8 Key Aspects of Successful MBA Applications

An MBA application is primarily evaluated based on three factors: GMAT or GRE scores, work experience, and your essays. Other important factors may include your undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, diversity, extracurricular/community activities, and, where relevant, interviews.

1. GMAT/GRE Scores

Your test scores are the most important number when it comes to applying to MBA programs. While most applicants still take the GMAT, nearly all the top MBA programs will accept either test, and there’s some evidence that a good number of schools will let you in with a relatively lower GRE score..

You should compare your test score the the median GMAT score for a given institution to determine how likely you are in gain admission (to compare GRE scores to GMAT scores, use this handy conversion tool). Generally speaking, if you’re 50 or more points shy of the median score, your chances of getting into a program become very slim (and ideally you should be at or above the median for your top choice schools).

2. Work Experience

The MBA is a highly collaborative degree. You will be working closely with your fellow students to solve business problems. A large part of what you’ll be expected to draw upon in this problem solving process is your work experience. Because of this, MBA programs look to fill their classes with students with diverse, high quality work experience.

It’s important that your work experience is reflected in the resume you’ll submit as part of your application, and that significant work successes are reflected in some combination of your essays and your letters of recommendation.

Most traditional MBA programs favor students with 3-7 years of work experience. Those with more experience will often find greater success applying to executive MBA programs. Those with less experience are often well-advised to wait another year or two before applying. There are always exceptions, but don’t be surprised if your application doesn’t do as well as you anticipated if you only have a year or two of experience when you apply. Look closely at the median age and/or work experience for candidates accepted to the programs you’re applying to, and aim for schools where you’re close to that median.

3. Essays

The essays are vastly more important for an MBA application than they were for your college application. Most programs require anywhere from 3-7 essays, and you can easily write thousands of words answering them all. Even worse, there’s very little standardization among the essay topics, so it can be difficult to recycle your essays from one application to the next.

The one essay you’ll have to write for virtually any program is what I call the “Why does an MBA make sense for me now?” essay. MBA programs want to know why an MBA makes sense given your career trajectory: where are you coming from professionally, what do you hope to gain from your MBA, and what will gaining an MBA allow you to accomplish with your career. A clear answer to this question is the most essential component of your essays.

There’s a great deal of specific advice that can be offered for the essays, but broadly speaking, make sure that you take the time to figure out exactly what each question is really asking for. Make sure that you are responsive to the questions, that you respect any word limits, and that your answers show a wide range of your strengths and experiences.

4. Undergraduate GPA

GPA is a less important factor for MBA programs than for most other graduate degrees. While you should look at the median GPA of the programs you’re interested in the see how competitive you’ll be, you can easily make up for a below median GPA with above median test scores or unusually strong work experience.

5. Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation for MBA programs should come from someone who can speak to your work and/or leadership abilities. Make sure your recommenders know you well, someone who can speak to your abilities is much more important than someone who has an impressive title or a connection to the program you’re applying to.

Letters should be pure advocacy. Some recommenders feel they need to provide a balanced description, and actually go so far as to provide criticism of the applicant. Talk to your recommenders ahead of time and give them a sense of what you’d like them to write and make sure they’re on board. It might even be worth bringing up particular aspects of your work you’d like the recommender to highlight (e.g. a project you were lead on that went particularly well, or a positive characteristic you’re generally known for in the office).

Finally, some recommenders throw the recommendation back to the applicant, saying “why don’t you write the letter and I’ll sign off on it.” If that’s all your recommender is willing to do, find a different recommender. You’ll be writing anywhere from 3-7 essays for each school; the admissions committee may well recognize if you’re also the author of your letters of recommendation. A good recommender will give you praise you wouldn’t even think to give yourself.

6. Diversity

MBA programs largely focus on collaborative work, and the modern workplace has people from a wide range of backgrounds. As a result, MBA programs seek to have classes the reflect the diversity of the contemporary workplace, bringing in students from a wide range of professional and cultural backgrounds. Make sure your application highlights any unusual or useful perspective you’d bring to the programs you apply to.

7. Extracurricular and Community Activities

You are more than your grades and your work experience. What you do in your free time serves as another way to highlight what you’ll bring to the community of the MBA program. If you are particularly passionate about a particular activity, it’s often a good idea to highlight that activity in one of your essays.

8. Interviews

Not all MBA programs conduct interviews, but when a program does make interviews part of its process, it can be a significant determining factor of admissions.

The key for interviews is to be prepared. Know the professors you’re interested in working with. Understand the strengths of the program, and any particular classes, special programs, or aspect of the curriculum you’d be especially interested in. Come prepared with questions and knowledge of the program.

Final Thoughts

Your primary focus when preparing to apply to MBA programs should be on getting great test scores and writing great essays. In particular, make sure you can clearly articulate why an MBA is the right degree for you at this point in your career, and what you see an MBA helping you accomplish.