So you want to make sure your English is at a level that’s easy to understand.”

Katherine Alford

ApplicationCan you comfortably and confidently talk to an admissions officer or alumni in an interview about yourself and business issues?  Non-native English speakers who can do this have a clear admissions advantage.

9. “Be real” – Roy Chason, CEIBS

Roy Chason

“Most of us have gone through hundreds, if not thousands of essays and interviews. We know how to screen and look for people who are frank, honest, have a certain amount of self-awareness. Don’t script your interview, overanalyze your essays. Be real. Know what your focus is. Know where you want to go after the MBA. Know what the added value CEIBS program can offer to your career. Be able to synthesize that well with us, and in front of us.”

Roy Chason

ApplicationOne great way to check the authenticity of your essays is to pass them to a friend and ask, “Does this sound like me? Does this sound like I’m being real?”

10. “Typically students that receive scholarships are above our GMAT and GPA averages and show leadership and community involvement” – Libby Livingston, Emory Goizueta Business School

Libby Livingston

“Ideally you apply in the early rounds. Something we focus a lot on with candidates that receive scholarships is that you need to show leadership and community involvement in your application. Typically students that receive scholarships are above our GMAT and GPA averages. They have solid leadership skills and interpersonal skills in addition to their strong professional experiences. They are are above average, really well rounded, and can contribute a lot to the program”

Libby Livingston
ApplicationMost top business schools award scholarships on merit, so being in the top 20% of your class academically, professionally or as a potential ambassador is the best way to increase your chances of scholarship funding. More scholarship dollars are available in earlier rounds as well.

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