Earlier this week, we had the pleasure of hosting a chat outlining some key points on how to gain admission to the top business schools. Dr. Shel Watts, founder and CEO of MBAAdmit.com, provided some extraordinary insights into this whole process. Dr. Watts is a Harvard College (A.B.) and Oxford University (Masters/Ph.D) graduate with a background in banking and consulting. She was also a faculty member at Harvard for 4 years.
If you’re aiming for the top U.S. and European business schools, it would do you well to review Dr. Shel Watts’ advice below (you can also read the entire event transcript here). The chat we hosted was among the most popular and useful we’ve had on MBA Watch, and I like to think of ourselves as generally very popular and very useful I’ll feature first half of the chat here, but I strongly encourage you to check out the full discussion by going to the Event Transcript in MBA Watch!
What are some big-picture considerations for gaining admissions to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, and INSEAD?
To maximize your odds of success to schools like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia and INSEAD, you should be striving to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are a “top choice admit” – someone who has excellence across the board and who would add great value to their business school program. Through your MBA application, you should strive to demonstrate both your current and past record of leadership and business success, as well as your future potential for great achievements as a leader and contributor both in business school and in your post-MBA career.
Remember, past-present vs. future: your application should present a good blend of both, showing the strength of the present/past successes and the great promise of your future. With regard to your present and past records, to maximize your odds of admission to a top MBA program, you should strive to demonstrate excellence in four key areas:
- Professional achievement
- Academic achievement
- Extracurricular leadership and activities
- Personal achievement/storyline
Among these four, which tends to be the most important?
In most cases, professional success tends to be the most important. Your success in your career can sometimes encourage the MBA admissions committee to overlook a weakness in another arena – such as in your academic or extracurricular record.
The great importance of professional success is one reason why your recommendations are so very important in MBA admissions. When applying to top-10 MBA programs, if even one of your recommendation writers submits a recommendation that is only lukewarm about you (it does not even need to be outright negative), this can be fatal, closing the door to your quest for admission. You should make sure all of the materials you submit to the MBA admissions committee present your professional performance, skills and achievements in the best possible light.
Can a candidate have a weakness in one of these major four areas and still succeed in gaining admission to a top MBA program?
Of course. But, the likelihood of overriding a notable weakness to gain admission depends on the specific candidate and the blend of strengths the candidate presents to the admissions committee.
Some candidates can override weaknesses in the academic arena if they have outstanding professional successes, for instance. If a candidate was a top performer in the professional and academic arenas, he or she can often fare fine if they have little by way of extracurricular activities. An amazing personal storyline can help a candidate override a weakness in another area.
But, in general, for Top-10 MBA programs you don’t want to be working against a weakness in more than one of these main areas – professional, academic, extracurricular or personal.
What are some school-specific issues we should keep in mind?
As you strive to maximize your odds for admission at top business schools like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia and INSEAD, you should also become very familiar with the nuances of admission at each of these specific schools. Some of the things to consider are how factors such as these affect your odds of admission:
- Candidate’s age
- Candidate’s years of professional experience
- Candidate’s GMAT (GMAT sensitivity)
- Candidate’s GPA (GPA sensitivity)
- Round of application (Round 1, Round 2, Round 3)
- Month of application (in a rolling admissions process)
- Candidate’s country of origin
- Candidate’s area of specialization/ industry
- Candidate’s company (where they are employed)
How do some of these affect odds of admission?
Some business schools are known for having special curricular emphases, such as on entrepreneurship or on finance. This can affect admissions outcomes.
Some business schools are much pickier about a candidate’s GMAT score and are much more reluctant to overlook a relatively weak score.
Some business schools are much pickier about a candidate’s GPA and are much more reluctant to overlook a relatively weak GPA.
Some business schools are known for favoring candidates from some parts of the world over others. For example, when selecting among foreign national candidates, some schools seem to favor foreign nationals from East Asian over those from South Asia, yet other schools seem to favor South Asian foreign nationals over East Asian foreign nationals.
Some business schools are known for favoring candidates coming from larger companies over those coming from smaller companies.
Some business schools are friendlier to entrepreneurs and candidates from family businesses.
Some business schools “skew younger,” meaning they favor younger candidates and tend to disfavor candidates over the age of 32.
Some business schools are more “sensitive” to Rounds – meaning, they favor certain candidates in Round 1 rather than in Round 2.
Try to do your homework and learn about the nuances of admission for each school you intend to apply to. It can affect your odds of admission or highlight special issues you should address directly or indirectly through your application.
Can you give us an example of two “nuances” of admission for Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia and INSEAD?
Sure. Generally, these trends seem to hold true often (although even these trends are affected by the specific candidate, as certain factors will encourage the committee to stray from these broader trends):
Harvard – skews younger (favors younger candidates, disfavors candidates over 32); can be persuaded to overlook a weakness in your profile if they are convinced you are a true leader with phenomenal future potential.
Stanford – skews younger (favors younger candidates, disfavors candidates over 32); much pickier on the numbers – GMAT and GPA (they are a tiny school relative to a school like HBS, so they can afford to set the bar higher for the GMAT and GPA); loves entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers.
Wharton –very open to strong candidates from a wide variety of professional backgrounds; tends to prefer a higher GMAT score and will sometimes overlook a lower GPA if the GMAT is strong enough
INSEAD – loves candidates with intellectual curiosity and international experience; takes candidates from a wide variety of professional backgrounds; less rigid than some top MBA programs with regard to accepting students based on age or country of origin
Columbia – very open to strong candidates from a wide variety of professional backgrounds; great place for candidates who are entrepreneurs and from family businesses
I could go on and on for each of the schools above, but this at least gives you a bit of a flavor.
Read the rest of the transcript on MBA Watch.