Section 1: Introduction: Why, How, and When to Apply

from How to get into a Top-15 MBA Program by Tim Darling

Why an MBA?

I'm an engineer and I wanted to go back to school. Going back full-time to get a Master's degree in Computer Science or Engineering after working full-time for 6 years seemed awkward: most of my classmates would be right out of undergrad, 6 years younger than me. I realized I wasn't going to be working at my current job for many more years and if I did look for another job there or somewhere else, would I be doing the same thing for another 10 years? What options did I have to grow, try new things, and take on new challenges? The very thought of putting my résumé online amid millions of others bothered me. I didn't have control over my future employment options. Even in a strong hiring market, it would be difficult to differentiate myself from everyone else and grow and try something new. Of course, having an MBA hardly makes you that unique, but at least it's another highlight on your résumé and a good networking resource.

Why an MBA? First, the MBA is one of the few full-time degrees focused on people who have gone to college and been working for 5 or 6 years full-time. It's very unique in that sense and if that's where you are in your life, then you have to take it into some consideration. Further, while MBA coursework can be tough - and you will learn a lot - the point of it is more about what happens outside of the classroom than in it. Team projects, internships, action-based learning are key words at most US schools because of this. Also, for me, having worked as an engineer for 6 years, I wanted to try something different; something that would help me take on larger responsibilities in my career in the future. The MBA degree is something of a whirlpool of different people and ideas. For most graduate degrees, such as, say, Nutrition, everyone goes in and comes out of it doing the same thing. As an MBA, there will be medical doctors in your class and people coming from about every other profession. And when you graduate, everyone will go to work in entirely different areas: finance, management, engeering product development, accounting, real estate, or non-profit work.

Will I be out of place as an MBA? How will I know where to go and what to do when I get there? As one key to being accepted into a program is having a 'clear, specific, and noble career goal', you'll probably need it as a guideline for choosing the school that would be a best fit for you, as well as choosing the courses, projects, and places to interview with when you're there. Don't worry so much about the rankings, but more about how schools fit your own goals and preferences. Looking for a small community-driven school with a strong non-profit focus? Then the typical rankings may not even be relevant to you. Most of the top MBA programs have Engineering as about 30% of their class and some have a very high humanities percentage. So if you don't come from the world of high finance, you won't be out of place.

Can I afford it? At an information session for Berkeley that I attended, one of the alumni (an engineer) said "if you do the math, you'll never go". In other words, someone who had been through their program years before, who had gone about $80,000-$120,000 in debt (and who was still paying it off), said that he believes he would be financially better off had he not gone. I thought this point was quite telling. But most people get graduate degrees simply because of the educational experience, not because they've figured out exactly how much larger of a house they can buy after getting one. Still, an MBA may not be the best option for you. You'll be graduating with your degree before you know it, and student loans will be accruing interest at a rate that will take you a long time to pay them off - think about your future loans as a mortgage on a (second) house. You should have a good plan and rationale for taking on that much debt; don't just think it will all magically work itself out once you get a couple extra credentials on your résumé.

Engineers who have been working for 5-6 years are perfect matches for an MBA: they have fine-tuned their solid skill set and are probably starting to take on leadership roles. However: do the 'large salary' potentials apply for engineers who are graduating from the 'top' schools? Investment bankers who graduate from Kellogg know what their future will be and can plan exactly how they will pay off the high tuition costs. But do engineers have such a clear-cut future? Typically, engineers cannot really count on the 'prestige' of a top school's name on their résumé to move them through their future career in the same way.

Also note that some schools offer good scholarship opportunities which you might not even find out about until you're accepted. Schools often offer scholarships as recruiting incentives to attract good applicants.

What job will I get when I graduate? Think of an MBA degree as a 'bonus' on your résumé that will help you better weather difficult economic times and may help to speed the progression of your career. It may also help you learn about different fields and sectors. It should be a fun experience. But it will not skyrocket you to a $500k/year position. That's an achievable goal, but with or without an MBA, it'll take a few more years of hard work. Go to the career center section of the website for a school you're interested in and look at the Employment Reports. Look at the exact sector you think you'll most likely be doing (say Technology -> Internet). Look at the salaries; what companies are hiring at that school; how many people they hire. Don't focus on rankings. Focus on what you want to do and then find the school that will give you the best chance of achieving that goal. It's as simple as that. The only ranking that matters is: how likely will this school be able to help me fulfill my goals and will I enjoy my time there?

So you want to apply and you're looking for 'the trick' or a shortcut?

There are no shortcuts. Applying to 4-5 MBA programs is going to take a few months' work if you want to be accepted. Further, being admitted is not just putting together a good set of essays and a résumé in the last couple of months before applying. It really does matter what you've been doing for the last 10 years. But it also matters how you present yourself and how you write your essays. Your essays and résumé should tell a single, interesting, and consistent story and most of what I discuss on this site is how to point your story in the right direction.

To even be considered by a good school, you will need a good GPA, have majored in a relevant and rigorous field, have a good GMAT, have solid and relevant work experience, have been involved in community service, have a couple interesting extra-curricular activites, and have demonstrated leadership and teamwork skills. Then, in addition to that, you will need at least one big diversity point that will separate you from the other 500 applicants who fit the above criteria.

How can I be diverse if I'm a white male American? I went to a few MBA presentations when I was applying and I believe there were more women attending them than men. There were people of many different races and cultures there too. I don't think gender or race will count much towards 'diversity' anymore. Diversity is really more about what you've done (have you had an unusual career background? Been in the Peace Corps? Started an acapella group?) and how your life experiences have shaped you. If you grew up in Russia and can use that background to describe how it has shaped your views and career choices, then talk about that in your essays. But simply saying that you're Russian is not going to count for anything.

Speaking of finding diversity in your achievements, when I was in high school and looking at undergraduate programs, I talked with a track coach for a small school. I was a pretty good runner then and was looking into running in college. He said "I know, I know... you can run a 5 minute mile..." I thought, "Wow! How did he know? My reputation must be preceeding me!" Then he said, "You know how I know? Because every student who comes in here can run a 5 minute mile. What else can you do for me?" It's the same when applying to a top MBA program. You're an amazing candidate. But so are the other 2,000 people that you're competing against. Just being great isn't enough. You have to have done something different as well.

Anyway, you can't just come in at the last minute, write some good essays and be accepted. This may not be what you want to hear. There are a few websites that make it sound like there's a 'secret' that if you just do this one thing, you'll get in, no matter what you've done for the last 10 years. What kind of an admission committee would consistently fall for such a trick?

The good news is, to get into a top school, you don't need to ace all of the above categories. The average GMAT (~700) is attainable; the average GPA (3.5) isn't that high. So you can imagine the type of effort needed in the other categories to be accepted.

Writing your essays, résumé, and application is a key step. Here you need to have a clear and consistent vision, have a unique goal and purpose, have a couple interesting anecdotes from your life to tell, have well-written, vigorous, and clear essays, have international exposure (a foreign language, traveling, or studying abroad counts), have a world-view with grand attainable aspirations, have a résumé that jumps off the page saying 'Hire me!', and something that sets you apart from everyone else. And... you'll also need the right types of recommendations, a good GMAT, a good interview, and lots of reasons why the school you're applying to is a top choice for you (and why you should be a top choice for them).

Is applying worth the effort?

Some people have said they spent a weekend on each school's application and essays. In my experience, it was an hour or two a night for 3-5 nights a week for 6 months. And if you want a good application, you need more than just essays. You may need to start a business or join a volunteer group a few months before applying (I'll talk about this more later). But the essay questions about what you've been doing for the past 5 years, what your long-term goals are, and why you want an MBA will force you to evaluate where you are and what you're doing. How can I best describe what I've done in the past 5 years and make it sound impressive and inspiring but, at the same time, not preachy or big-headed? What do I want to be doing 20 years from now? What will an MBA allow me to do at this point in my career that 2 years of working full-time will not? What can I offer an MBA program in terms of diversity and unique perspectives?

If you go through the MBA admissions process seriously and thoughtfully and dedicate the needed time and energy, you'll have a great chance of being accepted. But even if you're not - or you decide ultimately not to apply - then you'll still have gained something as well. The answers to the above questions require a lot of effort to address and you'll be better off for having taken the time to evaluate what you've been doing and want to do.

There is a secret in building your applications: Being inspiring

Simply, in your application, you must quickly demonstrate that you have a basic level of intelligence and skills and then you need to spend the rest of the time showing how inspiring you are. What does this mean? If you have a high GPA from a Top-20 school and a 750 GMAT, then all of your essays can be focused on showing that you inspire people. If you don't quite have that, then some of your essays need to address why you are smart and that leaves less time to show how you have a magic to get people to follow your ideas.

Read your essays: do they try to make you sound smart? This is probably not a good angle if your GPA and GMAT meet the basic requirements. Instead, show your other side: real leaders need not be very smart, they just need to have that something that affects and inspires the people around them. More intelligence will not get you into business school; more magic will. When MBA essays ask for examples of your leadership abilities, they want to hear how you worked with people, led by example, and were able to affect positive changes in your community/organization.

For the most part, let your transcripts and GMAT attest to how smart you are. Mention in your essays a few things here and there to back them up and append to them the depth of your intelligence. But essentially, you don't have to be a genius to get into an MBA program. You need something else - a charm, a determination, a spark. Make your essays mostly about this. About how you influence people and how they can't help but be excited about your ideas and visions.

The idea about molding your essays to sound inspiring may sound abstract and confusing. It won't be relevant until you have a few things down on paper. In my section about writing the essays, my first suggestion is just to write about the things you've done in the past few years. Don't try to answer essay questions, just put some ideas down on paper. Then you can come back and, with that starting point in mind, think about what you've written in terms of the directions you can take it in and in how the different things you've written could be used to answer the essay questions the schools asked. Once you have things written, you can move the pieces around like a puzzle and you'll have a much clearer idea of what you need to do to write great essays.

Don't try to be what you're not

Sometimes applicants think: "Most of the MBA students have 5 years of experience in large consulting or finance firms; therefore, that is the best way to get accepted." So many applicants try to glorify their private sector finance experiences when they don't really have any. Then the admissions committee will compare you (discussing in detail your summer internship at Morgan Stanley 4 years ago) with the other applicants with real consulting and private sector experience and you won't look very impressive. Instead, ignore the private sector/large consulting/finance background aspect of most MBAs and talk about your work in Africa for a non-profit. Your application will read with much more diversity, strength, and consistency than if you tried to fit yourself into what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.

If you have no full-time private sector experience, say so in your essays. A good place to do that is when discussing why you want an MBA. You can say "I have no full-time private sector experience, but I am planning to move into the private sector soon. An MBA from Kellogg would be the best match for me to make the transition as seamlessly as possible.."

Incidentally, in the Vault's review of McKinsey (which they ranked as the top consulting firm), they said one negative aspect of working for them is "Say farewell to weekday hobbies". In other words, if you want to compete with other applicants who are coming from a few years' work experience there, one way to stand out from them is to have a solid "weekday hobby". This could be playing in a band 1-2 days a week or teaching an evening art class. If you have something like that, make it a key component of your essays.

The 2 things that your application absolutely needs!

More than anything else, you need a clear, specific, and noble career goal; that you are on a trajectory from your past to your future and that the only thing that will propel you through this trajectory at this point is an MBA from their school.

The admissions committee members see each applicant as who they will be in 10 or 20 years. Therefore, you have to paint that picture of yourself for them as vividly as possible. They don't see applicants as who they are now or who they were 5 years ago. In other words, use your previous experiences and accomplishments not to paint a picture of the past, but to support your clear and specific trajectory into the future.

Before doing anything else, figure out what you want to do in the future. Even if you don't know, decide on something now before you write your essays. You can change your mind in a year or two, of course, but the admissions committee does not like applicants who don't have a clear idea of what they think they might want to do.

What are the options? Try reading some issues of the Harvard Business Review and see what the people in their 'case studies' are doing. Here's a trick: Go to their website and search for 'case studies' (or 'case studies CTO' / 'case studies marketing') in the search box. Then click on each of the links it returns and look at the bottom of the 'free' abstract they provide. The positions and companies of the people writing reviews of these case studies will give you an idea of what you should write in your essays to aspire to be. Some examples that I saw: "a senior equity analyst covering medical supplies and devices at Leerink Swann"; "vice-chairman of product development at General Motors"; "a general partner of MPM Capital"; "the CEO of Virgin Mobile USA"; "the chairman of the Strategic Pricing Group, a Massachusetts-based management consultancy that specializes in pricing."; this is a level of detail that you might want to shoot for, although you probably don't need to be quite as specific. Instead, look at: Who are they working for? What do they do? What is their title? How did they get there? Are you looking to switch jobs? Find out where you want to be in twenty years: that's your long-term career goal. Then figure out how you want to get there from what you've done, through MBA school, to a shorter term career goal. Then write about that in at least 1 essay for each school. Do you want to be the CTO/CIO for a small-to-mid-size startup? Do you want to serve on the board of an international consulting firm? It's OK to dream. Do not say that your long-term goal is 'more of the same'. Maybe you love what you're doing, but don't say that.

What technical area (marketing, finance, building websites); what type of company (technology-driven startup, large consulting firm, aerospace contractor); what geographic region (US west-coast, Asia). Too many applicants don't have a clear, specific career goal and it is something that the reviewers are absolutely looking for.

In summary, you have to show the admissions committee in your essays that you know who you are. You have to present a single and compelling vision of yourself - not a collection of random activities that have no common thread. I read in one of the MBA books (there's a few I recommend listed on the last page of this site) that, upon getting into Stanford, the author asked the admissions committee if the secret to admission is to present a single, coherent story through the essays. This was his theory and they confirmed it. The key is to find the single thread that will join the activities and jobs and career goals that you discuss in your essays. You may also want to leave out - or focus less on - some smaller things that don't fit nicely into it.

The next most important thing is to show 'Management Potential'

"We learn about your leadership potential from your Letters of Reference and from your professional and leadership achievements to date" - Stanford 'Who Should Apply?' page (July, 2005).

This is harder: how do you do show 'Management Potential'? How do you know if your application has this? I think it is basically 4 elements:
  1. A clear goal for the future that involves a management position.
  2. Leadership experiences in your work and extra-curricular activities so far. These should be explained and highlighted in your essays and your work leadership roles should appear in all of the letters of recommendation.
  3. A demonstration that you have successfully worked with difficult people in the past and have taken criticism from your boss and handled it maturely and constructively. (At the most basic level, that you're a 'team player').
  4. Your essays should show Maturity
The first 2 things are clear-cut. You should be able to read your essays and résumé and know if you have them. We talk more about both of them later in detail. Being able to work with difficult people and handling criticism is very important. It will reflect badly on your MBA school if they give you a degree and then send you out to a top firm and you can't do these things. So they will look for evidence of this in your essays and interviews. But how do you show Maturity? Your essays should have a touch of panache and sophistication and confidence that your essays when applying as an undergraduate did not have, for instance. The only way to measure this I think is to compare 2 essays side by side and ask which sounds more mature. One way to start is by reading the essays here: 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays : With Analysis by the Staff of the Harbus, The Harvard Business School Newspaper by Dan Erck, Pavel Swiatek.

When to apply and your 'timeline' for interviews and essays

Here's the timeline: Send in your application 2 days before the first-round deadline. There's a lot of thoughts out there about the psychology of 'when to apply'. I suggest though that there's one key thing you need to get through to the admissions committee: That you really, really want to go to their school- so much so that if they accept you, you will definitely come. The best way to do that? Apply for the 1st round. Of course, never submit an application that you haven't spent at least a couple months on, reading, reviewing, proofreading, trying the essays from a couple different angles while thinking about them. Also don't submit an application too early if you don't have to - who knows what could happen in the days after you submit it? Submitting your application a couple days before the deadline gives you a chance to make sure everything goes through OK on time and that the website isn't malfunctioning.

The next year's new applications are usually available online around August 15. That gives you two months before the first deadline to read and respond to the new essay questions. But everything else you should have completed by August! In fact, most schools rarely change their essay questions much from year to year, so you should read previous years' questions if possible. That way you can start thinking about them months in advance and maybe even have 80% of the essays done by August.

Is it too late this year? If it's July or August, you can probably make it. If it's November, set your sights on next year. You'll have plenty of time to put together a dazzling dossier. You'll be able to apply to better schools with more confidence. Either way, you're going to have to start now...

Section 2: GMAT, GPA, and Where to Apply

Your Comments

Excellent content. Gives a mature view of MBA admissions. Great work.

-- Swaminathan, Jan 8, 2012
I am an engineering with 30 years experience in industry. It really amazzing analytical skill of present generation and serouness withh which they persue their higher study and career gol I wish best ff luck to all who prepare higher study This ra thoougght provoking article eards A Raamacanddran

-- Ramachandran, Jun 7, 2012
Plenty better than the other websites, where the abstract advice just goes on and on...

-- Viren, Jun 26, 2012
Brilliant piece of work ! A deep dive into what it takes to get into a B-school. Just the right place to find all the information in one place AAnd above all, no digressing from the topic and painting a royy picture. This article mentions everything to the point and hts the bulls-eye ! Thank you or tthe insight. Cheers, RRohan

-- Rohan, Aug 19, 2013
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All text and pictures copyright © 2005-2006 Tim Darling.