Which Element of the MBA Application Makes the Biggest Difference?

A strong GMAT? Good letter of recommendation? There is no one silver bullet for MBA admission, but applicants would benefit from a holistic and tailored approach

The pandemic has undeniably boosted the appeal of the MBA degree, reversing years of lackluster applications at even the world’s most revered business schools. The rise in demand for MBAs, however, means stiffer competition for places, so how can prospective students make their business school application stand out? 

The MBA applications have several elements, ranging from admissions tests to recommendation letters, covering-letters and interviews, either in-person or virtual. Which element of the MBA application makes the biggest difference? Where should candidates be focusing their attention when applying for a competitive MBA place?  

Admissions directors say they take a holistic view; there is no one silver bullet for MBA admission. “We look for overall excellence — well-rounded, high-achieving candidates, who have at least two years of professional experience and have shown career progression,” says Louise-Marie Fischer-Dallee, associate director of MBA admissions at HEC Paris in France. 

In addition, the school takes into consideration international exposure, academic background, goals and what they do outside of work. “We want to know why the candidate wants to do an MBA, and why now?” says Fischer-Dallee. “And we want to hear about how HEC Paris in particular will help them achieve their goals.” 

Some admissions consultants, who help people secure a place on the most competitive MBA programs, say the most important part of the MBA application is the sum of many pieces. “There is no one most important part of the MBA application,” says Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant based in California. “The top schools want to know who you are, and statistics and a résumé don’t tell them that. It’s the essays, interviews, and recommendations that ultimately reveal the person beyond the paper.” 

Talon Rindels, senior MBA admissions consultant at The MBA Exchange, also based in the US, agrees with this perspective. “Your goals themselves are not the most important part, but rather how you communicate them is. It’s likely that this story will be telegraphed throughout several components of your campaign, including your essays, short answers, and interview,” says Rindels. 

But she adds that “the real icing on the cake is” is when your recommenders can instill additional confidence in the road that led to your goals. “I encourage you to share not only your goals, but how you discovered your goals with your recommenders, so they can tie this in to how they convey your strengths and opportunities as a future leader.” 

The MBA application: addressing weak points

So winning a top MBA place really is more about putting a consistent message across all the various applicant touchpoints. But relative weakness in one application element can, and must, be made up for in other areas, say past and present admissions directors at top schools. 

Compelling essays, recommendations, and interviews can provide context for a low standardized test score on the GMAT or GRE exams, as well as a low grade point average from your undergraduate degree, Blackman says. But the reverse is not true. “Strong numbers will never make up for weak essays or a disorganized, negative recommendation.”

Many admissions officers urge applicants to be upfront about their shortcomings, says Blackman. “Everyone has weaknesses. You’re better off acknowledging and incorporating them into your application than hoping the person reading your application will miss them.”

Fischer-Dallee, the gatekeeper at HEC Paris, bears this out. “Through the essays and conversations with our candidates we really want to know who they are,” she says. “Weaknesses are part of every individual, and they won’t diminish your chances.” 

Rindels even suggests that awareness of one’s own weaknesses can actually be a strength in the MBA application. “I sincerely believe that your character, demonstrated by your success and failures, can overcome almost any weakness in your profile,” she says. 

“Someone who demonstrates grit, tenacity, and gratitude will often have more future potential than someone with a 750 GMAT who appears to have been spoon fed all of their life. If this weren’t the case, I assure you, HBS wouldn’t have admitted an MBA candidate with a 590 GMAT into their class of 2023.” 

And the essays are the opportunity to present your strengths and explain your weaknesses, so it makes sense to focus on them, both the admissions consultants agree. “It’s the story you put together about your goals, passions, and prior experience — and how business school fits into the mix — that will make all the difference for you,” says Blackman. 

How important is the GMAT—or GRE—score?

Some MBA industry watchers have suggested that standardized test scores are now a less significant factor in the MBA application, given that many schools are welcoming lower scores or waiving them altogether as a requirement for admission. But other schools reaffirm their commitment to the GMAT or GRE, because it’s a great indicator of success in the MBA. 

“We will continue requesting standardized test scores from MBA applicants,” says Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), based in Shanghai. “The score conveys your ability to balance a demanding workload with preparation for the test. In order to maximize your return on investment, you need to carve out time to pursue the many extracurricular activities and networking opportunities throughout the course of the program.” 

He adds that candidates should remember that admission decisions do not happen in a vacuum. “Your interaction with CEIBS’ community should not be underestimated. Joining webinars, reaching out to student ambassadors, and even discussing your application with admission officers are all important factors to help the school understand more about your profile and motivations.” 

But ultimately, the sum of the MBA application parts is greater than the parts themselves.

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