last updated: January 2023
In our “Straight Talk” series, we go beyond schools’ marketing campaigns and give straight answers to MBA applicants’ most pressing questions.
As a MBA admissions officer, I read hundreds of applications. I also regularly discussed candidates with other admissions officers and faculty before shortlisting candidates for an interview.
Generally, admissions officers sort applications into 3 piles: no, maybe, and probably yes. Another translation for these 3 piles would be “no chance,” “not sure,” and “get him or her in quick!” Candidates in the latter 2 piles make it to the next screening round, which is usually an interview.
So what are admissions officers looking for when reading your application? Make sure you address the following 3 questions convincingly to get past the first round of screening.
1. Can the applicant get through the program academically?
The easiest proxy for this is your GMAT score. Scoring below or around 600 will raise doubts over whether you can get through an intensive full-time or part-time MBA program.
Think about it this way: if you have a poor GMAT score and/or poor grades, admissions officers have to work much harder to convince faculty members on the admissions committee to accept you. This is for 2 reasons. First, faculty are concerned about their classroom learning environment, a struggling student could slow the class down. From the program perspective, struggling students are administrative burdens. Second, most business school professors scored well on standardized tests, went to top-ranked business schools, and spent many years getting their PhDs. They want the average class GMAT score to be high (and elite) as possible.
So think of admissions officers as being on your side. Are you giving them enough proof – whether that be a high GMAT score or a stellar academic background – to convince faculty that you are academically strong?
This is why your GMAT score is important. If you’re close to or above the class average, you’ll make it into the “maybe” or “probably yes” pile.
A second proxy is the quality of your English. Poorly written essays, bad grammar, and mispelled words will raise alarm bells, especially if English is not your native language; this is why schools require TOEFL or IELTS scores. Admissions officers want to make sure you will contribute to the program’s reputation inside and outside the classroom. Candidates with poor English make a bad impression.
2. What unique perspective will the candidate bring to the class?
This question is usually asked when reading through your personal statistics, resume and essays. The admissions officer is thinking about what you will add to the class. What’s unique about your personal, academic or professional background? Would you make the incoming class more diverse and dynamic?
Admissions officers don’t want disproportionate numbers of students with similar backgrounds, whether that be by nationality, industry or job function. And as a student you wouldn’t want that either!
I encourage many of my clients to boil the essence of their application down to one sentence – how would they describe themselves in 140 characters or less? Admissions officers read hundreds – if not thousands – of applications each year. Initially, we know each of you in a sentence or two. For example, “the Indian running his family’s construction business ” or “Singaporean who got her PhD from Cambridge, works for the Ministry of Defense”. Your application should strengthen your desired “tagline” in the admissions officers’ minds.
If you come from a common applicant pool (i.e. Indian male engineer), it is even more important to make sure your “tagline” sticks out through your essays, recommendations, and resume. How excited would your classmates be to have you as part of their network?
3. Will the candidate be able to get a job after graduation?
Although MBA programs encourage career exploration, they are most concerned about your employability. Admitting employable students impresses corporate recruitiers, raises school rankings and makes career services’ job easier. And graduating MBAs with jobs are much happier customers than those in debt and still without jobs; employable graduates are great ambassadors for the program.
What admissions officers are looking for here is professionalism and maturity.
Does the candidate have realistic post MBA goals and expectations?
Does the candidate show direction and initiative in his or her career?
Will the candidate represent the program well in the business community?
The quality and presentation of your resume will speak volumes about your professionalism. If your resume is immature or sloppy, how can admissions officers trust you to be professional and polished when dealing with corporate recruiters?
The career stories you tell in your essays are also critical. If you plan to change industries, job function and/or geography post MBA, do you have a well-conceived plan to do so? Does your story make sense given your background and career trajectory or is it unrealistic?
One last note of caution: definitely proof read your essays more than once. You would be surprised how many applicants apply to one school (i.e. SMU) but say they are applying to another school (i.e. NUS) in their essays! This is a dealbreaker because it shows you were too lazy to edit your quick cut and paste job. Professionalism counts!
In summary, make sure you prove that you can succeed academically, bring a valuable perspective inside and outside the classroom, and are likely to get a job after the program. Providing convincing evidence and telling compelling stories in these 3 areas will get you past the first round of screening.