Make Your MBA Application Stand Out

From passing the standardized test to writing a winning essay, experts share tips on how to ace the MBA application

Candidates applying to MBA programs this year have received some welcome news: total applications to business schools have dropped from their pandemic-induced spikes, falling 3.4 percent year-on-year around the globe, reducing the competition for an MBA place.

This comes after application volumes increased 2.4 percent in 2020 as coronavirus pushed more candidates into MBA programs, and a sustained level of that demand in 2021 when volume grew 0.4 percent. The figures come from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which runs business school entrance exams.

Despite the drop in demand, the top business schools still receive thousands of applications to their MBA programs, meaning that applicants will need to put their best foot forward to secure a spot on their dream MBA.

Start planning early 

When it comes to planning your MBA application, it pays to start early. “Set out on a warpath to get into the best possible school,” says Claudia Nelson, director of operations and client relations at admissions consultancy Admissionado, urging applicants to begin an introspective self-analysis.

“Develop real insight on what makes you a strong candidate and why a business school would want to gamble on you,” Nelson says. “Figure out where your gaps are, such that you can articulate a compelling need for an MBA at this moment. This is the hard part, where you have the greatest chance to move the needle on your personal chances of admission.”

Aim high 

When it comes to choosing a business school and an MBA program to apply to, Nelson advises applicants to aim high — especially with yield increasing as applications go down and admissions offers go up. “Our recommendation is to consider schools from the highest echelon you receive acceptances from, and only at that point, choose whichever school feels like the best personal fit,” she says.

Benoit Banchereau, executive director of marketing, communications and admissions for HEC Paris, echoes the importance of finding the right “fit” between an MBA program and your professional goals. “Candidates should really spend time looking into different MBA programs to find the program that is the right fit for them,” he says.

MBA applicants should attend in-person events, hosted near them, when possible. “At these events, they can usually speak to alumni from their region to gain a deeper insight into the program,” Banchereau says, adding that candidates should also connect with the HEC Paris admissions team. “They will give them feedback and coach them through the application process, ensuring that their application is done correctly and in the most complete way possible,” he says.

Passing the standardized test 

A crucial component of the MBA application is taking a standardized test, such as the GMAT (owned by GMAC) or the GRE (which is put on by Educational Testing Service). Many schools have made these tests optional, instead of compulsory, but many schools and admissions consultants still recommend taking one.

“A test score is the most objective measure of one’s ability to handle the coursework of business school,” says admissions consultant Stacy Blackman, who runs Stacy Blackman Consulting.

She recommends checking the average reported score to compare against your own. “A score close to or at the program’s reported average demonstrates that the applicant can manage the analytical course load, in conjunction with the college transcript and work experience,” Blackman says.

Applicants are also advised to give themselves plenty of time to practice taking the test to eliminate anxiety, and to, if necessary, retake the exam to achieve a higher score. “Plan to study for one-three months, take several practice tests and allow for two actual exams to optimize your performance on the test,” says Blackman.

Write a winning essay 

Many schools will also require a written essay, such as HEC Paris. “Candidates should review the essay questions carefully before responding,” says Banchereau. “When planning your essay responses, you should also look at each question and make sure your responses complement each other in order to avoid too much repetition.”

Further to that, Admissionado’s Nelson says the true secret to developing a winning essay is to be able to rewrite and edit your first draft. It’s important to be “monitoring where the most successful moments occur, and understanding why, and identifying the less successful moments and figuring out how to fix [them], either by elimination or reworking”.

Performing well at interview 

The next phase of the MBA application process is likely to be an interview — either in person or on video, with the admissions team or alumni of the business school.

When it comes to performing well at the interview, Blackman says: “Prepare to engage naturally, and be on your toes. Conversational is better than scripted.” It is also important to answer the questions asked, she says. “Listen and adapt. Self-reflect. Open up about growth, learning, setbacks, adapting, and other real-life experiences.”

Further to that, interviewees should know their audience. “Would Aunt Betty understand your explanation of your job? Avoid industry-heavy jargon,” says Blackman. “Roll with any nerves that may surface. A shake, shift, stutter, or twitch is fine, as long as you can articulate answers well.”

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