5 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Getting Into the Best Business Schools

by on May 16th, 2011

Excerpted from the eBook, Prepare to be Accepted!
By Tyler Cormney and Christopher Aitken of mbaprepschool.com

Recently, we interviewed a former admissions board member from the Harvard Business School to learn what successful MBA applicants do right. He told us something truly illuminating. He said that a successful business school application takes years not months to create. His point was that successful applicants take advantage of the time before applying to take steps that will increase their chances of getting into a top school.

Imagine if you could peer into the mind of an admissions officer like the one we interviewed and know what the weak spots in your application profile were before it was time to apply. Knowing what might stand in your way to being accepted to your dream school would enable you to fortify your strengths and address your weaknesses.

The slang term for a rejection letter from a business school is a “Ding Letter.” The following excerpt from MBA Prep School’s eBook Prepared to be Accepted! reveals five dings that might hurt your chances of being accepted by a top business school. After each ding, we prescribe ways to address each one in the time leading up to your MBA application deadlines.

Don’t write yourself off in the competition for a spot in top ranked program because you have a few blemishes on your profile. Take the steps we recommend below and increase your chances of getting into the best MBA programs.

Ding: No undergraduate classes or average performance in quantitative, business-oriented, and/or communication and writing courses

While your overall performance matters, a letter grade of a C or lower will register on the “ding meter.” Admissions committees will pay particular attention to your performance in quantitative courses, such as Calculus and Statistics, core-business courses, such as Finance and Accounting, and business-oriented courses, such as Economics. Communication courses, such as Writing and Public Speaking courses, will also be reviewed carefully because an MBA program requires excellent written and verbal communication abilities.

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Take college-level courses in areas where your academic profile needs strengthening. Clearly, you want to take courses that award a letter-grade because taking a pass-fail course may prove you are motivated to prepare for an MBA but won’t do much to counteract weak undergraduate grades. College extension courses typically take 12 to 16 weeks to complete; so you need to get started well in advance of the application deadlines.

Another way to address concerns about your academic profile is through high-achievement at work, or outside of work, on assignments that demand the academic skill set in question. For example, you could demonstrate your analytical abilities by performing well on a very challenging quantitative assignment at work.

If such a role is not available to you at work, be creative and find a way to demonstrate those talents outside of work. For example, one MBA Prep School student built a complex financial model for the non-profit organization she volunteered with.

If your transcripts leave question marks about your communication skills, you could volunteer to deliver a training class at work or join a public-speaking club like Toastmasters International in your free time.

Ding: Limited evidence of career progress: promotions, increases in responsibility, new skills and relationships

Admissions officers need to see evidence that you’ve made significant career progress. There are a few different ways your career progress will be measured: promotions ahead of schedule, increased responsibility on your team, the acquisition of new skills, and the formation of important relationships.

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Volunteer for stretch assignments and unique projects. Showing up for work and doing what you’re told is a good formula for staying where you are, but it won’t get you promoted and it won’t get you into business school. If you want to earn a spot in a top business school, then you have to show initiative and distinguish yourself from your peers.

If you’re working in an over-represented field for MBA applicants like investment banking or consulting, you will have to pursue unique projects that will set you apart, which may mean volunteering for projects that others are unable or unwilling to tackle. For example, one successful applicant from a consulting firm volunteered for an international assignment in the Middle East in the middle of summer that none of his colleagues were willing to sign-up for. His admit letter was a great reward for the months he spent outrunning sandstorms and baking in the desert sun.

Ding: Weak references and/or limited evidence of recognition by superiors

If you take the other prescriptions about enhancing your professional profile to heart, then your superiors should have no problem writing you a stellar recommendation letter. They’ll have plenty of great examples to draw on, showing how you’ve excelled and been there for your team. If you don’t feel that you have superiors who will be willing to write you outstanding reference letters, then you need to address this problem immediately.

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Cultivate mentor relationships. This is simply common sense career advice. Mentors will help you navigate important career decisions.

Solid mentor relationships are critical to a successful business school application. Reference letters from a mentor who has worked with you closely, knows you well, and has a vested interest in your future success will be many times more powerful than one from a supervisor who doesn’t have insights about you and your experience and isn’t invested in seeing you succeed.

On a related note, you should remember that you’re going to need two to three references for your application, and in an ideal situation, these won’t all be from supervisors at work. Building solid relationships with mentors in a community service setting will provide admissions officers with a view of the person you are outside of the office.

Our advice is to start forming these relationships now! There is a major difference between cultivating a mentor relationship over time and trying to manufacture one a few months before applying.

Ding: Limited evidence of leadership at work

Some candidates are initially intimidated when they come across a leadership essay question in their application. They don’t think they have any leadership stories to tell. Admissions committees understand you are early in your career and don’t expect you to be running a division of your company or leading large teams of people. Nevertheless, they will expect you to have influenced others and made a positive impact on a smaller scale.

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Leading in “ordinary situations” but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees are looking for in your Leadership Portfolio at work.

In the months and years leading up to your application submission, you need to take every opportunity to make a leadership impact at work. This isn’t a matter of climbing over others in a mad scramble to the top of the corporate ladder. Rather, you should be looking for ways to serve your team and make your organization stronger.

Pulling a week of all-nighters alone in your cubicle building the ultimate financial model is an impressive individual accomplishment but it is not an example of leadership.

Look for opportunities to:

  • Coordinate efforts to solve a long-standing problem faced by your organization
  • Persuade your colleagues to follow you in a new direction
  • Help others work together more effectively
  • Assemble and lead a lean, high performing team that achieves something significant
  • Mentor and teach others, thereby enabling them to succeed

The common denominator is that a leadership accomplishment has to do with achieving something that simply can’t be done on your own. It requires the cooperation, contribution, support, and energy of other people. Leaders form a vision of the way things could be, tap into other people’s passions, and devote energy to rallying others to work together to make a difference. It’s important to keep this definition clearly in mind when you’re evaluating ways to enhance to your leadership portfolio at work.

Ding: Limited evidence of leadership outside of work

Most applicants have heard that community service is important to admissions committees. Armed with this knowledge, they volunteer for a few community service activities and list these on their application forms. Unfortunately this misses the point. Although your participation in a community service project is laudable, taking the lead in this setting is what really matters. If you’re a candidate from a technical field, an over-represented industry, or simply don’t have many opportunities to lead at work, community service leadership is practically mandatory for admission to the most selective schools.

If you want to be competitive for a top school you must be able to demonstrate a “habit of leadership” both inside and outside of work.

Prescription

MBA Prep School students often ask us what kinds of community service activities business schools want to see. We feel this question misses the point. No community service organization is better than another from an admissions officer’s standpoint. Admissions officers really want to see that you have engaged with a community that you are passionate about serving and that the volunteer work you have done has importance and meaning to you.

The quality of the experience is more important than quantity when it comes to community service. One significant leadership achievement can outweigh a laundry list of more limited volunteer work.

If you’re looking for an effective way to get involved then look for an organization that has a mission that you want to be a part of. Find an emotional connection and work on a problem that you have a passionate interest in solving. For example, if you are a first generation American who benefitted from free English language classes, then you could volunteer to teach classes in that program or, better yet, work at the organizational level to raise money and expand program offerings to reach more students.

If you can’t find an organization that turns you on and you see an unmet need in your community, then start your own organization! If you’re successful, you’ll have an amazing story to share from your leadership portfolio.

If you’re already volunteering for a community service organization, you should be looking look for the same kinds of opportunities to lead that we talked about in the prescription above about building your Leadership Portfolio at work. You need to harness the energy of other people, generate results, and make a real difference. Your leadership could take any number of forms: you could lead a fund raising drive, pull together a team that addresses a long-standing organizational issue, or work with board members to develop a five-year strategic plan.

If you’d like to learn more about the Prepare to be Accepted! eBook and MBA Prep School follow these links.

2 comments

  • Dear Tyler,

    My question is with regard to "evidence of leadership outside of work". I worked with a leading multinational IT concern for a year, before I resigned to set up my own business. I have always had the intention of starting my own volunteer organization to serve or in other words make life better for certain parts of the society. However, since my business is in its starting stages, I will have to wait for sometime before I can actively pursue this interest of mine. In the meanwhile I am researching about the requirements to make it possible and preparing myself for it. I would like to know if the fact that I am using my time in planning this volunteer organization rather than joining another organization will affect my application in any way.

    I am looking at the Fall intake in schools in the year 2012. My GMAT score is 720 and I aspire to be in one of the best schools in the world.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Swetha Sarathy

    • Hello Swetha,

      Great question and it's one that many applicants have. There might be a few points earned for the good intentions and planning of a community service enterprise but not many. The issue is that without concrete progress to point to these are only good intentions, whereas the admission committee wants hard evidence of leadership potential.

      That said, if the set-up work you are doing has been active and you've involved/lead others during the planning phase, those things will be viewed positively.

      Admissions committees do recognize that some applicants are too taxed by their primary occupation to dedicate time to leading outside of work. Ideally, you will provide plenty of evidence that you have led others in your entrepreneurial venture.

      I wish you well both in your new venture and your application to the top schools. Please stop by our website to learn more about the tools and expert guidance we can provide for candidates applying to the best business schools.

      Prepare to be Accepted!
      Tyler Cormney
      Co-Founder MBA Prep School

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