8 Surprising Things You Don't Know — But Should — About MBA Admissions

Despite the extensive MBA admissions prep that many applicants undergo, they are often unaware of key strategies that can help them get into their top-choice schools.

By advising thousands of b-school candidates at The MBA Exchange, we’ve learned many surprising and even counterintuitive truths — and below, we share our top eight with you.

1. An undergraduate degree is not required to gain admission to a top-tier MBA program.

You probably won’t read it in the official admissions policy, but the fact is that exceptional candidates who lack a college diploma can — and do — get admitted at many respected schools. Our firm has provided guidance and support to six such applicants who were admitted to top-15 MBA programs. The key is convincing the “adcom” (admissions committee) that you can perform in the classroom and will add unique value through your personal and professional profile. It’s doable!

2. MBA admissions officers from top-10 schools provide private briefings for blue-chip firms.

If you don’t work at a top private equity firm, management consulting firm, or investment bank, then you are at a slight disadvantage in the MBA application process. Each year, senior admissions staff from elite business schools provide closed-door info sessions for applicants from these organizations. Even if the adcoms are not sharing insider tips, the fact is that the applicants in that room get a chance for visibility and interaction that their rivals at less prestigious firms don’t get.

This doesn’t mean you won’t be admitted into your dream school. Some of these top schools may have info sessions you can attend on campus or around the world — although it’s worth mentioning that these will be more crowded than the info sessions at blue-chip firms. Another way to help gain insight is to engage a professional admissions consultant — or ask a friend who works at one of those firms — who knows what happens behind those closed doors.

3. Campus visits really matter, even at schools that say otherwise.

Let’s say you’re an admissions officer reviewing applications from two identically-qualified candidates. Same GPA and GMAT score, same alma mater, same job title and employer. The essays and interview responses from one of those candidates feature detailed insights and observations about the class she observed, the students she met, the professor she chatted with, and so on. The other candidate writes and talks about only what she read on the school website or blog. Who’s going to be offered admission? The candidate who knows the school best and has proven her passion by actually going there to visit.

4. Recommendations from CEOs and high-powered alumni can hurt more that help.

It seems logical to seek a recommendation from the head of your company or someone who is a prominent alum from the school you’re targeting. Surely the admissions committee will be impressed that such people actually know you and are willing to say positive things about you. But this logic is not enough. If that recommendation lacks direct, firsthand knowledge of your personal and professional attributes or a sincere passion for your academic and professional potential, the school will be unimpressed. And more importantly, the adcom may conclude that those who know you best are either unable or unwilling to support your candidacy.

The impression can be even worse if the recommender is a graduate of the targeted b-school, since the admissions staff may believe you overstepped your bounds and made a nuisance of yourself while seeking this endorsement. So, stick with recommenders who have the most substantive awareness of your strengths and vulnerabilities — and are most willing to put in the time and effort to make a convincing case for you.

5. You don’t need a recommendation from your direct supervisor.

Even though they push for it, admissions officers understand that not every good applicant is able to get a recommendation from her direct boss. Doing so could jeopardize the applicant’s current job security or near-term promotability. Or sometimes, that supervisor hasn’t been in the position for more than a few months and thus doesn’t know the candidate all that well.

If you find yourself in that situation, or even if you just believe that your supervisor won’t be sincerely supportive if you request a rec, then don’t chance it. Request a letter from others in the company and/or the community whose observations will be more convincing and compelling.

6. You can request a second interview if an alumnus/a or student interviewer didn’t treat you fairly.

Admissions officers know that the interviews they themselves provide are thorough, relevant, and by the book. That’s not always the case for the interviews done by alumni or students, however. Even after being fully trained by the adcom, those individuals can have a bias or even just a bad day that negatively affects your admissions interview.

So, if you believe this happened to you, you can contact the admissions director within 24 hours of the interview, and firmly but diplomatically explain the situation and request another interview. Worst case, doing so will make the difficult interview less of a factor in the final decision.

7. Resumes can run over one page if the content merits the additional length.

If a school’s application instructions don’t forbid it, and if the substance of your academic, personal, or professional background is especially significant, then don’t be afraid to prepare and submit a two-page resume. Of course, you still need to be focused and succinct. But if you’re a more experienced applicant, have had several complex work assignments, or can describe making major impact on your community or society, then a longer resume is not only acceptable, it’s wise.

8. Academic suspensions and misdemeanor convictions can be overcome.

Indiscretions or immaturity evidenced by, say, a 19-year-old college student need not close the door on MBA admission seven or eight years later. Adcoms are not heartless. They know that applicants with solid core values can and do make mistakes. So don’t compound a past misstep by ignoring it in your applications, as that only insults the intelligence of the adcoms. Rather, explain the circumstances the led to your mistake, express an appropriate level of remorse, summarize what you learned from the episode, and present evidence of how you’ve mitigated it or perhaps even turned the experience into a positive.

Now that you’ve peeked behind the curtain of the MBA admissions process, what’s your next step? Research the schools you’re interested in and start preparing each component of your application so you can stand out. If you need help getting there, you can consider getting an expert evaluation on your candidacy from admissions consultants, such as The MBA Exchange.

Follow this link for more advice about applying to business school, where you can ask pressing questions or read advice from experts in the field.